This is a great country. I’ve been privileged to live and work abroad, but there is no place like America. It’s a cleaner, cheaper, nicer place. Big cars, big hair, the big country — purple mountains majesty, amber waves of grain and all that — makes me proud to be an American. Give me a political landscape dominated by God, guns and gays and I’m happy. Yet, I must admit there are some things Europeans do better than Americans. I take away nothing from the observations made in Philip Jenkins book, “The New Anti-Catholicism, The Last Acceptable Prejudice”, but the Europeans do anti-Catholicism or anti-clericalism much better than we do.
While it is the French who have unfairly earned a reputation as cheese-eating surrender monkeys in the American psyche, it is the the European establishment — Matthew Arnold’s chattering classes — who deserve the accolade. But as church-eating surrender monkeys.
Religion has no place in the public square in European political life. In January the Irish Independent reported the Irish Labour Party had called for a secularist litmus test for senior civil servants. Catholics were bad people who needed to be kept under close scrutiny lest they undermine the government.
All senior officials in state bodies which are likely to have to deal with the Catholic Church should be screened to ensure that they will not show inappropriate deference to the Catholic Church. Those who feel they are ‘Catholic first and Irish second’ should seek promotion in other organs of the State.
Such sentiments are not exceptional. The news this week of the appointment of a new EU health commissioner offered an illustration of this Weltanschauung. On 28 Nov 2012 the BBC and the DPA (the German wire service) reported the European parliament had given its approval to the appointment of Malta’s Foreign Minister Tonio Borg as health commissioner. For those who missed this news here are extracts from the DPA story:
Maltese Foreign Minister Tonio Borg will be the European Union‘s new health commissioner, EU governments confirmed Wednesday, giving the appointment its final blessing. Borg, 55, will replace John Dalli, who resigned last month over claims he did nothing to stop an acquaintance from using his ties to ask a Swedish company for money to influence new EU tobacco rules.
Borg has vowed not to water down the rules, which he has identified as a priority and has said should be ready in January. Borg‘s nomination had proven controversial, after some EU parliamentarians raised concerns about his conservative views on abortion and homosexuality. He has pledged to abide by the EU‘s human rights charter, regardless of his personal views on social issues.
Cecilia Wikström, the Liberal Swedish MEP who had dubbed Tonio Borg “a dinosaur that does not belong in our modern world” when the former foreign minister was nominated for the post of EU Commissioner, has reiterated her stand that Borg’s personal political standpoints did not make him fit for the post of health and consumers affairs policy Commissioner.
And these objectionable beliefs are?
“Borg is a very well known politician with a high education [who] would have been a fantastic leader of Europe a couple of decades ago,” Wikström said, pointing out that his conservative beliefs might put him at loggerheads with several aspects of his portfolio. “Had Borg’s portfolio been on something else, like fisheries, culture, higher education or even the internal market, he would have been a wonderful commissioner. “Since Borg’s portfolio deals with rights and the choices people make, I think this is going to be complicated for him,” Wikström said, mentioning as an example, sexual and reproductive health rights that would include the provision of safe and legal abortion for women.
Ms. Wikström, who also is a Lutheran minister, believes Borg’s Catholicism to be incompatible with government service, save in areas that don’t matter much like Fish & Agg.
The only mainstream English-language report on Borg’s appointment that I have seen that raises these questions was the New Scientist – the British science news weekly. Its article “Staunch conservative to be new EU health commissioner” framed the story around the objections to Borg’s Catholicism.
Borg is Catholic and is known for his conservative views on abortion, homosexuality and divorce. For example, he is a supporter of the Embryo Protection Act currently being debated in the Maltese parliament. If approved at the end of November, the bill will prevent experimentation on human embryos, ban egg and sperm donation, and prohibit the freezing of embryos for IVF procedures other than in a few special cases.
The article reported on the grilling MEPs gave to Borg during his confirmation hearings.
Some MEPs questioned Borg’s stance on abortion, recalling how he tried to incorporate the ban on abortion, even if the mother’s life is at risk, into Malta’s constitution. Borg replied: “The laws on abortion are a matter of national law… These are not matters within the competence of the Commission and the Union.”
But in the end Borg’s appointment was approved on a 386 to 281 with 28 abstentions. The New Scientist rounded out its story with comments from liberal MEPs who warned they would be watching Borg for signs his faith was influencing his job, and with comments from International Planned Parenthood and a stem cell researcher who said that:
“Although I do not dispute his technical skills, there is the risk that personal views, especially when radical in nature, will interfere with or slow down important projects which have already been endorsed by public opinion,” he says.
From the classical journalism perspective, the New Scientist story is incomplete. We have the back and forth between Borg and his critics, but the comments and critical observations offered that would give context are one-sided — Planned Parenthood and a stem cell researcher. Nothing is offered from those on the opposing side of the argument. That, however, is not a surprise, as the New Scientist’s reputation is one of being on the secular left — and I do not fault them for being true to their editorial line.
But from the mainstream media we have next to nothing. The wire services and the short BBC item do not do justice to the ethical issues at play. Part of the problem is the lack of space and resources. Not all stories can be covered and editors must pick and choose how they utilize their space on the page and their reporter’s time. However, I also believe there is an agreement in just about all newsrooms that the criticisms raised by the New Scientist are valid. This belief that religion belongs to the private sphere of life and is not welcome in the public square permeates the European press.
A response I hear from supporters of the secularist model runs along the lines of “If you want to hear a sermon go to church”, meaning the worlds of faith and news are so far apart that one should not trespass on the other. I do not agree. Incorporating faith or ethical issues into journalism is not proselytizing. It is being faithful to the dictates of honest fair and full reporting.