The faithful are being nudged towards a ‘Remain’ vote not only by England’s cardinals but also by the Pope. But how many Catholics will take their advice?

On June 23, Catholics in England and Wales will be confronted by the same question as everyone else: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

We are given only two possible answers – “Remain” or “Leave”. The Church is not officially taking sides and therefore we are free to choose.

But that word “officially” is crucial. Both Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor have endorsed a vote to Remain. These are their personal convictions, they have stressed.

They have not, however, kept these personal views private – unlike the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who probably also supports staying in the EU but who has not jeopardised his authority by saying so.

Anglicans and Catholics therefore find themselves in different situations. The former will arrive at the polling booth unencumbered by advice from their spiritual leader. The latter, in contrast, are being nudged towards a “Remain” vote not only by Their Eminences but also by the Pope.

Last Friday, Pope Francis received the Charlemagne Prize for services to European integration. The prize is awarded by the city of Aachen in the Rhineland, which Charlemagne chose as his capital and which, under the name of Aix-la-Chappelle, was for centuries a direct vassal of the Holy Roman Empire.

Last week it could have been mistaken for a direct vassal of the European Union. The awards ceremony, held in the Vatican, was addressed by Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council.

They must have been pleased to hear Francis identify Brussels with “the soul of Europe”. On immigration, the Pope brushed aside the fears of Eurosceptics and even the anxieties of pro-EU national politicians. Tighter border controls were a manifestation of “meanness”, serving “our own selfish interests”. It’s not hard to work out where the Holy Father’s sympathies lie in the British referendum. The Vatican’s “foreign minister”, the Liverpool-born Archbishop Paul Gallagher, has said bluntly: “Better in than out.”

Catholic Eurosceptics are not pleased by this collective nudging. And the fact that it is unofficial does nothing to placate them.

Why, they ask, did Cardinal Nichols insist that leaving the European Union “would create more complex problems” than staying in when his own Bishops’ Conference did not encourage a vote in either direction? Why has his predecessor twice come out of retirement to support the EU, first in an interview with an Italian Catholic news agency and just last week in the Spectator?

There is no single answer. Rather, a number of strands of thinking have produced a mindset every bit as inflexible as that of the Guardian’s favourite stereotype, the blazer-clad Kipper spouting rancid xenophobia in a saloon bar.

The most intellectually respectable of these strands leads back to the European Coal and Steel Community, formed after the Second World War by Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer and Alcide De Gasperi. Of these, only Monnet – the French political economist who became the community’s first president – was not a conspicuously devout Catholic. (His private life was complicated: he was married to a woman who left her husband for him and had to travel to Moscow to obtain a divorce; the Monnets could not have a Catholic wedding until the first husband was dead, by which time Jean was 85. The ceremony took place in the basilica at Lourdes.)

Schuman, twice prime minister of France, and De Gasperi, eight times prime minister of Italy and founder of the Christian Democrats, were men of such personal holiness that there have been calls to canonise them. Adenauer, the scheming first Chancellor of West Germany, is not a candidate for sainthood – but he was a trenchantly Catholic statesman during a political career lasting 60 years.

For Schuman, Adenauer and De Gasperi, the European Economic Community was fundamentally a Catholic project with roots that – in their imaginations, at least – could be traced back to Charlemagne.

Protestant Britons smelled a rat. They portrayed the new alliance as an attempt to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire. There was a grain of truth in this charge – though this “imperial” realm was little more than a patchwork of quarrelsome German principalities. To quote Voltaire, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

Likewise, there was always an element of fantasy in the goal of “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, first set out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. But the Catholic inspiration for the EEC, left unstated in treaties, was anything but frivolous.

In 2008 the Catholic historian Alan Fimister published a book arguing that Schuman’s plans for Europe were “to a remarkable degree, the conscious implementation of the Neo-Thomistic project of Pope Leo XIII”.

Schuman, De Gasperi and Adenauer all believed that the answer to totalitarian ideologies lay in Leo’s vision of the restoration of “the principles of the Christian life in civil and domestic society”.

But Schuman went further: he subscribed to the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain’s notion of supranational democracy as the foundation for a new Christendom. “He held fast to the magisterium’s demand that the final destination of Catholic political action must be the recognition by the civil order of the truth of the Faith,” writes Fimister.

And how was this to be achieved? By the voluntary submission of non-Catholic Europeans to the spiritual authority of Rome.

Pope Francis invoked Schuman when he received his Charlemagne speech. But one wonders whether he and other champions of European union fully understand the uncompromising nature of Schuman’s commitment to Catholic civil order.

There is certainly little trace of it in Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s Spectator article, which sets out a less ambitious vision of Catholic Europe.

