Ireland, the Lisbon Treaty, and the Church

Ireland, the Lisbon Treaty, and the Church June 14, 2008

Two days ago, the Irish electorate delivered a decisive “no” to the Lisbon treaty by a 53-47 percent margin. Ireland is the only country required to vote on it owing to a peculiarity of the Irish constitution. There are a number of reasons behind the defeat. The major one is that people simply did not understand the treaty. That is because it is largely procedural, concerned with a more efficient functioning of the European Union comprised of 27 member countries, with further expansion in the offing. It would strengthen the power of the directly-elected European parliament (so much for it increasing the democratic deficit), streamline the complicated working methods and voting rules, and allow Europe to speak with one voice on the world stage. It also emphasizes the foundational values of the union, including a charter of fundamental rights, freedom of European citizens and solidarity.

So what went wrong in Ireland? As I said , people didn’t understand it. As they have in the past, people used it to protest against the government in an environment of increasing economic uncertainty. And the “no” campaign was particularly effective with its scaremongering tactics. The Irish were told that the treaty would force them to raise their tax rates. They were told military neutrality would be jeopardized. They were told abortion would be introduced in Ireland. All lies. In the end, every single mainstream political party and social partner supported the treaty. Its opponents were a rag-tag group of Marxists, ex-terrorists, hard-care nationalists, the extreme Catholic right, and a shady unknown businessman with ties to the US defense industry.

I want to address the Catholic angle. Abp. Martin of Dublin said very clearly that the treaty does not alter the legal position of abortion in Ireland and chastised Catholic groups for making an issue of this. He noted that: “The treaty basically codifies existing realities, so therefore the areas in which you could say that this treaty represents substantial change rather than codification are marginal.” Bishop Smith of Meath attacked what he called “self-styled ‘Catholic’ organization” canvassing for a no vote on false pretenses. The bishops had to take the step of removing “no” material being placed in churches by these dubious groups.

The bishops also released a nice pastoral letter on the subject. Of course, they could not come down on either side of the political debate, but they would “condemn unreservedly” those who attempted to influence the outcome by “offering misleading or even patently incorrect advice or by introducing extraneous factors into the debate.” It should not be used as an excuse for a protest vote against the government. They note that the enlargement of the EU calls for “appropriate institutional reform which the treaty of Lisbon attempts to address”– to avoid gridlock, the EU cannot continue with “business as usual.”  Moreover, “the treaty of Lisbon attempts to address [the] democratic deficit and to promote a culture of engagement that fosters the ideal of active citizenship.”

The bishops also criticize attempts to reduce it to economic self-interest: “a community that is founded on purely economic self-interest will not last” as “Europe is also a civilization, the values of which are not merely repositories of cultural memory.” They provide a timely reminder to the euro-skeptics that the founders of what became the European Union- men like Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman, and Alcide de Gespari– were “not only committed Catholics but they also recognized the manner in which Catholic social teaching could contribute to a new Europe, one that was founded on the respect for human dignity and the promotion of the common good.” They quote Pope Benedict’s favorable views on European integration in the life of the peace that it has brought. And while it is still regrettable that the treaty contains no explicit reference to Europe’s Christian heritage, “the aims and aspirations that underpin initiatives in the EU in many aspects reflect the Christian humanist vision of the good of society.”

The bishops praise the Lisbon treaty’s commitment to full employment, social progress, a high standard of environmental protection, linguistic and cultural diversity, equality between men and women, social justice and protection, solidarity between generations, protection of the rights of the child, and to combat marginalization and discrimination. How much of this would be supported by the American Catholic right, I wonder?

Ah, but they have already spoken. Completely oblivious to the voice of the Irish church, some US Catholics (the usual suspects) laud the no vote, the the grounds that Ireland has given the finger to “Brussels elitists”. As always, they are reflecting their own political and ideological biases onto Europe. They see the debate through the eyes of the kind of Enlightenment-era liberalism that prizes the liberty of the individual over the common good and solidarity (notice the whole comment is about economics- when the Irish bishops say that is exactly the wrong way to look at it). They are also wedded to a form of nationalism that elevates the role of the nation state above any supranational cooperation. Clearly, the dream of Erasmus and Thomas More for a united, peaceful, Europe was misplaced then…

And here’s the ultimate irony: these people oppose any political integration of Europe. The more sophisticated among them with make reference to subsidiarity. And yet, I do not see them calling for the breakup of the United States as a political entity, especially since its armed forces would seem to usurp the rights of lower-level communities to control their own defense. Then again, consistency is precisely what I don’t expect from the US Catholic right.

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