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A Christian Commonwealth of Nations is Europe’s Best Possible Future

31st January 2013

ResPublica Trustee Adrian Pabst writes for ABC Religion & Ethics

David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Europe made some good points about the EU’s current crisis of legitimacy and the imperative to reconnect the European project to its citizens. But he was wrong to claim that the choice for Europe is either a centralised super-state based on the eurozone or a loose network of sovereign nation-states which merely trade with one another. This ignores Europe’s distinctly Christian foundation and also the cultural and religious ties that bind Europeans to one another – the “glue” that holds societies together and helps secure both peace and prosperity.

It is true that the euro crisis is changing the foundations and finalities of the European Union. Amid the combined banking and sovereign debt crisis, eurozone members have begun to put in place a banking and a fiscal union that will fuse centralised state power with an increasingly interdependent single market. This “market-state” disembeds the economy from society and re-embeds the social in the economic. As such, the European project blends bureaucratic collectivisation with commercial commodification that Catholic Social Teaching and cognate traditions in Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy have rejected as false alternatives.

Moreover, the centrally imposed single market and single currency, in their current configuration, undermine the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity – namely, providing mutual assistance to the most needy among Europe’s peoples and nations as well as devolving power to the most appropriate level in accordance with the dignity of the person and human flourishing.

Linked to the elevation of the economic over the social is a tendency to subordinate interpersonal relationships to the central state and the “free” market that collude at the expense of the intermediary institutions of civil society. Thus the European “market-state” undermines Europe’s shared cultural identity that Christianity has helped forge and continues to nourish. That, in turn, has hollowed out the universal values derived from the Christian synthesis of ancient and biblical virtues on which both vibrant democracies and market economies ultimately depend: justice, courage, the gift of trust.

At the same time, Europe remains a vestigially Christian polity that has the potential to be a commonwealth of nations and peoples, which is held together, not just by economic exchange and political rights, but also by cultural customs, social ties, ethical norms and religious practices.

Across Europe and elsewhere, there is an inchoate awareness that big government and big business have colluded at the expense of the people. Both central bureaucratic states and unbridled markets are disembedded from civil society, and civil society is subordinated to the global secular “market-state.”

This convergence of state and market can be described as secular because it subjects human relationships, civic ties and social bonds to abstract values and standards, such as commercial exchange or centralised regulation. This subjects the sanctity of life and land to the combined power of state and market, thereby threatening the autonomy of civil society and faith groups. The “market-state” marks a distinctly secular arrangement:

  • It promotes an increasing centralisation of power and concentration of wealth at the expense of local government, small- and medium-sized businesses (that are often family owned) and the autonomy of civil society as a whole. As such, the power of states and markets transgresses the civic and ethical limits that have been defended by different religious traditions.
  • The “market-state” invests the secular sphere of power and wealth with quasi-sacred significance by sacralising either politics or economics, and often both at once. For example, the primacy of rights and contracts over social bonds and civic ties tends to subordinate both theological and civil virtues to the spirit of acquisitiveness and the commercial society.
  • The “market-state” subsumes the sanctity of life and land under the secular sacrality of power and wealth – one can argue that the secular settlement of the global “market-state” risks profaning the sacred and sacralising the profane.
    The euro is not the sole cause of the Union’s current crisis. It has rather extended and reinforced the deterministic logic of neo-functionalism that underpins the entire European edifice set up by the 1957 Rome Treaty – notably, the idea that economic cooperation “spills over” into political integration.

The project of creating a banking, fiscal and political union currently under discussion by the seventeen eurozone members is in large part an expression of the same economic determinism that led to the single market and the single currency in the first place. Instead of a reciprocal recognition of diverse and mutually augmenting practices, neo-functionalism has tended to impose centrally determined, abstract standards on all member-states and candidate countries through top-down legal and regulatory harmonisation driven forward by the European Commission in concert with the European Court of Justice. This has produced a kind of bureaucratic and managerialist homogenisation that is at odds with the purported aim of securing Europe’s unity-in-diversity (in varietate Concordia).

With its focus on economic integration, the functionalist approach is compatible with methods that are variously more intergovernmental or more supranational, and with models that either favour a federal super-state or a free-trade area – or, in the case of the single market and the single currency, both at once. Accordingly, neo-functionalism has produced an increasingly interdependent European economy which is ever more disconnected from each national polity and society.

