Former Taoiseach John Bruton urges religious believers to fight for their values in the EU

Press release by The Iona Institute  

November 16, 2009   

Former Taoiseach John Bruton urges religious believers to fight for their values in the EU

In a speech to be jointly hosted tonight by the quarterly review, Studies, and The Iona Institute, former Taoiseach and EU ambassador in Washington, John Bruton, argues that the best way for Christians and other religious believers to influence EU policy is by “getting involved on a day to day with its work” and that “opting out in an effort to recreate a romanticised past would lead nowhere.”

In his talk Mr Bruton rejects models of secularism that say there should be no relationship between the Churches and the European Union. He says that the newly ratified Lisbon treaty expressly calls for formal structures of dialogue between the European Union and the Churches and that it would not do this unless it believed that such dialogue was justifiable.

He rejects the view that Europe is becoming a “cold place” for Christians and argues that this can only happen if religious believers “refuse to engage with the EU, either because they would prefer if the EU did not exist at all, or because they find it more comfortable to retreat behind a barrier created by exclusive ethnic nationalism.”

Mr Bruton commends one of the core document of the European People’s Party (EPP), ‘A Union of Values’, for its commitment to Christian Democracy including the right to life from conception to natural death. (Fine Gael is a member of the EPP).

He also praises the Catholic Church in Europe for its support of the EU and concludes that “people of faith have made the EU what it is today.”

(Speech in full follows).  

Notes to Editors


  1. John Bruton will be delivering his address in the Alexander Hotel, Dublin 2, at 8pm tonight. The event is open to the public and admission is free.
  2. The Iona Institute promotes marriage and religion in society.
  3. Studies is published quarterly by the Jesuits. The editor of Studies is Fr Fergus O’Donoghue. 

Contact details:

David Quinn, Director of The Iona Institute: 087 982 9910

Phone: 01 6619 204           Email:               Website:



Speech for Iona Institute and Studies quarterly review by John Bruton, on 16th November in the Alexander HotelDublin 2, at 8 pm  

In this speech, I would like, as a practising Catholic who has been involved in politics, to address the relationship that should exist between the Christian churches of Europe and the European Union. 

My basic thesis is that the European  Union is open to be influenced by people of faith; that getting involved on a day to  day basis with its work is the  best way to promote  Christian values; and that opting out in an effort to recreate a romanticised past would lead nowhere. Essentially, just as one fights one’s corner on the Irish political scene on a daily basis, one should do the same in the European Union. 

What should the relationship be between the churches and the European Union? 

Secularists might  claim that there should be no such relationship, that  the European Union  is a political  institution  for  all the people and that, as such, it should operate in  a separate sphere from churches, who should  neither  influence, nor be influenced by , political institutions which should remain  strictly secular both in their  form and in the  influences brought to bear upon  them.

I believe this secularist view is naive in its understanding of human nature. Voters do not divide their minds up into watertight compartments ,marked “religious”, “political,” ”personal,” family” and so forth. What goes on in one part of their mind influences what goes on in the other.

Furthermore, no one will, I believe, deny that ethical beliefs can, and should,  influence the  actions of political institutions  whether at  national, local or  European level.  It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to separate ethical beliefs from the religious source from which many people’s ethics spring.  

That is  not to say that  people with no  religious belief  have no  ethical beliefs, of  course they do, often very strong and  considered ones, but it is to  say that those who  have religious beliefs draw heavily on their  religious heritage and practice in  formulating, and  more importantly in  holding themselves  accountable, for  how they follow their  ethical beliefs. 

Humans are social beings. They do not live atomised lives as sole individuals. They live in society, in multiple overlapping communities of families, of neighbourhoods, of workplaces, political parties, nations, sports clubs, and for many….in the community of a church.  The ethos of society is formed, in varying degrees, in all of these communities. And without a shared ethos, it is very difficult for a society to function. Laws are obeyed  not only out of  fear of  retribution but  just as importantly out of a sense of a  shared  ethos, an  ethos  that forms a basis  for trust, an ethos that thus  makes   government and governance possible. 

