Britain’s departure from the European Union may not mean the end of the EU, but it does mean the end of the EU as the way we, in the UK, perceive our relationship with ‘Europe’. It means that we need to engage with our neighbours in a way not mediated by EU institutions. It is striking how people have been talking about ‘Europe’ as though that simply meant the EU, and how the issue of human rights, connected with a treaty and court entirely separate from the EU and covering a wider set of countries, as though it was the same thing. (David Cameron, remember, wanted to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights. He did not want to withdraw from the EU.) The EU had taken over our imaginative understanding of Europe.
The same people wanted to roll up the UK’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland, our bilateral deal with France over the migrant camp in Calais, and even our relationship with the United Nations and the USA as though all these things were just aspects of our relationship with the EU. Perhaps real life is too complicated for political sloganeering.
For better for or for worse, we will be leaving this particular political structure. What is necessary now is to re-imagine the UK in Europe. And that is something for which UK Catholics have a special vocation.
The Catholic genius is a taking seriously the natural world, not as untainted by the Fall but not as evil either. This understanding makes science possible without making science a tyrant. It makes art possible without making art an idol. It gives us an appreciation of nature, without an embrace of paganism. Wherever Catholics are, there is an acceptance of the good things of life and the interesting things of life, the achievements of humanity and the glories of nature, alongside restraint, an openness to criticism, and balance.
It is this that lies at the basis of European culture. For all the triumphs of European Protestant art and science—which as a Briton I certainly cannot ignore—the conceptual framework which makes all of this possible is Catholic, and the degree to which Protestantism has taken things towards a Manichean rejection of matter, or anti-intellectualism, and the degree to which reactions against such tendencies has given us Romantic neo-Paganism, European culture has declined, disintegrated, or simply come to a halt.
This is the grain of truth in Belloc’s bombastic remark, the Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith. And this is the positive thing, along with many negative things, which Europe has bequeathed to the Americas, to Africa, and to Asia: a model of how to work with nature, with natural reason and human desires and strivings, without becoming enslaved by them. This is the European genius, a genius which is at the bottom of much that is good and organic and authentic in a world now more and more dominated by European culture and its Holywood spin-offs.
That is why the Catholic Church does not flatten out local cultures, but enables them to flourish in new ways. The monumental artistic achievement of the Book of Kells expresses native, pre-Christian Irish artistic traditions, but it would never have happened without the Catholic Church. The staggering Latin American Baroque tradition gives expression to the passion, industry, and inventiveness unique to Latin America, but it was made possible by the Catholic Church. The delicacy and compassion of English medieval poetry and our early modern composers is supremely English, and totally Catholic in a way that no other nation’s Catholic art is Catholic. It is an expression of Catholic truth through the English spirit. It is the English spirit at work in the Vineyard of the Lord, alongside the spirit of every other nation, distinct, mutually influential, and harmonious.
It is not just possible for a Catholic from one nation to value and appreciate the culture of another; it is necessary. English Catholic pilgrims to Europe have always marvelled at the glories of Rome and Jerusalem, at Paris and Cologne and Santiago: Saxon Catholics, late Medieval Catholics, 18th century Catholics, and Catholics today do so. Some of these Catholics bring back important cultural ideas from these trips. But they don’t cease to be English, and for their part our continental brothers do not expect us to do so.
Catholic thought not only lies at the centre of what it is to be European, but it gives us a way of appreciating diversity, not of tolerating it but of really valuing other traditions, of making them part of our imaginative worlds without ceasing to be a party to the diversity ourselves: without ceasing to be distinct.
The European Union has a problem with all this because it rejects the Christian roots of Europe. This might seem a superficial thing, but the argument about the wording of the European Constitution and halos on commemorative coins symbolises something deep. The only way our rulers in Brussels and Westminster can imagine maintaining harmony is to destroy diversity, often in the name of diversity. The hysterical persecution of people selling potatoes by the pound or rolling cheeses down hills is part of a mindset which cannot understand how different ways of life can express universal values, because it admits no universal values. Without real, substantive, universal values, there is only uniformity, efficiency, and ‘elf ’n’ safety.
Not through the political machinery of a bureaucratic state or super-state, but through friendship, mutual respect, and re-teaching of the fundamental values of the Christian religion, will Europe be restored.