Citizenship as a Christian Commitment
The European Commission identifies a series of practical measures to overcome obstacles to the exercise of European citizens’ rights. This is welcome: but Christians are called to look further.
In this year of European Citizens the European Commission’s recent report, EU Citizens: Your Rights, Your Future, proposes a series of practical measures to overcome the obstacles it identifies to the exercise of such rights.
These measures would, if implemented, reach beyond useful consumer rights, and would promote social inclusion: to take just two examples, extending the unemployment benefits jobseekers receive from their home country beyond the current three months while they look for work in another EU country; clarifying rules so that trainees are not exploited through unpaid work. As the report insists, ‘Specific care and protection for the more vulnerable members of society lies at the core of the European social model’.
The report expresses the added value of European citizenship, which complements national citizenship. This value is underlined if, as seems likely, some proposals are opposed within certain ember states.
However, as has already been argued in EuropeInfos, citizenship entails rights, but rights do not define citizenship. The Catholic theological tradition offers resources for reflection on citizenship’s deeper dimension.
Since belonging is intrinsic to being human, structures of belonging can authentically express our humanity. It may seem surprising today how unsentimentally Aristotle regards the family in his Politics, as the association ‘established by nature to supply for our everyday wants’: it is the base of social membership, not the apex. The political community, on the contrary, exists not merely to provide the necessities of life but ‘for the sake of a good life’. Happiness, eudaemonia, is expressed by living well in the social world: virtue or excellence, arete, supposes the public world that calls it forth. Hence for Aristotle, persons are ‘political animals’.
St. Thomas Aquinas follows Aristotle, though critically, in arguing that persons associate with each other not only for subsistence and self-defence, but for their full intellectual and moral development. But whereas Aristotle identified a class of ‘natural slaves’ (in addition to slaves by circumstance, such as through defeat in battle) Aquinas - precisely in the light of his Christian faith - denied the existence of natural slaves. Thus the rights and responsibilities of citizenship cannot be reserved to an elite.
However the Thomist position in no way supposes the state to be absolute. Citizenship remains one among other forms of social belonging, each of which expresses different dimensions of our being and each of which makes rightful demands on us. These demands are necessarily in tension (citizenship versus kinship, or citizenship versus religious fellowship) and inherent tensions can only be resolved in specific contexts, by way of discernment. Theologically speaking the state (or, of course, the European Union) in claiming absolute status would become an ‘idol’. So would the family, the free market, or even the visible Church - which exists to serve the reign of God.
‘Citizenship-belonging’ pertains to human persons, each with a unique personal destiny, a moral freedom, a vocation to be creative not merely passive, and a human solidarity without any sectoral restrictions. People cannot contribute what Aristotle called ‘noble actions’ to the state except from their own creative moral and spiritual freedom - which transcends the state. This inherent tension was profoundly expressed as early as the second century, in the Letter to Diognetus:
‘Every foreign land is to Christians as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. (…) They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. To sum up all in one word - what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world.’
The freedom of citizens is no less important than their loyalty. It must be respected and fostered for the state itself (or the EU) to flourish. We have always to the frontiers between the political community as a ‘structure of grace’ (in service of justice and the common good) and as ‘a structure of sin’ (focused on maximising its own power). Such discernment is not a rejection of the city, the state, the EU, but a deeper contribution to its life.
Frank Turner SJ