Bobby McDonagh / Jun 2021
Pope Francis recently launched one of the “fathers of Europe”, Robert Schuman, on the long path towards possible beatification and canonization.
The prospect is almost too delicious for words. If, one day, the canonization process comes to fruition, Brexiteer Catholics - the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith - will join in the invocation at mass of “all the saints in heaven”, including the man who inspired the creation of the European Union. As soon as Schuman is beatified, the first step in the process, Boris Johnson will be able to make a modest addition to his bedtime prayers: “Blessed Robert Schuman, pray for us”. You would have to have undergone a sense of humour bypass not to chuckle at such a prospect so devoutly to be wished.
Nevertheless, I have mixed feelings about the Vatican’s recent initiative. Two aspects of it make me hesitate.
First, I confess, even as a Catholic, that sainthood isn’t exactly my thing. What is important, it seems to me, is not the placing of a small number of people with shiny halos on distant pedestals, however admirable and exceptional those people may have been. Rather what truly matters is recognizing the potential for goodness in every person, honouring the fundamental decency of ordinary lives, which has been particularly evident during COVID, and celebrating “the crooked timber of humanity” in all its potential and imperfection. The “sinners” matter more than the “saints”. For me, the doubt of Graham Greene speaks more eloquently than the certainty of sainthood sought by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
Second, I would be very reluctant to see the EU associated with any particular religion or denomination. Adding “God” to the treaties, as some have argued, would not make the European Union any more worthy or indeed respectful of faith. Likewise, explicit formal references to the Union’s Christian origins or nature would not validate such a nature any more than the inclusion of the phrase “In God We Trust” on every US dollar bill validates a capitalist interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. We should rather celebrate the diversity of the European Union, which is its greatest strength, a Union that embraces and is inspired by people of every faith and none.
At the same time, there are also two positive aspects of the Vatican’s somewhat surprising recognition of Robert Schuman in the context of his possible sainthood.
First, the initiative represents a clear and appropriate endorsement of the European Union. It acknowledges the success of Robert Schuman and his contemporaries in sowing the seeds of unity “among peoples long divided by bloody conflict”, as the Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community put it, despite what must have seemed very long odds at the time and notwithstanding the bitter weight of history. Pope Francis’s recent step recognizes the fundamentally moral purpose of the EU and the unique and immensely important contribution it makes, despite its many faults, to peace, stability and respectful relations between nations. It celebrates the EU’s vital global leadership role in support of democracy, decency and the rule of law. It echoes the fitting award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union in 2012.
One of the requirements of canonization is, I understand, proof of miracles. Whether Robert Schuman can personally be credited with any miracles, in the strict sense required by Catholic theologians, is well beyond my paygrade. It seems to me a longshot. But in the colloquial sense, the EU’s unique treaties and institutions seem pretty miraculous. National interests are respected and enriched by a shared European interest. National sovereignty is enhanced by shared sovereignty in specific and agreed areas. Complex and imperfect decision-making procedures achieve a necessarily awkward balance between effectiveness and respect for different points of view. Inevitable, and sometimes profound, differences between twenty-seven independent democratic countries are resolved through an ethos of respect and accommodation without parallel in the relations between free democratic countries anywhere in the world or at any time in history.
The European Union, to say the least, is itself no saint. Often indeed it is more of a sinner than a saint. It is flawed, as are all human institutions. It doesn’t buy into the populist philosophy now in vogue that there are simple answers to complex problems; it offers no panaceas. It promises no paradise in which national and human motivation will become splendidly altruistic or in which differences can be magicked away. Rather it has created remarkable structures – flawed, fallible but the finest known to man - through which the difficulties and differences that inevitably arise between nations can be resolved and through which their shared values can be pursued.
However, even if there is an apparent contradiction between the European Union’s imperfections and idea that one of its principal architects was a saint, there is another positive aspect of the Vatican’s recent initiative. It puts the kibosh on the hostility towards the European Union manufactured by the cheerleaders of Brexit and their sometimes shameful criticism of it. It has the added bonus that it will get under the skin of some who, when it comes to Europe, apparently see no connection between being a Catholic and being truthful.