Top European Union officials held talks this week with religious leaders, part of a policy of holding consultations with religious groups that was enshrined in the EU's Lisbon reform treaty, which came into force last December. But not everyone supports the move.
More than two dozen Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders -- joined by a representative each from the Hindu and Sikh communities -- met the presidents of the European Parliament, European Commission and European Council on Monday to discuss how to fight poverty and social exclusion.
It was the the sixth such consultation since 2005, but the first to take place in the context of the Lisbon treaty, the EU’s latest collective agreement. Article 17 of the treaty commits the EU to maintaining "an open, transparent and regular dialogue with ... churches and (non-confessional and philosophical) organisations".
But opponents of the guidance say that because many Europeans are secular and an increasing number practise non-Christian religions, churches should not have special rights.
“Leaders need to respect the separation between church and state,” said Jean de Brueker, deputy secretary general of the European Humanist Federation, which advocates more secularism in Europe. De Brueker’s organisation says separate consultation agreements should be limited to elected officials and those with recognised special expertise.
Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said the EU was a secular organisation but spoke about the moral significance of the 27-country bloc, hinting at the need for spiritual and religious input.
“The European Union has to be a union of values. That is our added value in the world. That is the soft power of Europe in the world,” he told reporters.
Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Poland, who spent decades in the Vatican as private secretary to Pope John Paul II -- who played a subtle but intimate role in late Soviet politics -- has spoken in favour of Article 17.
“I believe there is a need for such consultations with churches so as not to make mistakes on moral or ethical issues,
for the benefit of societies,” Dziwisz told Reuters in December. “Let’s not forget that religion is also a great force that creates cultures and societies. It cannot be bypassed.”
The European Parliament will meet Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox leaders on Sept. 30 to discuss how to implement Article 17, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said.
One way or another, debate over what role the Church, and by extension churches, can play in engaging with the European Union is only likely to intensify. The EU's hopes of 'reaching out' to religious communities may very well end up drawing it deeper into a complex, centuries-old debate.