Brexit vote concerns European church leaders that unity may be fractured

IMAGE: CNS photo/Toby Melville, Reuters

By Jonathan Luxmoore

OXFORD, England (CNS) — European Catholic leaders expressed concern that
the decision by United Kingdom voters to leave the European Union threatened
unity across the continent, but they also cautioned the EU bloc to rethink its
values and priorities.

The concerns arose after voters decided June 23 to exit the EU by 52 percent
to 48 percent. The decision led Prime Minister David Cameron to announce his
resignation and sent shock waves through world financial markets.

In London, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, president of the Bishops’
Conference of England and Wales, said the vote must be respected and that the
United Kingdom is setting out on a “new course that will be demanding on

“Our prayer is that all will work in this task with respect and
civility, despite deep differences of opinion,” he said in a statement the
morning after the vote. “We pray that in this process, the most vulnerable
will be supported and protected, especially those who are easy targets for
unscrupulous employees and human traffickers. We pray that our nations will
build on our finest traditions of generosity, of welcome for the stranger and
shelter for the needy.

“We now must work hard to show ourselves to be good neighbors and
resolute contributors in joint international efforts to tackle the critical
problems our world today,” he added.

Anglican Archbishops Justin Welby of Canterbury and John Sentamu of York
said in a joint statement that citizens must “re-imagine both what it
means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and
virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.”

They called for society to remain “hospitable and compassionate,
builders of bridges and not barriers” while expressing concern that some
immigrants and residents on non-British ethnicity “will feel a deep sense
of insecurity.”

The leaders called for citizens to embrace diversity across the U.K. and
affirm “the unique contribution of each and every one.”

The president of the Polish bishops’ conference was similarly diplomatic.
Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan told the country’s Catholic information
agency, KAI, that while the conference respects the voters’ decision, “we
can’t forget unity is better than division, and that European solidarity is an
achievement of many generations.”

“For Christians, the building of unity between peoples, societies and
nations is a key summons, ordained by Christ himself,” he said.
“We’re convinced this Christ-like unity is the true source of hope for
Europe and the world.”

Cautioning that the EU’s “methods of functioning” included
“many worrying features,” the archbishop said he remained hopeful
“the union of European nations, built on Christ” would still prevail
in a “civilization of love.”

However, retired Archbishop Henryk Muszynski of Gniezno, the former primate
of Poland, criticized the outcome, warning that the EU’s “purely
declaratory notion of solidarity” would have to be “rethought from
the beginning.”

“Brexit is the outcome of separatist, populist and egotistic
tendencies, shown at both personal and social level, which have been
discernible for a long time in Europe. I fear this decision won’t serve Great
Britain, Europe or the world,” the prelate told KAI.

During his flight June 24 at the start of a three-day visit to Armenia, Pope
Francis told journalists the referendum “expressed the will of the
people,” and said it imposed a “great responsibility” on
everyone to “ensure the well-being and coexistence of the whole European

The Brussels-based Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European
Community marked the outcome by displaying a “Prayer for Europe” on
its website, which invoked God’s help “in committing ourselves to a Europe
of the Spirit, founded not just on economic treaties but also on values which
are human and eternal.”

On June 27, the commission posted a statement from the commission’s
president, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who said it would organize an October
2017 congress on the 60th anniversary of the
Treaties of Rome “to provide religious impulses for the debate on the
future of the European Union.”

“The increasing nationalism in some
countries must not become again the trigger of ideological delimitation,
hostility and discord,” he said. “As church, we will commit ourselves
to this with full force.”

In Germany, the Catholic Church’s youngest ordinary, Archbishop Stefan Hesse
of Hamburg, told KNA Catholic news agency the vote was a “step backwards
for a united Europe,” while in neighboring Austria Bishop Agidius
Zsifkovics of Eisenstadt described it as “a wake-up call for a new
European humanism.” He said he hoped the dream of European unity would not
be “buried by self-serving gravediggers.”

“We must warn against the rise of provincial mentalities and group
egoisms. Transnational problems and challenges cannot be solved
nationally,” Bishop Zsifkovics told the Kathpress news agency.

“We’ll be exposed to numerous dangers if we don’t work together for a
Europe which cares about its children, stands fraternally by its elderly,
protects those seeing its help and promotes and respects the rights of

France’s Catholic La Croix daily said the four-month campaign around the
referendum had unleashed “often alarming passions.” The newspaper
added that the vote would oblige Europeans “to revise their cliches”
and force EU leaders to contain the possible “contagion” of parallel
referendum demands in other member-states.

The Belgian church’s Cathobel news agency suggested in an online commentary
the vote had “damaged the dream of Europe” enunciated by the EU’s
post-World War II Catholic statesmen — Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Paul-Henri
Spaak and Alcide de Gasperi — and would fuel “the rise of extremist party
populism” visible during the refugee crisis.

“The end of an adventure also marks the beginning of a new one — if a
dream is damaged, we must give birth to a new dream,” Cathobel said.

In France, Archbishop Jean-Pierre Grallet of Strasbourg said he was left
with “feelings of sadness” that “what we have long fought for
has been contradicted.” He said he hoped the vote would “create a
clarification” rather than just “destabilizing the European

“I’ve repeatedly said we should work for a future which is more
European than national, but on condition this Europe is an entity we can
identify with,” Archbishop Grallet said in a June 24 interview on the
French bishops’ conference website.

“I don’t know what the English will say now, how they will propose to
exit and what their first moves will be,” he said. “But we must be
realists: we will not build Europe against its peoples, without gaining popular
support and a responding properly to their anxieties. Europe may look like a
beautiful project; but we should remember it’s still highly fragile.”

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