Pope Francis speech in parliament sparks debate on religion and politics

Written by Rajnish Singh on 1 December 2014 in News
News

Despite pope Francis receiving a warm welcome from most MEPs, some secularist deputies have complained about the role of religion in EU politics.

In a wide-ranging speech to MEPs in Strasbourg, Pope Francis has described the EU as a "grandmother who is no longer […] lively", where "great ideas that inspired Europe have now lost their attraction and have been replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of Europe's institutions".

He also criticised Europe's political institutions as "aloof" and "engaged in laying down rules which were perceived as insensitive to the concerns of individual people, if not, actually harmful".

The pontiff also called on the EU to deal with the issue of migration and "not allow the Mediterranean to be turned into a vast graveyard", further adding, "The boats landing on European shores every day are filled with men and women who need assistance."

In a speech that touched on a number of issues including environmental protection, religious persecution and the increasing isolation felt by many vulnerable people in Europe, Pope Francis encouraged European leaders to work together "so that Europe rediscovers the best of itself".

"The time has come to work together to build a Europe […] which revolves not only on the economy but around the sacred nature of the person […] building on its past but also courageously looking to its future" - Pope Francis

He concluded his speech by saying, "the time has come to work together to build a Europe […] which revolves not only on the economy but around the sacred nature of the person […] building on its past but also courageously looking to its future. The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe that is fearful and self-absorbed."

Despite the pope's criticisms of the EU, EPP group president Manfred Weber said, "The holy father's visit is a very special moment for the European parliament." He welcomed the pontiff's message of "peace, solidarity and openness, his amazing personality and wisdom reached out to everyone, no matter what their personal beliefs.

In particular he pointed to pope Francis's "strong message of support for democracy of the EU as a project of peace. His address is also a timely wake-up call to all European citizens".

S&D group president Gianni Pittella believed the speech held "some tough and severe messages aimed at waking up Europe to its original and most important mission: putting human dignity and fundamental rights at the centre of its actions".

"Europe is only faithful to its mission if it fights strongly against discrimination, against unemployment, against fundamentalism and extremism - and against those that allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery" - Gianni Pittella

The Italian MEP also agreed with the pontiff's message that "Europe is only faithful to its mission if it fights strongly against discrimination, against unemployment, against fundamentalism and extremism - and against those that allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery."

He went on to thank the pope for reminding the EU of its values that are "based on solidarity, peace and humanism. The S&D group values his words and the highly moral stance shown by Pope Francis."

Also commenting on the speech, Irish independent MEP Nessa Childers said, "It was refreshing to see such a strong emphasis on the issues of social, economic and environmental justice that had become much more acute during the financial and economic crisis."

In particular she felt pope Francis was rightly critical "of the primacy of the views of economic bureaucrats and financial interests over the essential needs and rights of people".

"The European Union was designed strictly as a secular project. EU institutions were never connected to a particular religion, but they serve all citizens equally" - Sophie in 't Veld and Virginie Roziere

However, before the Pope delivered his speech ALDE MEP Sophie in 't Veld and S&D MEP Virginie Roziere sent an open letter to parliament president Martin Schulz criticising the pontiff's appearance on the grounds that "the European Union was designed strictly as a secular project. EU institutions were never connected to a particular religion, but they serve all citizens equally."

The two MEPs felt that a "monologue by a religious leader in the [parliament's] hemicycle […] is not the appropriate format for a dialogue on values."

In reference to a speech made by Pope John Paul to the European parliament, they went on to attack the Roman Catholic church, writing, "The Roman Catholic church feels it has a right to interfere in civil matters and to impose its moral views on others, rather than accepting and respecting diversity and freedoms of conscience."

This view was backed by the UK's National Secular Society executive director Keith Porteous Wood who told the Parliament Magazine, "It's inappropriate for any unelected religious leader to be invited into a democratically elected parliament to lecture parliamentarians on policy."

He went on to say, "The Catholic church hierarchy campaigns most forcefully on issues such as start and end of life and sexual matters - including women's reproductive rights. These are the very issues on which it is at most odds with lay Catholics - and even more with the European population as a whole, most of whom are not religiously observant."

"I am one of those who advocate that European and national institutions should be secular in nature. But refusing a guest a visit just because he has convictions is no longer a question of secularism; it is more like secular fundamentalism" - Marc Tarabella

However, in an email sent to all MEPs, ECR deputy Charles Tannock responded to in 't Veld and Roziere's letter, saying, "What a hostile and extreme position for you to take as an objection to a global spiritual leader who is making huge efforts to modernise his church."

According to Tannock, as the head of the Vatican City state, which was recognised by all 28 EU member states, the pontiff "is entitled to address us as a sovereign if not as the spiritual head of the Catholic church." He also pointed out that no one raised any objection when Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama spoke to MEPs.

S&D MEP Marc Tarabella also felt the two deputies' position was extreme, stressing, "I am one of those who advocate that European and national institutions should be secular in nature. But refusing a guest a visit just because he has convictions is no longer a question of secularism; it is more like secular fundamentalism."

However, the Belgian MEP regretted that the speech format of Pope Francis' visit "did not allow a real exchange between the Pope and all European deputies."

Commenting on the role of religion in politics the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury's representative to the EU, Robert Innes told this website, "Conducting a proper secular debate according to agreed rational norms, doesn't mean eliminating religious voices from the public space."

Innes highlighted how in Britain 26 bishops sit in the UK's upper house of parliament, where he believes, "They strive to represent all people of faith, not just Christians […] there is no risk of them turning Britain into a theocracy."

For the EU representative, "The Pope's message was inspirational: he affirmed the vision of the EU's founders and held out hope for a future based on human dignity, and the priority of persons over the market." He further added "The kind of friendly critique he gave is exactly what the EU needs."

About the author

Rajnish Singh is commissioning editor for the Parliament Magazine

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