The founding principles of solidarity and subsidiarity – which Europe inherited from the Christian Catholic fusion of Greco-Roman Antiquity with biblical revelation – might have been enshrined in successive treaties. But in recent decades the EU has further retreated towards narrow national self-interest, bureaucratic centralisation and a concentration of both power and wealth in the hands of “old elites” and “new classes.” Connected with this is the progressive evolution towards unilateral rights without responsibilities and commercial contracts devoid of any social purpose, which have supplanted and undermined the civic ties and social bonds that hold together nations and peoples.

Rather than commanding the assent of its people and offering the possibility for civic participation in a shared polity, the Union has fused elements of state collectivism with market commodification – a secular “market-state” that disembeds the economy from society and re-embeds the social in the economic. As a by-product of economic and legal standardisation, the EU’s political structures lack firm foundations and finalities.

Europe’s diverse Christian heritage has the potential to renew and extend the shared social imaginary on which a vibrant market economy and democracy depend. Instead of professing an arbitrary list of abstract values, it is right to argue that the role of Europe’s common culture – which is a variety of traditions that are both intertwined and in tension with one another – grows in significance as the old, secular logic of economically determined political integration unravels. Crucially, the shared cultural bonds, which bind Europeans together, draw on the Christian fusion of biblical revelation with Greco-Roman Antiquity in order to promote notions such as peace, reconciliation, solidarity and subsidiarity.

Moreover, Christianity has bequeathed to Europe and the rest of the world a number of perennial principles – such as the dignity of the person, the virtue of free association and the distinction of religious from political authority that avoids both aggressive secularism (masquerading as secular neutrality) and fanatical theocracy (masquerading as religious guidance). In the absence of such and similar principles, the contemporary profession of values associated with democracy and liberalism will sound increasingly hollow. Indeed, the professed pragmatism of many European elites masks a dangerous moral relativism, as Pope Benedict XVI has argued:

“A community built without respect for the true dignity of the human being, disregarding the fact that every person is created in the image of God ends up doing no good to anyone. For this reason it seems ever more important that Europe be on guard against the pragmatic attitude, widespread today, which systematically justifies compromise on essential human values, as if it were the inevitable acceptance of a lesser evil. This kind of pragmatism, even when presented as balanced and realistic, is in reality neither, since it denies the dimension of values and ideals inherent in human nature. When non-religious and relativistic tendencies are woven into this pragmatism, Christians as such are eventually denied the very right to enter into the public discussion, or their contribution is discredited as an attempt to preserve unjustified privileges. In this historical hour and faced with the many challenges that confront it, the European Union, in order to be a valid guarantor of the rule of law and an efficient promoter of universal values, cannot but recognize clearly the certain existence of a stable and permanent human nature, source of common rights for all individuals, including those who deny them. In this context, the right to conscientious objection should be protected, every time fundamental human rights are violated.”

Therefore universal values and principles like freedom, equality, solidarity and the will of the majority require firm foundations and transcendent finalities that mediate between the individual and the collective; otherwise, liberal democracy slides either into moral relativism or political absolutism – or indeed both at once. The Union needs to eschew abstract standards, formal values and the priority of process over policy in favour of a mutual recognition of particular practices, universal principles such as the common good and the primacy of both constitutionalism and “mixed government” (rather than liberal market democracy).

Up to a point, Europe remains a vestigially Christian polity that reflects the mediated universalism of Christianity’s fusion of biblical revelation with Greco-Roman Antiquity. Indeed, Europe’s polity is characterised by hybrid institutions, overlapping jurisdictions, polycentric authority and multi-level governance that are different from the characteristically ancient or modern concentration of power in the hands of a sovereign – whether an absolute monarch and a revolutionary republic.

Drawing in part on the work of Remi Brague, Cardinal Angelo Scola has remarked that the origins of this distinctly European model go back to a long tradition which views Europe not as foundational but rather as the continuous unfolding of the Hellenistic fusion of Jerusalem with Athens. In the “long Middle Ages” (A.D. 500-1300), Hellenised Christianity integrated and transformed other European traditions such Germanic law or the Celtic language.

Bound up with this blending of diverse cultures within an overarching framework is the Judeo-Christian distinction of religious from political authority. Based on this distinction, a free “complex space” (as John Milbank puts it) emerged between political rule and society, wherein politics is not monopolised by the state but pertains to the public realm in which individuals and groups participate. Indeed, the Church – together with local communities and professional bodies like guilds or universities – tended to defend the freedom of society against political coercion. It thereby helped protect the autonomy of Jewish, Muslim and other religious minorities.

In addition to complex debates about the relative balance of State and Church or the “mix” of different sources of law (canon, common and civil), the presence of Jewish communities and Muslim-ruled lands on the Iberian peninsula ensured that “Christian Europe” at its best was never a clerically dominated monolith but rather a realm of political argument within and across different faith traditions. Just like Christianity was never purely European, so too Europe is not an exclusively “Christian club.”

