Re-reading of Pope Francis’s speech to the European Parliament
Ignace Berten analyses for us the speech delivered by Pope Francis to the European Parliament on 25 November.
Since the visit of John-Paul II in 1988, Europe and the European Parliament have definitely changed. The Iron Curtain has fallen, the European Union has enlarged, but the world has become more complex and disturbing. Europe has lost its weighty influence in a world which is no longer centred upon Europe. This Europe appears to have become “elderly and haggard”, not only demographically but above all psychologically and spiritually: “The great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction.” Hence the doubt and mistrust of European citizens.
The message of Pope Francis is not to dwell too much on this rather disenchanted picture. This world, where fear and threats are intermingled, could be the spur for promoting unity and initiative. Francis here makes his diagnosis and offers an opening and direction for “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.”
He does not mince his words. They reveal Pope Francis’ highly developed social awareness. He claimed with regret that technical and economic questions prevail over a genuinely anthropological point of view. “Men and women risk being reduced to mere cogs in a machine that treats them as items of consumption to be exploited.” If a life is useless, if it is no longer sufficiently productive or is obsolete, then it is discarded or terminated.
In the face of these threats, European culture is offered a way out: “persons endowed with transcendant dignity.”
The dignity of the person, meaning that of human beings in society and not as isolated individuals, finds its expression in the promotion of human rights.
In his speech to the Council of Europe, Pope Francis praised the European Court of Human Rights which in a way constitutes the ‘conscience’ of Europe. He poses the question: what happens to dignity where there is no genuine freedom of religion, no rule of law? Where discrimination abounds, food is short and jobs are lacking? What happens to dignity if economic opulence leads to indifference regarding the poor and also the environment? Having rights also entails having duties: the duty to ensure decent living conditions for everybody. It is a matter of protecting the fragility of people and of nations. It is a call for dignity for everyone living inside the Union, and also at its frontiers. Francis denounces the absence of mutual support between the EU countries in welcoming these men and women who call on it for assistance. “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery!”
There is a dimension of transcendence in dignity: a compass at the heart of the human being that enables it to distinguish good from evil grounded in human nature. The centrality of the human being in society, that is the heritage borne by Christianity within Europe: in now living this heritage, it is not a threat to the laicity of States but an enrichment.
“Unity in diversity”, the motto of the European Union: solidarity and subsidiarity. A unity which adds value to the wealth of the diversities: “Keeping democracies alive is a challenge in the present historic moment. The true strength of our democracies – understood as expressions of the political will of the people – must not be allowed to collapse under the pressure of multinational interests which are not universal.”
In this speech to the EP, just like the one he later addressed to the Council of Europe, Pope Francis has elected to remain highly discreet in the domain of ethical questions which today divide our societies politically. Only one reference to the subject of the elimination without scruples of useless people “of the terminally ill, the elderly who are abandoned and uncared for, and children who are killed in the womb.” Neither did he make any reference to the difficult and sometimes controversial diversity of present-day European society which is that of different faiths, tensions between religious choices and choices purely secular or lay (in the philosophical meaning of the term) and the growing presence of Islam.
Giving new meaning and dynamism to the European project by supporting families, in developing education, in seeking as priority to make jobs avaialble for everybody in decent working conditions, in respecting nature because “Our earth needs constant concern and attention.”
If the ideas that lie at the roots of the European Union are revived, they will be called upon to be “a precious point of reference for all humanity.”
Ignace Berten o.p
Dominican friar, member of the International Community of St Dominic in Brussels
Translated from the original text in French