NEWS

EU Constitution to include God, whether named or not

PARIS – The European Union’s planned constitution looks set to give churches and religious groups a boost even if it does not mention Christianity’s place in the continent’s heritage in its disputed preamble. Public debate about God and man in the constitution, due to be adopted by an EU summit later this week, has focused on attempts by traditionally Catholic countries to have a clear reference to Christianity in the opening section. But Christian churches in Europe consider Article 51 deep inside the document’s text to be far more important because it gives EU recognition to their legal status in member states and commits Brussels to holding a regular dialogue with them. «Having Christianity mentioned in the preamble was not the main issue. Article 51 is the central point for us,» said Peter Pavlovic of the Conference of European Churches, an umbrella group for 126 Protestant and Orthodox churches. John Coughlan, Brussels spokesman for Roman Catholic bishops’ conferences, said a dispute over the preamble in recent months gave the false impression the churches would lose if Christianity were not mentioned high up. «It’s difficult to explain that, in reality, what you have is not so bad,» he said. The preamble dispute began when its first draft mentioned Europe’s roots in ancient Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment but omitted Christianity, a dominant influence for much of Europe’s history but now strongly challenged by secularism. This provoked protests from the Vatican and moved traditionally Catholic Italy, Spain, Portugal and Poland to demand a clear mention of Europe’s Christian heritage. Secular states such as France promptly expressed total opposition to it. Article 51 raised fewer hackles because its first two paragraphs on respecting the legal status of churches and «philosophical and non-confessional organizations» in member states simply repeated an annex to the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. Its third paragraph adds that the EU recognizes the contributions churches and faith-based groups make to society and says, «The Union shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with these churches and organizations.» Mentioning all this in the text makes the churches’ status legally enforceable and makes official the informal dialogue that Brussels has had with different churches for years. This promise of a dialogue is the same as one contained in Article 46 for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other groups recognized as legitimate voices of civil society. Some delegates at the constitutional convention, especially from Belgium and France, expressed concern that religious sects could demand to be part of the proposed dialogue with churches. But the drafting commission said the EU would deal only with churches recognized in member countries, a decision that could, for example, bar the Church of Scientology since several European states have refused to register it as a church. Secular movements charge the dialogue could give the Vatican a lever to impose what they call its «reactionary social views.» Coughlan dismissed that as «scaremongering» since the dialogue would also be open to non-religious groups. Christian churches were most active in lobbying for Article 51 but Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, said European Jewish groups shared «the reaction of the other main religions in Europe on this issue.»