Why Europe Shouldn´t Marginalize Believers

Interview with Philosopher Jesús Villagrasa

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ROME, JAN. 21, 2002 (Zenit.org).- In a Jan. 10 address, John Paul II expressed sadness over the marginalization of religions, as reflected in the European Union summit at Laeken, Belgium, in December.

The Pope referred to this marginalization as «an injustice and an error of perspective.»

ZENIT interviewed philosopher Jesús Villagrasa on this issue. Father Villagrasa is a professor of metaphysics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: Why is the Holy Father so worried?

Father Villagrasa: Europe is taking decisive steps in its process of integration. Some are striking, such as the adoption of the single currency or the extension to new countries. Others may pass unnoticed by public opinion.

On Dec. 14 and 15, the heads of state and government of the 15 [European Union member countries] agreed in Laeken that on March 1, 2002, the work of the Convention would begin, which will examine the future of the European Union.

The Convention, composed of some 100 participants appointed by governments, national parliaments and European institutions, will work for a year on the important questions that must be resolved to ensure the success of the process of integration. It will then present options to the governments, which in 2004 will give the last word at an intergovernmental conference.

Religions have been marginalized from this process of reform of the Union and the preparation of its Constitution.

Q: It seems rather strong to call this marginalization an «injustice» in an address to diplomats.

Father Villagrasa: Yes, but it is justified. The right of religious liberty is at stake, a fundamental human right that John Paul II has called «source and synthesis» of all human rights in a passage of the encyclical «Centesimus Annus,» No. 47, where he affirms the need to elaborate solid juridical ordinances for democracies.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union recognizes the right to religious liberty but, as the vice president of the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Community, Monsignor Attilio Nicora, said, for the moment this recognition does not find expression or weight in Community law.

Q: It seems impossible, however, that a fundamental right will be violated in Europe.

Father Villagrasa: The right to religious liberty can be violated in many ways. In several countries, atheist governments actively persecute believers; in others, governments try to impose religious unity by force and oppress the followers of other creeds.

In the United States and in the European Union, a certain kind of secularism would exclude religion from public life and treat churches as merely private institutions without the right to have a voice in legislation, politics and public life. This exclusion involves legal and fiscal rulings that make their public charitable and educational action very difficult.

Even if they do not come to such extremes, it is a question of principle, of a right that refers not only to the private life of the faithful, but also to their public life as institutions. The separation of church-state understood as exclusion of religions from public life is an injustice. In a state of law, the state does not have the right to limit religious liberty, unless it is to safeguard the just public order and common good.

Q: If, in fact, European democracies are very consolidated, why is the Pope concerned about clarifying their foundations?

Father Villagrasa: Merely formal democracies seem solid because they respect democratic rules, but if they lack the support of the civil society and of basic moral contents and commitments they are inconsistent and will collapse. The Weimar Republic and Nazism´s access to power are a clear example.

Substantial democracies are solid because, in addition to respecting the rules, they recognize the truth and good of man and society, which are the foundation and give direction to juridical ordinances that protect and guarantee human rights.

Q: It is very difficult to achieve consensus in a pluralist society. If religions enter the public debate with their claim of possessing absolute truths, this consensus seems impossible.

Father Villagrasa: The Catholic Church does not impose a truth; it proposes it. It is a dangerous illusion to believe that a democracy can be reduced to a consensus on systems and rules of procedure. The contents of truth and good are necessary — values that sustain a substantial democracy.

A democracy without values easily becomes a visible or concealed totalitarianism, as history demonstrates. The Constitution will be the fundamental law of the European Union. If it does not give guarantees for the defense of fundamental human rights, it can be dangerous. If in the discussion phase there are exclusions, such as the ones mentioned, the situation is worrying.

Q: Societies´ pluralism implies renunciations that seem unacceptable to the Catholic Church.

Father Villagrasa: I think that at times there is not a sufficient distinction made between plurality, which is an increasingly relevant sociological fact, and pluralism, that is, that ruling which recognizes and accepts the different forms of plurality: political, religious, cultural.

Pluralism must be constructed. A pluralist Europe must be constructed. George Weigel acutely points out that the «formal democracy» cannot resolve the problem of plurality in pluralism, because in fact it imposes a monism: an established secularism, which is a political ideology sanctioned by the state, which implies the total control of the intermediary institutions of civil society — including churches — and that, in fact, leads to the end of democracy.

This totalitarianism of «soft forms» is a natural degeneration of infused democracies, lacking real foundations. The democratic deficit in European institutions is a real danger.

Q: In a recent interview published by ZENIT, Tadeusz Mazowiecki said that this marginalization of religions «is the result of a political compromise among different tendencies present in Europe today. It is known that French pressures, wishing to protect a certain idea of secularism, have been very strong.» Is not this French claim legitimate on the part of a secular state?

Father Villagrasa: In his address the Pope says that «there is a just secularism of the state and, therefore, of Europe.» There is also an «unjust» secularism. «French secularism» tends to be rigid and excluding: a laicism.

Q: Europe has lived through centuries of bloody religious struggles. Isn´t it safer to establish it on secular principles, without reference to religion?

Father Villagrasa: Religion can be perverted. The Pope said this in this address to diplomats: «to kill in the name of God is a blasphemy and a perversion of religion.» However, the modern democratic state would be impossible without the contribution of Christianity. The very principles of fraternity, equality and liberty, which a certain laicism wishes to appropriate, are of Christian root.

Q: Aren´t churches better when public powers leave them in peace?

Father Villagrasa: In the final message of the Council, Paul VI asked rulers what the Church requested of them. And he replied: «It only asks you for freedom.» Not freedom to exclude itself from the lives of men, but the freedom to believe in and preach Christ, to love and serve God and man, the freedom to participate in the construction of Europe, not by «gracious state concession,» but with every right, as it has done for centuries, in the forging of this Europe, which is a cultural and political reality of which every European can feel proud.

And this freedom that the Church requests for itself, it also requests for other religions, in Europe and in the rest of the world.

Q: It does not seem that other religions hold the right of religious liberty
in such high esteem.

Father Villagrasa: It might be so, but it is about a fundamental right of man «as man.» Indeed, Kofi Annan, U.N. secretary-general, had to remind the Organization of the Muslim Conference gathered in Tehran in November 1997 that it makes no sense to talk about «the Islamic rights of men,» because human rights can only be universal.

Well then, every man, also the European, «as man» is religious. It would be good if the most secular of Europe´s architects would not forget this.

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