The Magazine

Sins of Commission

Europe's parliament turns on the church.

Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Strasbourg

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."

Barroso also managed to offend Old Europe on the inextricable matters of Iraq and French grandeur. First, as Portuguese prime minister, he had backed the war to unseat Saddam Hussein. Second, he had saddled the French with a secondary commission job--transportation--after years in which they had been able to command top posts. Jacques Chirac took an intense interest in the Buttiglione affair, according to Le Monde, even calling Barroso to say he wouldn't accept a commission voted in primarily by the right. Buttiglione's departure opens the possibility of a reshuffle in which France could once again claim a top portfolio.

But sometimes journalists can be direct where politicians and activists must pussyfoot around. An editorial in London's left-wing Independent was refreshingly forthright: "There have been dark mutterings about anti-Catholic and anti-Christian prejudice," the paper wrote, "as though Buttiglione is somehow the victim in all this, when the simple truth is that his views are in direct conflict with notions of equality and civil rights enshrined in European and national conventions." That gets to the nub of the matter. These notions of equality and civil rights, which the Catholic church has mostly endorsed and applauded throughout the consolidation of the E.U., now reveal themselves as unambiguously incompatible with institutional Christianity in Europe.

And perhaps with any organized religion. As the parliamentary sketch-writer Matthew Parris, a gay former aide to Margaret Thatcher, wrote in a London Times op-ed entitled "Sweep out religious superstition which will not tolerate me":

I think Signor Buttiglione has indeed been the victim of anti-Christian discrimination, and that such discrimination is now in order. . . . Catholic, evangelical Christian, Orthodox Judaic and Muslim teaching on homosexuality and divorce; much Muslim practice as to the status of women; some Hindu teaching on caste; and Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion are unacceptable and insulting, not only to me but also to the majority of Europeans, and the overwhelming majority of educated Europeans.

I do not shrink from according special status to the educated, for they lead thought.

(So much for Parris's opposition to Hindu teaching on caste.)

Britain's Guardian hailed "the genuine birth of parliamentary democracy and sovereignty in the EU." Others cheered the coming-together of transnational political parties. It is understandable why European observers might extrapolate from their own national constitutional histories--in which parliamentary sovereignties were generally wrung out of reluctant executives--and make such claims about what happened in Strasbourg last week. But there's a difference.

The parliamentary turning points in the past came to people who had no representation. This turning point is coming at the expense of representation that citizens (regardless of their feelings on pan-European cooperation) tell pollsters they're quite content with.

But here is the most important difference between the Buttiglione affair and earlier "constitutional moments": This one has locked the E.U.'s parliament into an adversarial relationship with the religious feelings of the people it claims to represent. Suddenly the Catholic church in Europe has no more clout than any other pressure group. What are ACT-UP and the Pope? Two lobbies. Will those citizens who have been promised a referendum on the E.U.'s just-written constitution be happy with this new dispensation?

The rejection of Buttiglione is indeed a smashing victory for the apostles of democracy European-style. In another few months, it will be possible to tell whether or not it is a victory that Europe can afford.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.