Campaigners on both sides of the EU Referendum debate have issued last-minute appeals to Catholics to consider the values of their faith when casting their vote next Thursday, with both Leave and Remain supporters claiming their views closest match those of Catholic Social Teaching.
At the same time the Catholic National Justice & Peace Network has criticised the “selfish” nature of the debate and appealed for Catholics to put faith uppermost in their minds when they cast their votes next Thursday, and to vote for the common good.
While the Church has given no definitive lead on the issue, Cardinal Nichols opened the debate by saying that “to start down the path of division almost inevitably leads to further division… so the Catholic instinct is to look for the whole…” in a strong hint towards Remain. However, Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark has accused Chanceller George Osborne of ludicrous scaremongering during the campaign and has been claimed by media sources to be supportive of Brexit.
In the vacuum of a decisive intervention from the Church, both sides are claiming Catholic voters have to back their side. Speaking at a debate organised by Catholic Voices at Westminster Cathedral Hall in London this week, prominent Brexit campaigner Gisela Stuart hit out at those who claim the vote to Leave would be a victory for ‘Little Englanders’, pointing out her own German heritage and status as an immigrant to the UK. “We are open to immigration in the UK,” she told the audience, “it is who we are.”
But for her Catholics must vote Leave, citing the lack of democracy and the rejection of the principle of subsidiarity as being at the heart of her decision.
She told the debate that for her, “the EU project went off the rails with the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2003,” when she was a member of Tony Blair’s Government and was charged with handling much of the UK’s input into the treaty. This treaty had, she said, proved behind doubt that the over-riding principle of subsidiarity – where decisions are taken as close to the people as possible – was being rode roughshod over by a European elite hellbent on establishing a United States of Europe against the democratic wishes of the people.
“The only body that truly understands the importance of subsidiarity in both principle and practice is the Catholic Church,” she added, suggesting that for Catholics, ignoring this sacred principle had moved EU decision-making far away from its people and was following an increasingly undemocratic path.
Concerns many people had over accountability and democracy were pushed to one side.
“You are not a ‘bad’ person for having concerns about the EU; the EU is based on a noble idea. But to be against the EU is not to be a Little Englander. I am British because to be British is to have an identity that is supranational. It ius based in a belief in a concept of the Crown in Parliament and the rule of law and has never meant being part of a bloodline. Over the centuries this belief has made us open to immigration – it is part of who we are. To be British means acceptance of Government by consent, accountable to a parliament we elect.
“While the EU has continued to centralise, Britain has become more devolved and more accountable. It is this accountability that makes a good society.”
However, rival voices rejected this claim, pointing to what they see as the blessing of the Holy Father in the UK voting to Remain. Speaking at the same event Tom Tugendhat accepted Pope Francis’ criticism of the EU as ‘aloof’, saying he understood why Europe’s citizens viewed it with “mistrust and, at times, suspicion”, but at the same time arguing that the EU “provides strength through co-operation, a strength that allows each individual a greater freedom.”
“This duality – the strengths of co-operation with the freedom of individuality – is at the heart of Roman Catholic theology because the Catholic Church is a communion of believers, not just a sacramental instrument.”
Mr Tugendhat continued: “Unity is part of social teaching because it protects the weak, and this option for the poor is at the heart of the Christian message.”
He stressed that voting for the status quo did not have to mean you accept the EU as it stands, however: “Voting for unity is not voting for stasis. As Pope Francis made clear, unity demands flexibility and countries across the continent are crying out for a partnership better adapted to their lives, just as he described. Britain could lead that change in the interests of our neighbours and for ourselves because only by guarding abroad the liberties we prize so highly can we secure them at home.
“The message from Rome is clear, ” he said, “we are one communion.”
Gisela Stuart rejected this outlook, however, saying the EU was now culpable in punishing the weakest in its society for the economic ills of the continent.
“The EU has imposed harsh austerity packages even when elected governments opposed them, packages that cut pensions, privatised public services and drove youth unemployment to 45-50 per cent in Spain and Greece.
“This tragedy has left the principle of subsidiarity in shreds.”
Baroness Smith of Newnham, a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, stressed that Catholics should remember the peace dividend that has been created by the EU when voting: “It’s founding fathers – predominantly Catholics – sought to make war ‘materially impossible’… the EU reflects a Catholic desire for solidarity to replace destructive nationalism.”
That was why, she said, a vote to Remain had to be the Catholic choice: “Openness and solidarity are key aspects underpinning the EU… they are values that Catholics should be advocating.
“A vote to Leave would have untold ramifications across the EU. By continuing to play a full part in the EU, the UK can aspire to offer the solidarity we as Catholics believe in.
“Walking away from our neighbours into isolationism surely cannot be the Catholic way.”