Fr Kevin Hegarty
LAST week, the Irish Catholic Bishops issued a calm and measured statement on the referendum about the Lisbon Treaty. While they acknowledged the importance of the issue for Irish society, they did not align themselves with either side in the debate. They made it clear, however, that Catholics can, “in good conscience”, vote “yes” or “no”. They asserted that the treaty “does not undermine existing legal protections in Ireland for unborn children”!
Their statement was a disappointment to conservative Catholic groups, currently under the umbrella of Cóir, who are proclaiming, without sustainable evidence, that the treaty provides the legal gateway for the introduction of abortion and euthanasia into Irish legislation. They have the most arresting posters in the campaign but their arguments are lurid and untrue.
One bishop, Dr Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, dealt in more detail with the referendum in an address to the Oireachtas Committee on Europe. He is, arguably, the Irish bishop most versed in the ways of the European Union.
Prior to his appointment as a bishop last year, he worked for 19 years with Comece in Brussels. Comece is a commission established in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the European Union. Its objectives are to monitor and analyse the political processes of the Union, to inform church leaders of developments in EU policy and legislation, and to promote reflection, based on Catholic social teaching, on the challenges facing a united Europe.
So Dr Treanor speaks on European issues from the authority of experience. In his address to Oireachtas members he began by stating “unequivocally that a Catholic can, without reserve and in good conscience, vote ‘yes’ for the Lisbon treaty”. There are no grounds to justify a ‘no’ vote “on the basis of specifically religious or ethical concerns.”
In an implicit rebuff to conservative Catholic groups arguing against the treaty, he called for accuracy in the debate. Truth should not be a casualty: “the moral claim on all involved in this debate encompasses the duty to provide accurate information and to avoid provoking unfounded fears through misinformation. In the debate, the question of values applies not just to the content of the treaty, but also to the way in which the debate itself is conducted and the accuracy with which the EU institutions are presented. Unfortunately, there is evidence that there are a number of publications and organisations who are intent once again on influencing the outcome of the forthcoming referendum by introducing misleading or inaccurate information. This includes suggesting, for example, that the Lisbon Treaty would undermine existing legal protections for unborn children in Ireland. It is important to point out that no organisation actively lobbying in the current campaign, using either print or other media, speaks for or on behalf of the Catholic Church.”
Claiming that the Catholic Church has consistently supported the general aims and direction of the EU, he welcomed especially Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty. This Article recognises, for the first time in the primary law of the EU, the existing status of churches and commits the Union to “maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue” with them. He is confident that opportunities for ordinary European citizens to shape the future of the continent are enhanced, not diminished, by the Lisbon treaty.
To the many conservative Catholics who look upon the EU with jaundiced eyes, it may come as a surprise that the cause of one of its founders, Robert Schumann, has been submitted to the Vatican for beatification.
Schumann had a strong commitment to Catholic social teaching. As Dr Cathy Molloy, a theologian, makes clear in an article in the latest edition of Working Notes, this teaching has influenced the evolution of the EU.
Catholic social teaching is founded on the biblical insight that we are made in the image of God. It promotes the dignity and equality of every person. Faith is not just words and ritual. It must be actualised in active loving concern for all and especially the marginalised and oppressed.
She highlights how the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law have guided the EU. Equality between men and women was one of the founding articles of the Treaty of Rome and the achievement of gender equality became a special requirement of the EU under the Amsterdam Treaty. The EU commitments to regional development and third world aid resonate with the principle of solidarity which is central to Catholic social teaching.
As someone who is committed to Catholic social teaching and who believes that the EU has been the most positive political, social and economic achievement of the post-Second World War period, I hope for a ‘yes’ vote in next Friday’s referendum.