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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Europe’s religion by law

Vatican clout shows
By Sandhya Jain

The European Union appears set to give Christianity a unique statutory status through the political process, notwithstanding a formal separation of Church and State and growing disinterest in organised religion among its Christian populace. The Vatican, owing to its disproportionate influence on the continent, is the driving force behind the move which will benefit all major denominations.

The move has not attracted much notice because the Roman Catholic Church has been part of Europe’s DNA for nearly two millennia, and even today the Pope enjoys an unparalleled position at the high table of world leaders, a distinction denied to leaders of other Christian denominations or sister monothe-isms, e.g. the Grand Mufti of Mecca or Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem.

When Pope Benedict XVI listed re-evangelising of Europe as his principal priority, many thought he wanted Europeans to become more sincere believers. Certainly the Church desires greater presence in the continent’s life and culture, which is why the late John Paul II pleaded for a reference to its Christian heritage in the European Union’s new Constitution. Though supported by the country delegations of Poland, Slovakia, Italy, and Germany, the attempt to overtly privilege one faith was struck down by more adamantly secular nations. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that John Paul II failed to reclaim Europe for the Church. Many Christian writers have noticed that a shared genetic code compels the Church and Europe to salvage each other at critical moments.

The precedent for what is now happening in Europe began in Spain, the land of the shadowy Opus Dei, when the Roman Catholic Church signed a concordat with the dictator, General Franco. The accord entitled the Church to an annual income of Euro 140 million (US $ 190 million) from State coffers, a privilege that endures to this day. Many Spaniards now resent this largesse to the Church.

No European political party has taken up cudgels on behalf of the growing community of nominal Christians and demanded an end to public funding of Christian churches.

However, no European political party has taken up cudgels on behalf of the growing community of nominal Christians and demanded an end to public funding of Christian churches. Taking advantage of this conspiracy of silence, the Vatican is working overtime to consolidate its powers by arriving at Spanish-style concordats with as many countries as possible.

A concordat is a formal agreement between the Pope and a government for the regulation of Church affairs. For the Church it is the proverbial magic lamp, because it is made by Parliament and cannot be unilaterally altered or revoked by either side (certainly the Church has no interest in its cancellation). The churches can thus enrich themselves with State subsidies and other privileges almost eternally, regardless of falling membership, because a concordat makes it impossible for a government to curtail State contribution to the Church kitty!

In Germany, for instance, a deductible ‘Church tax’ brings an annual income of Euro 8 to 9 billion to the principal Catholic and Lutheran churches. As much as three-quarters of this money is spent on Church personnel and bureaucracy. Besides, public funds are spent on providing religious education in State schools, training of priests and theologians at university, pastoral care in the military and prisons, Church broadcasts on public television, and a host of other activities. The Church runs kindergartens, schools, hospitals and old age homes, all from State funds. Few private corporations have access to such a rich resource base.

Understandably, the Catholic and Lutheran churches are literally racing to sign concordats with the country’s 16 States as Church membership declines drastically and dents their claim to be the German people’s Church (volkskirche). Concordats make Church revenues sacrosanct even if the German people cease to be Christian, as shall be discussed. Consider the irony that in Karnataka in India, the state annually appropriates Rs 72 crore of revenue from Hindu temples and diverts Rs 50 crore as Haj subsidy and another Rs 10 crores for maintenance of churches, returning a measly Rs 10 crore for the salaries of Hindu priests plus temple maintenance!

Realising that it is on to a good thing, the Vatican is rushing to sign concordats with as many European countries (and at state and national levels in each country) in order to entrench these privileges in a cast-iron clause called Article 32 of the new European Constitution.

Article 32 states that the European Union will respect “the various forms of relationships between the churches and the States.” Liberal Christian theologians say this means that the concordats will be incorporated into the European Community Law, which will supercede national laws unless opt-out laws already exist as in Slovakia. Once the European Union Constitution is ratified, all forms of relationships between religions and States, i.e. concordats, established churches and State religions, Church taxes and the offence of blasphemy, will constitute Community Law.

Once this happens, repealing a concordat (whether with Bonaparte, Hitler, Franco, Mussolini) will require agreement among all 25 Member States, which is almost impossible as it is like amending the European Constitution. The Vatican has already signed concordats with 14 out of 25 Member States, and most of the other States have established religions. In Britain, the Anglican Church is established by law, though hardly 3 per cent of the population attends Sunday service.

Europe has quietly acknowledged that secularism as an attempt to accommodate all religions in a society without according primacy to any one faith has failed in practice. It remains to be seen if the remedy of putting all issues of faith in the Church basket will succeed.

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