Moreover, Christendom in East and West has blended the principle of free association in Germanic common law with the Latin sense of equity and participation in the shared civitas. In this manner, European Christianity has defended a more relational account (in terms of objective rights and reciprocal duties, not merely subjective individual entitlements) that outflanked the dialectic of the individual and the collective that we owe to the American and the French Revolution.

Ultimately, Europe’s unique legacy of faith and reason provided the basis for European claims to an “organically” plural universalism. The mark of this variant of universalism is that it avoids both moral relativism and political absolutism by offering a free, shared social space for religious and non-religious practice – the “realm” of civil society that is more primary than either the central state or the supposedly “free” market. As the “corporation of corporations,” the European polity rests on common civic culture and social bonds that are more fundamental than either formal constitutional-legal rights or economic-contractual ties (or some sinister fusion of both).

So what sets Europe apart from the other global “poles” is the autonomous space of civil society and the intermediary institutions that mediate between the individual, the state and the market. Contrary to common misconceptions, the EU is neither a federal super-state nor an ad hoc intergovernmental gathering. Instead, European nations pool their sovereignty and are more like “super-regions” within a pan-national polity that combines a political system sui generis with elements of a neo-medieval empire. The Union is neither just an international organisation nor a federal super-state but rather a voluntary association of states – unlike the United States since the civil war. The mark of the European polity is that it limits both state and market power in favour of communities and groups. This associational model combines vertical, more hierarchical elements with horizontal, more egalitarian aspects, with overlapping jurisdictions and a complex web of intermediary institutions wherein sovereignty is dispersed and diffused.

By contrast, the United States is a commercial republic where civil society is equated with proprietary relations and market-based exchange. In other parts of the world, civil society is subordinated to the administrative and symbolic order of central state power. Thus, Europe’s greatest “gift” to its people and the rest of the world is to offer a narrative that accentuates the autonomy of associations vis-a-vis both state and market, and thereby re-embeds both politics and economics within the civic and social bonds of civil society.

Amid the current crisis of legitimacy, this suggests that the EU needs a better model of shared sovereignty and reciprocal power by building a subsidiary polis that connects supranational institutions much more closely to regions, localities, communities and neighbourhood. In turn, this requires a much greater sense of a common demos with a mutual ethos and telos.

In line with its own best traditions, Europe could do worse than to renew and extend its political project around the following principles and practices:

  • a commonwealth of nations and peoples rather than a market-state of “big government” and “big business”;
  • the pursuit of the common good in which all can share – beyond the maximisation of individual utility or collective happiness (or both at once);
  • a series of political transformations that not only acknowledge the recent failures and the current crisis, but also reconfigure the key institutions in accordance with Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman notions of constitution rule and “mixed government.”

Externally, a commonwealth that reflects the mediating universalism of the Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman tradition would contrast with the exceptionalism of old empires and new colonial powers such as the United States, China, as well as (to a lesser extent) Russia and some newly emerging markets such as Indonesia.

However imperfectly, the EU remains so far the only serious attempt to build the first transnational political community whose members come together to form a voluntary association of nations that pool some of their sovereign power for the common good of their people and others across the globe. Europe has a terrible colonial history, but it has also given rise to a set of institutions and practices that have transformed tribalism and nationalism at home and abroad.

Indeed, Europe has shaped global history not through sheer size or military might but rather thanks to its inventiveness and the creation of force multipliers. European inventiveness today is mirrored in the international order that reflects Europe’s Christian heritage. For example, European Protestant theologians and Catholic figures played a decisive role in creating the League of Nations after 1919 and the United Nations following the Second World War. Christian Democrats from Italy, Germany, the Benelux countries and even France led the way in setting up the project for European integration and enlargement in the late 1940s and 1950s. They were inspired by Christian social teaching which, since the ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), has always viewed the supremacy of the national state and the transnational market over the intermediary space of civil society and economy (ultimately upheld by the Church) as contrary to the Christian faith.

In contemporary parlance, the Christian origin and outlook of the post-1919 world order is based on the idea of “networking” and “mainstreaming” Christian ideas and thus multiplying the power of European’s vestigially Christian polity. The invention of international organisations and supranational bodies reflects the Christian commitment to create a cosmopolis – a cosmic city that upholds universal, global principles embodied in particular, national or regional practices.

Arguably, Christianity – whose global spread outstrips that of Islam and other world religions – is the force multiplier of Europe. Without embracing its Christian heritage, the future of Europe seems uncertain and bleak.

ABC Religion & Ethics Article

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