Earlier this week, the Pope sent a message to a conference of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences which was discussing the subject of “Universal Rights in a World of Diversity: the Case of Religious Freedom”. The Pope’s message was one we have heard from him before:
As I have observed on various occasions, the roots of the West’s Christian culture remain deep; it was that culture which gave life and space to religious freedom and continues to nourish the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion … Today these basic human rights are again under threat from attitudes and ideologies which would impede free religious expression. Consequently, the challenge to defend and promote the right to freedom of religion and freedom of worship must be taken up once more in our days.
We can read that in two ways. Most obviously, we can see it as a comment on freedom of religion in general terms and at the global level. But beneath it, surely, lies a more particular meaning: that even here, in Europe, where these things had their origin, “the challenge to defend and promote the right to freedom of religion and freedom of worship must be taken up once more”. Am I being fanciful in giving it that particular meaning? This isn’t meant to be a controversial statement; it’s one of those papal utterances which invites us to tease out its meaning in our own circumstances. And a recent report speaks volumes about what those circumstances, for anyone bringing up children in the EU, actually are. An unnamed Irish priest made a complaint to the EU ombudsman that a diary circulated to thousands of schools around Europe omitted major Christian holidays, even Christmas and Easter, though it made a point of including other religious holidays such as the Jewish and Islamic New Years and the festivals of other religions like Sikhism and Hinduism.
This so-called Europa diary is distributed to more than 3.2 million students in over 21,000 secondary schools in the EU (and how much does that cost?) and is supposed to be a tool for homework and other notes: it looks to me suspiciously like a tool for the ideological presuppositions of those who disseminate it. And incidentally, I see that the EU, at a time when every national government in Europe is making major cuts in their budgets, is insolently demanding that we give them an actual increase, presumably to fund such dubious exercises as this.
The Irish priest who complained to the EU ombudsman demanded that there be an official apology, a recall of copies which had already been distributed and a reprinting of the diary itself. Surprisingly, perhaps, he got his apology and a correction notice was sent out to advise teachers that “some important religious holidays” had been omitted from the diary. There was also also a promise that it wouldn’t occur again. The EU officials responsible said it was a blunder, “a regrettable error”: but it was obviously nothing of the kind. They were trying it on: and if that excellent Irish priest hadn’t complained, they might have got away with it.
The lesson is that we have to keep our eyes on these people. I am not in favour of whinging about the way in which we’re treated: a little mild bloodless persecution of this kind keeps us on our toes. But I do think that we need to fight back against what’s happening: and the first stage in that fightback is to know what’s going on. There’s more than you might think. You might begin by having a look at a report produced by an Austrian-based outfit calling itself the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe (for their website, go here.
The report quotes the excellent Melanie Phillips, who told the Church of England Newspaper that though secularism is often presented as neutral, “to be secular is to embrace certain values and beliefs. Instead of neutrality there is an attempt to get rid of religion and to promote something else instead”. “It has produced,” she said, “a ‘me society’, a society of great selfishness and increasing cruelty and brutality.”
The point is that more is at stake here than a comfortable life for religious people and their practices. The onslaught on religious values has become serious. Take the case (November 2008) of the Spanish judge Fernando Calamita. He was sentenced to 18 years of “occupational ban” (that means he can no longer act in a judicial capacity: this is the end of his legal career) for delaying the adoption of a little girl by the lesbian partner of her mother. He was also fined 18,000 euros. These people mean business.
Read the report. It will make your hair curl. Here is just one of many reports on life in this sceptred isle. Such cases are not necessarily widely reported; had you heard about this one? This is how the report summarises the case:
Home for Retired Missionaries Loses Funding on Gay Issues in Questionnaire
January 2009: Brighton Council requests care home for elderly Christians to ask its residents about their sexual orientation and cuts funding when rejected.
Brighton Council requested the care home for elderly Christians to ask its residents about their sexual orientation four times each year as well as to use images of homosexuals in its promotional literature and show a presentation on gay rights to staff. When this request was rejected, the home lost the funding from the local council ….
Managers at the care home explained that to comply with the demands would unduly distress the elderly residents and undermine the home’s Christian ethos … There was a strong feeling among people in the home that the questions were inappropriate and intrusive. They felt they had come to Pilgrim Homes because of its Christian ethos and were upset they were not protected from such intrusions.”
However, council officials accused the home of “institutionalised homophobia” …. A spokesman for Brighton and Hove Council said: “The Government specifically states the home must be open to the gay and lesbian community and that it must demonstrate this to qualify for funding. In the absence of any willingness to do this, funding has been withdrawn.”
There are very many UK cases as bad as this: this whole process has gone very far indeed. So, what do we do? That’s a genuine question, to which there’s no easy answer. But the first thing we need to do is inform ourselves. There is a major struggle under way: and, as Melanie Phillips says, “there is no neutrality in the culture wars”. Until we are aware that the wars are raging, we will never stir ourselves to make our objections known, and maybe even have them listened to. We don’t have to accept all this with a shrug of the shoulders. Think of that “unnamed Irish cleric” who took on the EU over its wretched “Europa diary”. Another 10,000 or so victories like that and we’d be getting somewhere.