LAST MONDAY was the feast in the Church’s calendar of St John Paul II. Although it is now thirteen years since he died he was pope for such a large period of the lives of many of us that it’s easy to feel as if his teaching is still contemporary and addressing the Church’s concerns now – even though much of that teaching was prompted by major world events and movements.
Many of you were involved in the March for a People’s Vote in central London last weekend and shared your experiences on social media, along with many others of the estimated 700,000 who took part. In the very passionate debate going on about the process of taking this country out of the European Union, it’s essential to remember that for faithful Catholics the issue is primarily theological. St John Paul II, together with his predecessors and successors as popes, is one of the main reasons why this is so. In the Catholic Church, our whole tradition of teaching about morality includes what we call Catholic Social Teaching. Whenever our bishops in this country give you guidance as part of their job before general elections they draw on this increasingly important body of teaching. Social teaching includes very clear attention to international relations, and John Paul II, building on the teachings of St John XXIII and St Paul VI, repeatedly called for countries to turn away from narrow self interest and work together in co-operation and solidarity for the common good of the wider community.
Just as Pope John called for a ‘true world political authority’, so too did John Paul, in an important letter in 1987 known as Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. The pope wrote: ‘Solidarity…is the path to peace and at the same time to development. For world peace is inconceivable unless the world’s leaders come to recognise that interdependence in itself demands the abandonment of the politics of blocs, the sacrifice of all forms of economic, military or political imperialism, and transformation of mutual distrust into collaboration’. (section 39). For nations to work together in solidarity is not simply a good idea for the sake of peace – it’s a moral imperative. Elsewhere John Paul categorically welcomed paths being undertaken towards greater political unity in Europe (e.g. his document from 1999 on the patron saints of Europe).
This is why in a speech given just before the EU referendum in 2016, Pope Francis paid tribute to the Catholic vision of the founders of the modern European project such as Schuman and Adenauer. This is not the Church playing politics – it’s moral teaching, it’s theology. In the letter I quoted above John Paul reminds us that the unity of the human family about which the Church teaches is modelled on what we believe about God the Trinity. We’re called to reflect the nature of God, the God of love, in the way we act in the world – and that applies to nations just as much as to individual human beings. Nations are not free to be selfish, to put themselves first.
Another reason why Catholics are at odds with what is happening is to do with the issue of immigration, which so dominated the referendum campaign in 2016. This is what our own bishops wrote after the nations of Eastern Europe joined the EU: ‘In recent times the Catholic Church has been further strengthened with the arrival of migrants from the new Member States of the EU. They have increased both the membership of the Church and challenged it to new forms of solidarity and communion. Catholic migrants new and old have brought to Britain symbols, practices and devotions that add visible substance to the Church’s catholicity. Migrants are a sign of the Church’s openness to and inclusiveness of all peoples and cultures.’ In other words, migration – used in such a nasty way in the campaign two years ago – is for us a blessing, enriching and expanding our communities and deepening our understand-ing of what it means to be the Church. So for us, to leave the Single Market, founded on the principle of free movement, is nothing but a curse; and Catholics, with others, should be campaigning to try and stop this happening. The vote really was, and is, an attack on our people.
Those who claim that the Church shouldn’t get involved in this have a diminished idea of religious faith. You’re giving in to secularism: you’re agreeing with atheists and humanists who want to push religion out of everyday life, out of the public sphere. Theology isn’t simply for theologians and clergy: it’s for all of us. It’s about God and his place in our lives. We have an opportunity now to deepen our witness to Catholic teaching in all its fullness.