This is an explosive week for the Vatican and Brussels even if neither are normally given to incendiary behaviour. The Pope visited Croatia last weekend and as in the past was less than subtle in his admonitions. He hoped that Croatia would soon complete its EU accession process because the country is after all “at the centre of Europe, Mitteleuropa, not the Balkans” a phrase which was no doubt music to his listeners’ ears but not to the other countries of ex-Yugoslavia. Having said that Croatia deserved Europe, then turned to denigrate Europe as being a centralised bureaucracy and home to “abstract rationalism” which Croatia might soften with its accession.
The two faces of “Europe” Van Rompuy and Ashton do precious little to defend “European values” and in any case it’s probably wise not to pick a fight with the Pope but there is no little irony in dismissing those European values in favour of Christianity, especially from south east Europe.
Christianity is, I think, the only major world religion that explicitly separates church and state with Christ’s response “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, a remark much fought over with words and weapons in western Europe’s middle ages as the popes took on more and more temporal power.
The Protestant Reformation and subsequent wars of religion then laid the bases for modern democracy as we know it. In the 16th century the English fought each other at least partially over religion and half of Europe spent 30 years also fighting at least partially over religion. At the end, implicitly and then explicitly they began to develop the concept of religious toleration. We have to learn to agree to disagree, they reckoned, otherwise we will continue slaughtering each other.
The Enlightenment in France, Scotland, England followed, consolidating tolerance of ideas and behaviour unthinkable under absolutist monarchs and above all absolutist religions which believed they had the monopoly of truth. They created a pluralism which is the basis of what we mean by democracy and “European values”.
Both before his election and since, Benedict has railed against the “relativism” of secular values, the very relativism that allows for religious freedom; he and his predecessor have made it very clear that other Christian denominations, Jews and Muslims are at best misguided and that the Church of Rome still has the only truth even if it is prepared to go on peace marches to Assisi with everyone.
For all its ineptitude in trying to stop the Yugoslav wars, the European institutions took some action – as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the Vatican did nothing even to stop the killing by Catholic Croats in the early ‘90s. Some 800 years ago Venice pressganged a crusading army into besieging the Dalmatian town of Zadar instead of attacking the infidels. Innocent III ordered them not to do it and when they ignored him excommunicated the crusaders and ordered Venice to compensate the Zadar survivors.
More recently, in World War II, Italians were again mistreating Slavs, this time in the concentration camp on the Dalmatian island of Rab. Slovenian and Croatian bishops told the Vatican which intervened on the Fascist government and conditions improved.
Three times in the 20th century there was terrible bloodletting among the south Slavs but instead of using this visit to try and overcome some of that rancour, Benedict visited the tomb of Aloysius Stepinac, the controversial Croatian prelate beatified in 1999. Stepinac was the primate of Croatia during the murderous Croatian fascist Ustaše regime of Ante Pavelić. He described Stepinac as “a defender of life and of the right of man to live with God” .
I found a chilling quote of Stepinac’s eulogising Pavelić and his Ustaše regime “The times are such that it is no longer the tongue which speaks but the blood, through its mysterious union with the earth, in which we have glimpsed the light of God. We are convinced and expect, that the Church in the resurrected state of Croatia will be able to proclaim in complete freedom the uncontestable principles of eternal truth and justice” . This was after Pavelic had issued decrees discriminating against Jews and Serbs.
The Ustaše set up Jasenovac, the extermination camp which was so brutal that Pavelic’s Nazi allies asked him to be more humane. The victims were Serbs, Jews and Roma. This week, there were complaints by holocaust survivors’ associations and the Serbian Church made it clear that it would probably not invite the Pope for the 1,700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan in 2013, the Emperor Constantine’s decree which proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman empire.
It is a different sort of toleration which is being celebrated in Rome tomorrow, but one which is just as much part of Europe’s “abstract rationalism” and “centralised bureaucracy” that Benedict complains about. Lady Gaga is due to close this year’s Europride being held in Rome. Apparently the US ambassador, David Thorn added his weight and indirectly, President Obama’s to support the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement to persuade the Queen of Transgression to appear. Two million spectators are expected for the free concert.
Apart from the music and high camp, there is a letter from LGBT Christians addressed to the Pope asking him to speak out against violence to them, and to deny the biblical injunctions against non-conventional sex. They will also ask him to remove the epithet of “sick” and “needing medical treatment” for homosexuals. In Croatia, the Pope reiterated his belief that marriage (implicitly, religious and Roman Catholic) was the only basis for a family and that living together was not acceptable. A few years ago, the Church was able to block an Italian bill allowing civil unions while the number of religious marriages continues to fall and children born to non-married partners continues to rise.
Rome and Brussels continue to battle over values but this week Rome also has Lady Gaga and not just Joseph Ratzinger. This contrast enhances the best “European (and American) values”, not the “rational abstract” one but the human ones that touch the real lives of real people.