Therefore I suggest that as long as religious belief exists, and there is every reason to believe it will always exist,  a secularist notion that  religion and politics should be  kept entirely separate is simply unrealistic, even  naive. And naive beliefs pursued relentlessly, as they often are, lead toward   either tyrranny or the breakdown of the pluralism that is required for  democracy to  function. 

 Of course, secularism did not appear out of thin air. It was a reaction to  an excessive  and immoderate intertwining of religion and politics in the past, but secularists should now beware of  committing the same  errors of immoderation, of the  sort they  justly condemn in churches  in  the  past,  in  pursuit of their own cause today. 

 For example, to seek to use the power of the state to remove every symbol  or sign of  religious belief from the public  space  would be  just as immoderate as were past efforts  to harness the powers of the state to  push one religion on people. 

It is worth recalling too that the European Convention on Human Rights, agreed  to in 1949 before the EU came into existence, guarantees to every European the right , in its words, to

 “manifest his religion, with others in public or private , in teaching, practice , worship and observance”.

This right is not subordinate to other rights in the Convention. The Convention must be read as a whole. And the EU submits itself to the whole Convention, including to this article about how people may exercise their religious freedom

I hope I have  shown that it is not possible entirely to separate  the religion practised by a  significant body  of its  members or citizens  from any political entity such as the European Union, or vice versa. 

 But there are clear distinctions of function which must be respected, as the  Lisbon Treaty puts it, the Union  “respects and does not prejudice  the status under national law of churches”  and “shall maintain open, transparent and regular dialogue  with these  churches”. 

 Now that the Lisbon Treaty is finally passed, that dialogue  is  formally  required of the Union  under its Treaties  and  such  dialogue would only make sense, and the Union would only have committed itself to it in the  most solemn  way possible, if the European Union was serious about being open  to be influenced by the churches .What  other purpose would  the Treaty required  dialogue have? 

 Equally churches have an obligation to respect duly constituted political institutions exercising their proper  functions. 

The Catholic Bishops of the European Union put it very well in their  document on  “The Evolution of the European Union and the Responsibility of Catholics” when they said

     “  It is not, of course, a matter of wishing for the confessionalisation of institutions ,nor  to regard political institutions as sacred, but of measuring  how the Social Doctrine of the Church can assist both discernment and commitment on the part of citizens of the EU.” 

Discernment and commitment are key words here. Indeed they are what is required of active citizens in any state or association of states, like the  EU.  

Churches do not take over the role of a state, or of its citizens, but they can help them discern what to do ,and  have  the  patient commitment to carry it  through 

 Or as Pope Benedict put it in his latest Encyclical,”Caritas in Veritate” 

 “The Church does not have technical  solutions to  offer and does not  claim to interfere in any way in the politics of states .She does ,however, have a mission of truth to accomplish in every time and circumstance” 

I believe that the Catholic Church has been very helpful in this role from the very beginning of the formation of the European Union.  Recently the Catholic Bishops of the EU identified the core motivation of the Schumann Declaration, the declaration on 9 May 1950 of the French  Foreign Minister which led to the  setting up of the European  Union ,as 

”essentially an appeal for mutual forgiveness”, 

 and as such a profoundly Christian act, a Christian  duty too ,but one too often neglected in relations  between states and nations. It is all to easy  to get support for demands for apologies for this or that  historical wrong committed against ones nation, but rarely  does one  hear calls  for full and final forgiveness to be  granted. That is the unique element in the EU that the  Bishops identified, it  was an  act of mutual forgiveness between  the European nations who adhered to it, a point  that seems lost on some nowadays . 

 The Catholic Bishops of the EU also identified the EU as being driven by an impulse of solidarity, solidarity between European states and between  the people of Europe, a solidarity not confined  within national frontiers.

What does solidarity mean? 

As the Pope puts it in the Encyclical, 

“Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function. And today it is this trust that has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a great loss” 

This is a very important insight. All markets depend on trust. Without trust, we would find ourselves spending so much on lawyers to check one another out, that trading with one another would become incredibly expensive. 

