Catholic Origins of the European Union

Interview With Catholic Historian Alan Fimister

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By Dominic Baster

NEWCASTLE, England, SEPT. 22, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The original idea of the European Union has deep roots in Catholic social teaching, according to the author of a book on Robert Schumann, one of the founders of the institution.

Catholic historian Alan Fimister, author of "Robert Schumann: Neo-scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe," published by Peter Lang, affirms that Schuman's actions in 1950 to found what would later be the European Union were, to a remarkable degree, the conscious implementation of the Neo-Thomistic project of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903).

In this interview with ZENIT, Fimister discusses the Catholic vision of the European Union's founders and what it means for a Catholic understanding of the European Union today.

Q: What was the role of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) in the development of the idea of European integration?

Fimister: Pope Leo was not directly concerned with the issue of Europe. The political reality of his day was of great multi-national colonial empires based in Europe carving up the world between them. What concerned him was the collapse of the attempt at the end of the Napoleonic Wars to restore the European order that preceded the French Revolution.

The failure of the "Vienna Settlement" of 1815 -- which had sought to redraw Europe's political map after the defeat of Napoleonic France -- had given free reign to the forces which had directed the French Revolution itself, namely nationalism, liberalism and anti-clericalism.

It was clear, particularly in France, that the association of the Church with one particular form of government -- namely Royalism -- was eclipsing the more important message about the role of religion in public life and the moral requirements upon the state. Pope Leo made it the first aim of his papacy to achieve "the restoration, both in rulers and peoples, of the principles of the Christian life in civil and domestic society" -- and to resolve the Church's difficulties with the French Republic and republicanism generally.

He made the first foundation of this project the primacy of the Christian philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas in Catholic thought. He produced nine encyclical letters that form the fundamental elements of Catholic social teaching, and made it clear that the Church was neutral on the issue of different forms of government. The old monarchy, the empire and the republic were all acceptable provided they conformed to the requirements of natural and revealed law.

Q: How did this vision translate into concrete plans for a new Europe?

Fimister: After World War I it was clear that the global power of Europe was on the wane. Western and Central Europe were threatened by the rise of Communism but, rather than seeing the disasters consequent upon the rejection of the faith, people were instead turning to neo-pagan ideologies of the right in reaction to this threat.

Pope Pius XI taught that it was St. Thomas who "composed a substantial moral theology, capable of directing all human acts in accordance with the supernatural last end of man." And that "it is therefore to be wished that the teachings of Aquinas, more particularly his exposition of international law and the laws governing the mutual relations of peoples, became more and more studied."

Pius XII taught that it was the refusal of the European powers to listen to the Church's warnings about the de-Christianization of public life that had led to the calamity of a second World War. He sought to show the outlines of the sort of order Pius XI had suggested in his 1939 encyclical "Summi Pontificatus" (On the Unity of Human Society).

At the same time, Leo XIII's promotion of Thomism had led to an explosion of Catholic intellectual activity in this area and, in particular, an intense examination of how the Church's demand for the recognition of the Catholic faith by the civil power as the foundation of peace between and within nations could be pursued at a time when many existing states were committed to the so called separation of church and state.

Jacques Maritain, a French Catholic convert and philosopher who wrote more than 60 books, held that democracy in the modern sense, and a coming together of nations, was the translation of the revealed universal law of Charity into the political realm. Because this order would be dependent upon the revealed core of the universal law of charity, it would set up a natural sympathy between such supranational entities and the Catholic Church, which alone could provide them with the revealed truths and the sacramental grace necessary for their existence.

During the war Maritain even went so far as to say that a European federation conceived under the banner of liberty would ultimately lead to the establishment of a new Christendom.

Q: What was Robert Schuman's vision for the development of a united Europe, and how widely was his vision shared by the other founders of what has become the European Union?

Fimister: The first European Community was the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) from which the other communities developed. These were eventually merged into the European Community and then placed within the larger framework of the European Union, which now includes intergovernmental cooperation on security and foreign affairs as well as the "communitarian" supranational tasks of the original community.

The political leaders who founded the ECSC were overwhelmingly Catholic: Robert Schuman was intensely loyal to the faith and affirmed publicly that papal encyclicals "define Catholic doctrine and bind in conscience" Konrad Adenauer and Alcide de Gaspari were also particularly important. The coal and steel plan was drawn up by an official, Jean Monnet, who became the first man to hold the office which is now called President of the Commission. He was not a committed Catholic but the essential architecture for the institutions was already being advocated by Schuman before Monnet came to him with his own project.

Adenauer and de Gaspari were both strongly influenced by Leo XIII's teaching and its intellectual legacy. Schuman was directly influenced by Maritain's conception of supranational democracy as the foundation for a New Christendom. "Europe," said Schuman, is "the establishment of a generalized democracy in the Christian sense of the word."

Unlike Maritain, Schuman held fast to the magisterium's demand that the final destination of Catholic political action must be the recognition by the civil order of the truth of the Faith, through conversion of a "numerical preponderance" of the electorate.

Q: Does the European Union of today retain any legacies of Pope Leo XIII's and Robert Schuman's vision?

Fimister: In its essential mechanism suggested to Schuman by Pius XII whereby "each state retains an equal right of its own sovereignty" -- but in certain areas this is exercised through "an organ invested by common consent with supreme power" -- the European Union remains what Schuman foresaw.

However, its embracing of the culture of death would have appalled him. Schuman's slightly more ambitious goals also led him to appreciate more vividly than Maritain the possible consequences of the corruption of his vision. "An anti-Christian democracy," he said, "would be a caricature ending in anarchy or tyranny."

Our present situation has elements of both. Because the essential justification for supranational democracy is supernatural, in a continent that has turned its back on the faith, supranational institutions seek an alternative basis in usurping the roll of national authorities.

In the same way, the post-Christian national state, formerly led to assist the family by the law of charity, now seeks to usurp the place of the family causing the family to wither away. So there is simultaneously the creeping emergence of political tyranny and social anarchy -- the dictatorship of relativism.

There is no other solution to this than the urgent pursuit of the New Evangelization. Nevertheless, Christians might be forgiven in the meantime for resisting the demands of both the European Union and national authorities for ever-wider powers.