The Magazine

Sins of Commission

Europe's parliament turns on the church.

Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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DEMOCRACY, IN ITS WAY, is on the march in Europe, too. The European Union's 25-country parliament, which sits in Strasbourg, is often ridiculed as a feckless talking shop and a retirement home for politicians who could never get elected to their national parliaments. Last week, though, at a time when Europeans were more riveted by the Bush-Kerry race than by what was going on in their own countries, the European parliament suddenly rendered itself (depending on how you look at it) either more democratic or more dangerous.

Incoming European Commission president José Manuel Dur o Barroso presented the parliament with a slate of 25 new commissioners. In the last days of October, the parliament rose in rebellion against Barroso's choice for justice minister, the Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione. Since the Commission serves as the E.U.'s executive branch (albeit an unwieldy, 25-headed one), the parliament has traditionally been allowed only to accept or reject it as a bloc. Parliament has never had the right to an advise-and-consent role such as the U.S. Senate enjoys. Until now. Barroso saw that the parliament had the will--and the votes--to reject Buttiglione even if it meant shutting down the European government. He postponed nominating the commission, promising to do "what is necessary, what is sufficient" to get the needed votes. Everyone knew what that meant. Three days later, Buttiglione withdrew his name from nomination.

There was an era--running roughly from the dawn of time until about three months ago--when Rocco Buttiglione would have been considered an adornment to any parliament or pan-European body. He is a scholar of international distinction; fluent in English, French, German, Spanish, and Polish; the author of several books of philosophy, theology, and sociology; and a cabinet minister in the present Italian government. But, deplorably, in the parliamentarians' view, he is also a devout Catholic who belongs to the political right. He founded a conservative Catholic group called Comunione e Liberazione in 1968 and has made his biggest scholarly mark outside of Italy with the authoritative 1978 study Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II. The Pope counts him as a friend.

Along the way, Buttiglione had said and written much that piqued the interest of the European parliamentarians, including a 1989 speculation on whether AIDS was "divine punishment." He had vocally opposed abortion and aired misgivings about artificial insemination. When the subject of homosexuality and sin arose during hearings on his portfolio, Buttiglione stressed that the moral language of religion and the legal language of politics didn't belong in the same conversation. Buttiglione promised to respect the rights of minorities. He noted that it was his interrogators who had introduced the concept of sin, and declared that any Catholic of any description, asked the same questions, "would have given much the same answers." But the parliament didn't buy it. His candidacy was, from that point on, doomed.

The singling-out of Buttiglione did look suspiciously like a bunch of progressives gathering round the dead horse that is European Christianity and giving it a few joyous kicks--especially since no such scrutiny awaited the seven former Communists who were nominated to the commission alongside him. Buttiglione's Catholic supporters chalked his rejection up to "secular fundamentalism"; from the Vatican, Cardinal Martino called it a "secular Inquisition." But the parliamentarians themselves called it a triumph of democracy, a golden moment in the political consolidation of Europe. Most of those involved in the vote insisted that, if religion had been involved, it was only peripherally. The English Liberal Democrat Sarah Ludford, for instance, alleged that Buttiglione, by the mere fact of serving in the Berlusconi government, was "complicit in widespread non-respect for the rule of law."

There was indeed a great deal of ordinary, nonreligious politics involved in the rejection of Buttiglione. The E.U.'s Socialists, the second largest party in the continental parliament, led by Martin Schulz, had had it in for him. It was Schulz who led a gang of members hooting Silvio Berlusconi when the Italian premier addressed the parliament last year. Berlusconi turned to the bald, bearded, and bespectacled Schulz, and told him that, in Italy, "a producer is now shooting a film about the Nazi concentration camps. I propose you to play the role of capo."