 But where does trust come from? It comes from a shared ethos or belief system.  And where, for many people, does their ethos come from?  To a significant degree, it comes from religious beliefs. 

 A number of economists are coming around to this view on the importance of trust to the functioning of markets too. National, European and international Regulations alone cannot create the degree of trust and confidence necessary for markets to function properly. There has to be trust too. Ask business people about doing business in China today and they will tell you about great opportunities there that are severely mitigated by symptoms of lack of trust ,like corruption and intellectual property theft. 

 This underlines the importance of what the Pope says about  solidarity and trust being  necessary to  the proper  functioning of markets. Even in the narrowest economistic sense, his words make sense. They illustrates in a very real modern way what a shared  religious heritage, and its consequential shared   ethos, could contribute to Europe’s success. 

To summarize my argument so far, this is what the Catholic Church can  contribute to  the process of building the European Union, 

      an understanding  of the project’s  moral and spiritual roots , 

      an insight on the need for the mutual trust necessary  to build a  common market, 

     the patience and  wisdom  that comes from being a  2000 year old institution    and 

     a perspective on our responsibility  towards future  generations  yet unborn. 

But is Europe prepared to listen? 

 Is Europe a cold place for Christians?  An unsympathetic bureaucratic  structure driven  by politically correct ideas  of rights  that leave little  space for the transcendental, or  that prioritizes rights arbitrarily ?

 I believe it is none of those things and I will  show  why I believe that ,but, of course, it could become so, if people with other views  refuse to engage with the EU, either  because they would prefer the  EU did not  exist at all ,or because they find it more comfortable to retreat behind  retreat behind a barrier created by exclusive ethnic nationalism. 

 The Catholic Bishops of the European Union counsel against that approach, citing the story of the Good Samaritan who  did not  turn away from a injured man because  he was  of a different nation.  They call for a compassion that transcends all frontiers.  That is the course that Irish people of faith should now take. A path of full engagement with the institutions of the European  Union. 

If Irish people of faith take that course they will find that they are not alone.  Let me cite the example of the biggest party in the European Parliament, the European Peoples Party.  It basic programme, the 1992 Athens Programme on their website currently, contains the following statement…….  

Many citizens, whether adhering to a religion or Church or not, are willing to collaborate, to be committed and to demonstrate solidarity. Christian Democracy, on the basis of its political tradition, seeks to appeal to what is “best”, to the “constructive” aspect which exists in each human individual, and to give contemporary expression to the ideals of social Christian personalism. 

I will quote  further from this programme, and from the EPP’s more recent Berlin ” Union of Values”  document , not to make a party political point, but to illustrate the extent to which the teachings of the church  have  entered  into political discourse about  basic values in the European Union. The words I have just quoted would not be out of place in a Papal Encyclical

Other paragraphs show how church thinking influences political  thinking on issues  such as  the right to life and the essential  dignity of  each person. Of  course it is possible  to  agree  with these values without  belonging to any  religion, but it is a  fact that these values are  also  central to the  beliefs of Catholics 

In the Athens Programme, the EPP says 

103. Each human being within society depends on others. Because they are free, responsible and interdependent, people must take part in the construction of society. For many of us, what lies behind this commitment is the belief that we are called on to contribute to God’s work of creation and freedom.

 There is also a  close concordance on matters such as subsidiarity, the relationship between  church and  state, and the need  for political parties to  remain  true to their basic  values. I quote three more paragraphs from the Athens programme to illustrate the point.

” On the basis of these values, the Christian Democratic vision of society is based on the principle of subsidiarity

…we reaffirm the link that exists between, on the one hand, Christian values based on the Gospel and Christian cultural heritage and, on the other hand, the democratic ideals of freedom, fundamental equality between men, social justice and solidarity. 

 If it rejects, forgets, neglects or dilutes its values, the European People’s Party will be no more than an instrument of power, without soul or future,….”

The Berlin Programme says

            ”Every person counts. The future development of the Union must have at its core the dignity of the human person. “ …….