The cardinal wants the EU to stay open to  “the transcendent dimension of life” and its own “humanistic spirit”. He does not, however, define transcendence or humanism, concepts that had an exclusively Catholic meaning for Schuman. This lack of clarity is made worse by the platitudinous assertion that “all authentic unity draws from the rich diversities which make it up”.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor is more convincing when he writes that he feels “close to Europe because I lived for many years in Italy and, as a bishop, I have been in touch with fellow bishops from all the European continent on a regular basis”.

The genial cardinal is popular in the Vatican; more than any other English cleric, he embodies Romanitas, the Roman way of doing things. If you want an audience with the Pope, or a recommendation for a trattoria in the Borgo Pio, ask the retired Archbishop of Westminster. His affection for the EU is an extension of this Romanitas.

Cardinal Nichols is also fervently pro-EU, but his support for it has a less Roman flavour. He is, as I remember from his days as general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference, a man who works through committees and relishes bureaucratic procedure.

His politics bear the stamp of his Liverpudlian upbringing. He favours public expenditure over private enterprise; his speeches employ the vocabulary of the state sector. It’s hard to think of a bishop less in sympathy with Eton-educated Catholic Tory Brexiteers such as Charles Moore and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

The Nichols philosophy embraces the dirigism of Brussels; in this he is typical of the moderate British Left, which changed its mind about the Common Market after Jacques Delors persuaded it that Europe was an indispensable ally against “free-market fundamentalism”.

One suspects that Cardinal Nichols would admire the modus operandi of the European Union even if it had no association with the Church. The same could be said of many bishops of England and Wales.

But not, perhaps, all of them. The failure of the Bishops’ Conference to recommend a “Remain” vote is a mystery. Until recently its stance was ultra-Europhile. Did one or two bishops refuse to back such a recommendation because they are sympathetic to the arguments for leaving?

It’s a possibility. Interestingly, some of Cardinal Nichols’s own clergy in Westminster are pro-Brexit. They include one well-known priest who believes that Brussels – which has just granted visa-free visiting rights to 75 million Turks, preparing the ground for Turkish membership of the EU – is dismantling what remains of Christendom.

Might Robert Schuman have shared this priest’s view that the 21st-century European Union is more an enemy of the Church than its friend? Unsurprisingly, no one considered this possibility on Monday, which was marked across the EU as “Schuman Day”.

But there are clues in an interview Alan Fimister, now a professor of theology and Church history at St John Vianney Seminary in Denver, gave to mark the publication of his book. Schuman “would have been appalled by the culture of death” embraced by pro-abortion European politicians and officials, he said. The “creeping dictatorship of relativism” emanating from Brussels is a corruption of his vision.

Obviously we don’t know whether Schuman would have disowned a swollen, secularised EU in its current form. But Fimister believes that those European Catholics who share the founder’s views have done just that.

As he told the Catholic Herald in March, “orthodox Catholics across the EU … are overwhelmingly negative about the European Union, and not just for reactionary reasons. They’re negative because they just see it as part of the general secularising trend.”

Cardinals Nichols and Murphy-O’Connor would no doubt challenge Fimister’s use of the word “orthodox”: they might say he is referring to a particular brand of conservative Catholic.

But, even if we are talking only about theological conservatives, Fimister’s point surely holds. The ranks of prominent Brexit supporters contain a surprising number of practising Catholics for whom the contemporary EU is an obstacle to the revival of Europe’s Catholic identity. These views are ignored by the Church hierarchy, from the Holy Father downwards. So, for that matter, are the opinions of less polemical Catholic voters who see the referendum question as essentially political and want to quit the EU for reasons that have little to do with their faith.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor and – more sotto voce – Cardinal Nichols think the decision does have religious implications. Both men associate our EU membership with “welcoming migrants”, though neither seems prepared to debate the effects on society of uncontrollably shifting demography.

Some Catholics feel the English cardinals’ personal interventions are inappropriate. There has been no great fuss, however, because they are unlikely to affect the outcome of the referendum.

In the end, their arguments are not persuasive. This is partly because they are only half formed and partly because they do not really harmonise: Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s post-conciliar Romanitas and Cardinal Nichols’s 1980s-style defence of the bureaucratic status quo reflect their different ages and backgrounds.

That would not be a problem for them if Catholic enthusiasm for Brussels still had its traditional taken-for-granted quality. But today Schuman’s utopian project seems outmoded, almost quaint, in an age when globalisation is pulling apart every stitch of the social fabric once known as Christendom.

One result of these changes is that, to put it bluntly, the opinions of Catholic clergy carry no weight with the public. And another is that, despite the award of the Charlemagne Prize to the successor of Peter, the strands of thinking that once attached Catholic Europe to the European Union are unravelling. Whichever way we vote, they will continue to do so after June 23.

Damian Thompson is associate editor of The Spectator and editorial director of the Catholic Herald.

This article first appeared in the May 13 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.