J. Hanvey – Brexit and the Silence of the Church

« Brexit and the silence of the Church »

by James Hanvey

Index – Verzeichnis – Indice – Índice – 指數


To what does silence give consent?

“Fog in the English Channel – Continent Cut Off!” was a headline supposed to have appeared in an English newspaper before the EU project was even imagined.  True or not, it succinctly captures the United Kingdom’s longstanding attitude to Europe now confirmed by Brexit. 

On June 23rd, 2016, by a relatively close margin (52/48%), the UK decided that fog was too contingent a phenomenon to guarantee its separate status and it voted to leave the European Union. The underlying reasons for such a significant vote were complex, but it exposed a whole series of divisions between the constituent nations of the UK and revealed deep fractures that ran between generations, urban and rural cultures, economic and social classes. Promises were made by both sides to be hastily retracted as the adrenaline of the campaign receded and the hang-over of reality set in. The contradictions soon began to appear: Brexit claimed it would liberate the nation(s) from the yoke of Brussels by restoring sovereignty to the British parliament and judiciary, but ended up in a disturbing questioning of both in the name of ‘the will of the people.’ To turn such a convenient ‘popularist’ mantra into a principle that cannot be thwarted threatens the very democracy which its advocates believe it expresses. Experience teaches that every democracy needs balances to ensure that it remains just, accessible and mature, not degrade into a mercurial populist tyranny  masking a self-interested oligarchy.  It is as if the UK had learned nothing from Europe’s dark 20th century. Democracy is no guarantee against atrocity unless it is guarded by other independent institutions of the State.[1]

The outcome of the referendum was destabilising not only for the ‘European project’ but for the carefully constructed, already fragile, order of the Western world.

The search for a public voice

The leadership of the Catholic Church in the UK remained largely silent in the referendum debate. Undoubtedly the reasons were complex, not least that the Bishops themselves, like the nation, were divided on the issue. Nevertheless, it presents an important example of how a national Church can become trapped in national politics and struggle to gain a more universal catholic voice. 

Episcopal leadership in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is predominantly pastoral rather than political. It has studiously, and correctly, avoided party-political politics in general elections, choosing in light of Catholic social thought to outline general principles or to focus on particular issues such as economic justice, refugees, cherishing life.Significant interventions such as The Common Good (1996), Cherishing Life(2004) and A Place of Redemption:A Christian Approach to Punishment and Prison, 2004) have been well received. Even if their impact on public policy has not been marked, they have served as ways of grounding the Church’s own agencies in their quiet but admirable social mission. The Bishops of Northern Ireland have recently continued this approach with their ‘pastoral reflection,’A Better Future: towards a culture of life, care and hope for all on the eve of the election for a new Assembly (2nd March 2017) after its acrimonious collapse. Since the 1999 Good Friday agreement, the peace in Northern Ireland has always been fragile.Now more than ever, with the loss of Europe as part of the stabilising framework, the conflict-weary Province needs generous and courageous leadership. 

Yetnot all the Church’s public interventions have been successful. When running against the tide of liberal social reform, driven by the overarching values of equality and women’s rights, ecclesial leadership has found it difficult to mount credible and persuasive arguments. It has also to acknowledge that significant numbers of its own members share these ‘liberal secular’values, which can find considerable ground in Catholic social thought.

Bishops whose natural approach is one of pastoral sensitivity and benign pragmatism prefer quiet diplomacy and engagement over public confrontation and conflict.Moreover, this style reflects the unique situation of the Catholic Church in the UK which has ‘an established protestant church.’ It is a peculiar part of British political culture that it seems to be able to espouse the values of a secularist laïcité on the one hand, while upholding a state religion on the other. The Anglican Church by law established has immediate access to government, bishops in the House of Lords, and well-embedded privileges in academic, social and welfare systems. The Catholic Church has nothing directly equivalent to this. Even so, the silence of the episcopal conference during a tawdry and often-misleading referendum campaign remains significant.

The Theological nature of the Church’s civic mission

Pope Benedict XVI in his state visit (2010) delivered an unprecedentedand rigorous address to both houses of Parliament in this most mature of democracies: ‘If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.”[2]

The Church, in praxis and teaching, has a civic mission not only in its charitable and educational agencies, but also in public discourse about the values that build and sustain a genuinely humane society. Indeed, the Church itself is generative of these values and brings that generativity into the public forum. It is as much an epistemological and imaginative witness as a practical one. Briefly put, the Church lives always by and from the ‘caritas Christi urget nos’(2 Cor.5:14) of the apostolic experience. This is the eschatological horizon that relativizes all political and economic structures and the pseudo-soteriological claims they make. 

It is this active presence of the eschatological horizon which gifts the Church (and every Christian life), both in praxis and in understanding, with a creative prophetic imagination. At its best, it allows the Christian community to bring a new perspective to what is at hand and a new possibility for transformative action (cf. Rom 12.2; Col.3:10; iCor.2:16). As such, the community can be generative for the public sphere, especially when that sphere has become impoverished,or is reduced to a despairing sterility, its rhetoric failing under the weight of actual social suffering and systemic dysfunction. For the civitas terrena, the generativity of the Christian life arises when the eschatological horizon is not treated as a longing for a distantcivitas dei, but grasped as a Christological and pneumatological reality. On the one hand,this reality is the active presence of the Risen, personal and living Christ; and, on the other,it is the Spirit Dominum et vivificantem, not only confessed but experienced as such. Then the Spirit’s out-pouring of salvific love constantly recreates the possibilities of our redeemed freedom in the dynamic relational structures of human existence and history. In other words, the Church’s presence in the public sphere is a genuine theological presence. Too often it is reduced to being a moral lobbyist. 

