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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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.