          ”The EPP follows the principle of the protection and promotion of human dignity and consequently, respects the right to life and the uniqueness of every human being from the moment of conception to death”……” 

          ”the dignity of the human person implies that science is subservient to the human person and the human person is not subservient to science”….. 

         “The EPP refuses to concede that that abortion is a “solution” to the problem of  unwanted pregnancies” 

 That is what the EU’s biggest political party has to say political party says.  It shows that those who are anxious to promote their religious and social values   within the EU will have  much to work  with, and  many potential allies, in the political sphere. That does not guarantee success, of course, but it is a start. 

What about the basic documents of the EU itself?  Do they provide a basis for engagement with the EU? 

  The Charter of  Fundamental Rights, which  binds  the EU institutions  in  regard to  what  they may and may not do in  their own  sphere of work but does not interfere with the laws of  member states in their proper sphere, says .

     ” Article 1. Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected  

        Article 2. Everyone has the right to life. No one shall be condemned to the death penalty, or executed” 

From a pro life perspective, the reference to human  dignity is important  because  a human  embryo is human and  no one  can deny that, as is  clearly the  view of  the EU,s largest political party in the passages  I quoted earlier.. 

Of course, these concepts will not be automatically reflected in what either the EPP does, or in the EU itself does. Nothing is automatic in politics. Everything requires effort, and vigilance. 

 Making sure that political parties and political institutions live up to the ideals  they proclaim  is most likely to  happen if  citizens stay active and informed and engage constantly  with the EU on an ongoing and constructive  basis, rather  than sitting  back  and waiting to find  fault when there is a  crisis, or when  a referendum is there to be defeated. 

 That is how active EU citizens can get involved. 

 They can scrutinize EU Commission Green and White papers on proposed legislation (usually available on the Commission website long before anything concrete emerges). 

They can provide research to the members of the Dail to help them use fully the new powers they will get under the Lisbon Treaty to head off undesirable proposals that breach the principles of subsidiarity or proportionality.

They can make representations to the Government to appoint Judges to the  European Court of Justice of the EU in Luxembourg, and to the European Court of Human Rights of the Council or Europe in Strasbourg,  who respect the values  I have  cited from  EU documents 

It is important to recognise, in passing , that the judges of the Strasbourg Court have  to win the  approval of the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, on  which a number of members of the Dail and Senate  sit and  vote. In the United States  judicial  appointments  get a lot of scrutiny  from  elected representatives, and a  similar  facility is  available to  the   Consultative Assembly if they  wish to  use it. 

The European Union is work in progress.  It always will be. It is a human institution, with all the frailties that that implies. It is fragile. It depends for its continued existence on freely given consent by all its members. 

 But its weakness is its strength. It is partly because it is a voluntary Union, which states know they are free to leave, that there is  such a long line of  states trying to  join. 

 The other great Union of states, the United States of America in which I lived for the last five years, is much stronger than the European Union.  No one  can  deny that. But once a state is in the United States, it cannot leave. That was put beyond argument in 1865.  But there is no line of American states waiting to join theUnited States, as there are European states lining up to join the  European Union. Even Puerto Rico is unclear if it wants to become a US state, while the European Union’s problem is  one of  controlling the  impatient queue. That is something that critics of the EU should reflect upon. 

Before I conclude, I would like to say something about the contribution the European Union can make to solving a problem referred to by the Pope in his recent Encyclical “Caritas in Veritate”. 

Speaking of the world economy, he said 

“The principal new feature has been the explosion of worldwide interdependence, commonly known as globalisation” 

He went on to say that, without the guidance of charity in truth, globalisation could cause unprecedented damage and cause new divisions in the human  family. 

I believe that the EU provides a unique model of voluntary pooling of  sovereignty  between  states, guided  democratically  by a directly  elected European Parliament ,  that may help states in  other parts of the world  to  ensure that  globalisation is guided by charity in truth. Imagine, for example,  how much more difficult it would be to reach a climate deal if the EU did not exist and  the 27 member states were all negotiating separately. 

To sum up, people of faith have made the EU what it is today. It reflects their values. But it is a human instrument, and subject to human weaknesses. That is why people should involve themselves with it  in a  critical but supportive way