The challenge that Pope Benedict offered in Westminster was not only to politicians, but also to Church leaders. It is an invitation to them to draw from the deep well of the Church’s teaching and praxis,to do what party politics often cannot do: look to the good of the whole people and govern, not for the short-term gain, but for the longer term universal benefit. In such an endeavour, all leadership whether secular or religious has a formative role; leaders must seek to educate rather than manipulate, if democracy is to be possible at all.

The Risk of Forgetfulness of the theological nature of the public mission

What has been striking in the pre- and post-referendum debate about ‘Brexit’ is the purely instrumental understanding of the EU which the national church has done little to correct. To be sure, there were deep issues having as much to do with the failure of national government as with that of the EU. Europe was allowed to become the scapegoat for this failure, especially so in the forgotten communities who felt marginalised and excluded from the undoubted benefits that the union has brought. The same, too, can be said about the economic crisis of 2008 and the continued failure to reform the banking and economic systems in its wake. Immigration was certainly another factor, but this cannot be treated separately from the disastrous attempts at social and military involvement in the Middle East. 

The EU and the project of ‘an ever-closer union’, of course, is not without its own tensions. Apart from the irresolvable problems of the Euro, arguably, the project itself has not adequately protected and developed the principle of subsidiarity. Without this the question of sovereignty, which is a cultural and psychological question as much as a political and legal one, will always be threatened.But the benefits of the union are incalculable, not only economically but in terms of the security and defence of human rights, as the UK government itself had to learn in Northern Ireland. At a national level, the silence of the Catholic Church in the UK (and in Europe), failed to inform the public reflection, or direct it to deeper values and offer a more creative approach to Europe than simply leaving. The truth is that departure from the EU will exacerbate the issues which provoked the break so that they dominate the future. 

Unlike other hierarchies, the episcopal conferences in the UK have never really produced any overarching social teaching document like CELAM’s Aparecida or a major framing document on the Church’s social mission and responsibilities as have other national hierarchies. In general, the Anglo-Saxon temperament is wary of grand visions even when they are Catholic ones. To this extent, the Church in the UK has strangely impoverished itself when it has the most to offer. Its strength lies in its capacity to raise the deeper questions of what a just and humane society may look like and what social, economic and political structures might best contribute to it. If it is not constantly drawing from the theological vision of humanity and society which informs the Church’s perspective and locates it within secular discourse, any episcopal conference risks becoming too conditioned by the national politics of the moment.

The Church’s work in public discourse

The UK has never really understood that the EU is not just an economic project but a moral and cultural one. It is an attempt to exorcise the dark horror of the destructive ideologies that legitimated human atrocity, and establish the basis of a new order which can prevent their return. In this sense, the EU is as much a redemptive act as a political project. From its beginning the Popes have understood this; they have sought both discreetly and overtly to encourage and support it. This does not mean that a critical distance has been lost. It has been employed to strengthen and remind the European countries that political and economic union is a means to an end not the end itself. This, too, is part of the Church’s eschatological realism. Yet, it also gives to the Church the moral task of remembering, ofsearching within and beyond events to their roots and causes, and preservingtheir positive possibilities as seeds of a better future. 

In his acceptance of the Charlemagne Prize (2016), Pope Francis exercised this reflective service, “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom? What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters? He then went on to call for a ‘memory transfusion’, updating ‘the idea of Europe’ capable of giving birth to a ‘new humanism’. His address outlines the three key capacities for a renewed Europe: the capacity to integrate, the capacity for dialogue and the capacity to generate. The values of the Address are even more relevant to a divided and confused post-Brexit Britain which seems to assume that salvation comes through markets. The UK’s decision makes the EU project more fragile and precarious at a time when the carefully constructed post-WW II order is dissolving. We live with ‘fluid’ realities at home and abroad. This makes nations more vulnerable to the old populist gods and their false messiahs. In such a moment, the Church has a mission to enter the public and international forum at the service of the humanity and ‘our common home.’  To do this, episcopal conferences need to recover their most authentic catholic vision, becoming more than just ‘national conferences.’ They must recall that they are called to the wider circle of care and oversight for the universal Church. Such a ministry cannot be exercised without solicitude for the whole human family and the creation which sustains it.[3] This is the other dimension of collegiality which becomes a witness to solidarity and a prefiguring of the Kingdom ‘present in mystery.’ [4]

[1] ‘Popularism’ is a complex term in this context. As the ‘Brexit’ result shows, it represents a protest that has found echoes across Europe and the US. It is a rejection of the political status quo and ‘establishment politics’. This, too, is a complex phenomenon ranging from the emergence of parties with right-wing or fascist political, economic and social positions e.g. Austria, Hungary, France, to those espousing left-wing positions e.g. Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece. It is not only about the failure of normal politics to effectively distribute economic and social benefits to the least well-off communities that have suffered loss, especially since 2008, it is also a movement among the more powerful sectors to gain control of the political process.

[2] Papal Archive,

[3] Christus Dominus §6; 13; 16.  Cf. the wide social mission of the Episcopate ‘ad extra’ in Pastores Gregis, §66 ff. 

[4] Lumen Gentium § 3. 

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