Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis European Union Brexit
European Union

Pope Francis damns Brexit

Pope Francis has written another encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. It isn’t a great theological tome; indeed, it could easily be a series of religio-political blogposts on current events. Much of the media coverage is focusing of his criticism of populist leaders who appeal to people’s “basest and most selfish inclinations” and exploit people “for their own personal advantage”:

159. “Popular” leaders, those capable of interpreting the feelings and cultural dynamics of a people, and significant trends in society, do exist. The service they provide by their efforts to unite and lead can become the basis of an enduring vision of transformation and growth that would also include making room for others in the pursuit of the common good. But this can degenerate into an unhealthy “populism” when individuals are able to exploit politically a people’s culture, under whatever ideological banner, for their own personal advantage or continuing grip on power. Or when, at other times, they seek popularity by appealing to the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. This becomes all the more serious when, whether in cruder or more subtle forms, it leads to the usurpation of institutions and laws.

But this is really nothing new: Socrates and Plato were decrying political selfishness and base inclinations c500 years before there was a pope (if Peter was the first). The political animal tends to pursue an ethic of self-satisfaction, which afflicts church as much as state. Indeed, it may be observed throughout history that the Roman Catholic Church has at times exploited people’s culture under a theological banner for its own advantage or continuing grip on power. May one have a populist pope?

Does the usurpation of EU institutions and laws constitute populism?

10. For decades, it seemed that the world had learned a lesson from its many wars and disasters, and was slowly moving towards various forms of integration. For example, there was the dream of a united Europe, capable of acknowledging its shared roots and rejoicing in its rich diversity. We think of “the firm conviction of the founders of the European Union, who envisioned a future based on the capacity to work together in bridging divisions and in fostering peace and fellowship between all the peoples of this continent”. There was also a growing desire for integration in Latin America, and several steps were taken in this direction. In some countries and regions, attempts at reconciliation and rapprochement proved fruitful, while others showed great promise.

11. Our own days, however, seem to be showing signs of a certain regression. Ancient conflicts thought long buried are breaking out anew, while instances of a myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism are on the rise. In some countries, a concept of popular and national unity influenced by various ideologies is creating new forms of selfishness and a loss of the social sense under the guise of defending national interests…

Is Brexit ‘regression’? Is it ‘myopic’ or ‘extremist’; ‘resentful’ or ‘aggressive nationalism’? Many Remainers (still) believe so, of course, but it might be remembered that the Pope is King of Vatican City, which has never been inclined to accede to the EEC/EC/EU, principally out of concerns for its ‘sovereignty’: one cannot have a state with a universal global vocation bound by continental myopia or subject to supranational governance and foreign courts.

There is a new book which addresses many of Pope Francis’s concerns: The Future of Brexit Britain: Anglican Reflections on National Identity and European Solidarity. As one reviewer has written: “It does not reconcile difference, but it does name it as part of the struggle of the present, and it seeks to challenge Christians of all views to imagine a future with hope.” It has essays by (inter alia) the Bishop of Burnley Philip North, Bishop of Leeds Nick Baines, Professor John Milbank, and the Bishop of Kensington Graham Tomlin. There are responses from (inter alia) Baroness (Sal) Brinton and Suzanne Evans; and a Foreword by the Bishop of Dover Rose Hudson-Wilkin.

One chapter in particular explains precisely how Brexit Britain may be global and outward-looking, rather than ‘myopic’ or ‘selfish’:

Instead of viewing Brexit as another painful rupture in Christendom; instead of iterating tensions and reiterating the disputes of sovereignty and democracy; instead of propagating fears of disassociation and disorder, may not Brexit be considered a source of human welfare consonant with Christian spirituality? In ‘taking back control’ of our national life, could there be virtue in a return to greater responsibility, accountability and the ‘messiness’ of doing democracy? Charles Taylor affirms the fons et origo of the impulse:

With the Reformation, we find a modern, Christian-inspired sense that ordinary life was on the contrary the very centre of the good life. The crucial issue was how it was led, whether worshipfully and in the fear of God or not. But the life of the God-fearing was lived out in marriage and their calling. The previous ‘higher’ forms of life were dethroned, as it were. And along with this went frequently an attack, covert or overt, which had made these forms their province.

As the ‘higher’ form of UK governance is dethroned, there is the ‘good life’ possibility of responsible individualism and responsible nationalism: just as the individual has no need of a higher priestly ‘counsel of perfection’ in Rome, so the sovereign nation has no need of a supranational ‘council of perfection’ in Brussels. In the event of ‘taking back control’ and the process of restoring self-governance lies not only an opportunity for ‘peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations’, but also a patriotism of freedom and self-rule.

Pope Francis may anathematise Brexit, but he does so because he doesn’t appear to grasp that the Brexit event was ultimately an assertion of national subsidiarity, effected because centralising powers pre-ordained to ‘ever-closer union’ ultimately reduce member states to regions of administered dependence. A majority came to believe there was much more that could and should be done at the national level rather than at the supranational level.

Nor does Pope Francis appear to understand that an assertion of subsidiarity does not remove the UK from the European community of nations: it offers a vision (and some may say revives the vocation) for the “wide and liberal” global future exhorted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Reformation that forged the Church of England and shaped Anglicanism ultimately yielded and sustains the Worldwide Anglican Communion: actions of insularity may indeed be “wide and liberal” with reconciling grace.

The Europe of shared values – of history, culture, fraternity, diversity, solidarity and human rights – dwells under the aegis of the Council of Europe; a commonwealth of equals cohabiting ‘in tension’ (and sometimes great tension), expressing and reifying national identities which are severally against, of, above, and with ‘Europeanism’ often in paradox. Isn’t this the optimal transformer of a community of disparate nations to a communion of grace?