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Europe: Fighting for God in a secular Europe, conservative Christians, the Vatican and Islamic militants find a common cause

Once upon a time, when the European Union was a simple common market, matters of faith were left to individual consciences and confessionals.
But in 1992 the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, called for "a soul for Europe," arguing that if Brussels wasn't able to inject a spiritual dimension into the EU, it would fail to command the allegiance of its citizens.

How ironic, then, that last week a battle over the soul of Europe tripped up the European Commission. After Rocco Buttiglione, the conservative Roman Catholic nominee for the Justice portfolio, pronounced homosexuality to be a "sin" and unwed mothers "bad," the outcry from parliamentarians forced its incoming president, José Manuel Durão Barroso, to withdraw his entire slate of commissioners.

In truth, the Buttiglione affair has less to do with religion than with the aspirations of a European Parliament yearning to assert itself (sidebar). But his supporters instantly framed it as a religious witch hunt. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi thundered that the attack "smells of fundamentalism, if not obscurantism." Tellingly, Barroso backed down just two days before EU leaders gathered to sign the new European Constitution, which despite strenuous lobbying from Christians contains no mention of God or Christianity. "It has been said that the European Constitution could not speak of the Judeo-Christian roots of Europe because it would offend Islam," says Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "But that which offends Islam is a lack of respect for God and the arrogance of reason."

And so the battle lines are drawn. For Europe, the clash of civilizations is less between "Islam" and "the West" than between muscular religiosity and militant secularism. With the collapse of communism, Europe's religious conservatives—Catholic or Muslim—now see secularism as their chief enemy. To the naked eye, the secularists appear to have won. Western European pews are empty. Church membership is plummeting. Families are shrinking, breaking up and evolving as parliaments pass laws to pave the way for gay marriages. Fantasies of a Christian Europe have been dealt a blow by surging immigration and the EU's nod to Turkish accession earlier this month; the religious vigor of many of Europe's 30 million-odd Muslims stands in marked contrast to the apathy of the Christian flock. Writes Catholic theologian George Weigel: "European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular."

But Europe's religionists are fighting back. In the vanguard is the Catholic Church, emboldened by conservatives from new member states like Poland, Slovakia and Malta. It's even trying to forge new alliances with Muslims and moderate secularists, arguing that Europe, in moral crisis, must embrace a new ethics founded in "natural law"—or, as one of Cardinal Ratzinger's aides puts it, "find common ethical norms to save democracy and the weak from the whims of the powerful."

Where it once shunned grubby politicking in Brussels, the church is now lobbying for more formal rights with European institutions. Religious conservatives lost the skirmish over God in the Constitution, but they may have won a larger victory. Embedded in the document is Article 51, allowing churches an "open, transparent and regular dialogue" with the European Union. Church members say that's merely democracy in action. Moderate Catholics and secularists fear the clause will give the church undue influence over European legislation.

Major fights are shaping up. They begin with abortion and reproductive rights. EU positions on family planning have been traditionally progressive: in 2002, when George W. Bush cut aid for the United Nations Population Fund on the ground that it supported coercive abortions in China, the EU stepped in with 32 million euros. But conservative M.E.P.s have since stepped up campaigns to limit spending on sexual and reproductive health overseas. Two years ago, when the European Parliament was planning its new strategy, a conservative voting bloc managed to slash a proposed 20 million euros budget for overseas family- planning aid by nearly a third. Just last week, during debates for the 2005 budget, conservative members tried to block funding for groups overseas that perform abortions. "It used to be that we could ignore the ultraconservatives," says Belgian Socialist M.E.P. Anne Van Lancker. "They're not strong in numbers, but if they make alliances [with the more traditional lawmakers] they can become very powerful."

The most emotive issue is gay marriage. Dutch and Belgian homosexuals already have the right to marry, and many countries recognize civil unions. Even such traditional church allies as Spain are following suit. Earlier this month, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialist government announced that it would legalize same-sex marriages and adoption by gay couples. Restrictions on divorce, abortion and stem-cell research will also be eased, along with rules making religious education mandatory. The bishop of Avila, Jesús Garcia Buríllo, called the reforms "a violent cultural earthquake."

In the face of all this, Christian conservatives are rallying their troops. The Vatican has sent numerous delegations to Spain to try to block the gay-rights move. Last week, releasing its annual policy handbook, the Vatican reiterated its belief that "no power can abolish the natural right to marriage or modify its traits and purpose." Earlier this year the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community, an influential liaison group in Brussels, vowed to promote "family policies" that aim to make the EU "the most family-oriented region in the world by 2010."

Traditionalists are looking to the new East European countries such as Poland for help. The Vatican lobbied hard for its admission to the EU. Now Poland's Catholics are "hoping to push Christian values forward on the European agenda," says Father Boguslaw Trzeciak of the Catholic European Study and Information Center in Warsaw. The League of Polish Families, an ultraconservative Catholic party, came in second in Poland's first European Parliament elections and was lobbying vigorously to insert "God" into the preamble of the European Constitution. To protest the omission, new parliamentarian Witold Tomczak brought a pair of crucifixes to the European Parliament and demanded they be hung on the wall. They weren't, but the moment was emblematic. As Poland and other new members Europeanize, the question is whether they will also secularize. "What we will see over the next two years is a battle for the hearts and minds of the new delegates," notes Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, a liberal lobby group. "The Vatican and other conservative groups will be working very hard to influence them."

Other European newcomers have also emboldened Europe's Christians. After the French government banned Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in school this spring, the Archbishop of Paris backed their cause. The unapologetic stance of Europe's Muslims, one French parish priest told the newspaper Libération last week, gave new hope to its Catholics: "When young people hear someone say, 'I am proud to be a Muslim,' they're less hesitant to say 'I am Christian'." In Britain, when Muslim groups lobbied for a "religion" category in the 2001 Census, a surprisingly high number of Britons ticked "Christian." "Islam has reactivated the public presence of the Christian churches," notes Jean-Paul Willaime, the Sorbonne-based author of "Europe and Religions." "It's part of a new religious configuration." For an increasingly multicultural Europe, the challenge these days is not that it lacks a soul—but that it has so many different ones.

By Carla Power

With Barbie Nadeau in Rome, Mike Elkin in Madrid, Joanna Kowalska in Warsaw and Marie Valla in London

Originally published on 8 November 2004

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.