By Diliff via Wikimedia Commons

Dreams or Ideals?

With the EU gearing up for its 2009 elections, we are witnessing an emerging institution platformed on imposing abstract values and scrutinizing issues of family and work. An interview with the jurist Marta Cartabia explains what is at stake in Brussels.
Davide Perillo

Let’s put it this way: the first ambiguity is in our heads, and this happens often. When you read “European Union” or “Brussels” or “The European Parliament,” you immediately think that it’s all something abstract–complexities for experts. Instead, “on fundamental questions like political economy and work, but also the family, life, and education, the Union counts more than the single states,” explains Marta Cartabia, Professor of Constitutional Law at Milan’s Biccoca University and expert on continental legislation. Add to this that in many cases European law is applied directly by our judges and that more and more often the European Parliament pokes its nose into social organizations (the most recent case was the resolution last January 14th, which has its sights on the so-called “closed institutions” because they are potentially discriminatory) and the conclusion is simple: in one way or another, principles are handed down that are very serious, from Europe, like the recognition of common-law marriages, the introduction of euthanasia, and keeping the Crucifix on the walls in schools.

Thus, Europe as a laboratory of these “new rights” offers the opportunity to understand what is at stake. It should be watched closely by the entire world, particularly the United States where this movement has also been set into motion by President Obama’s support of such rights.

Europe doesn’t appear to be very healthy… Over recent years, there has been a parabola, a clear trajectory. The Europe of economic integration, in time, has gone down a road that has led it into serious difficulty, not only because the tsunami of the crisis has reached us, but because the European institutions themselves, born to develop the prosperity of the continent in the post-war years, banked on principles that are no longer holding. Ever since Maastricht, Europe has staked everything on liberalism, open markets, and competition; now, it has to go into reverse and tackle the crisis by means of State support and protectionism. Even on the political level there is a certain involution.

In what sense? The original idea aimed at creating a peaceful and democratic continent, where the human person could flourish. The great step in this direction should have been the constitutional treaty, but even there a series of roadblocks emerged. Europe was repudiated by some important states: first France, then Holland, and then Ireland.

So why has Brussels become so powerful?
Because, in these 50 years of life, a huge apparatus has developed and started moving, and keeps pushing ahead even though the two fundamental pillars, political life and economics, are in difficulty. It is the Europe of the bureaucrats... It is not what the founding fathers imagined: it is a technical Europe that does not concern itself with only technical questions, though. It intervenes even in matters concerning human life.

In what sectors does it have most impact, and why? Take one fact. This Europe gave itself a mission–to take action over so-called non-discrimination. It is one of the beacons of the community institutions. But it is also a reformulation of something much older and deeply rooted in the peoples–the concept of “equality.”

Not altogether a painless lexical change… True. It is a linguistic twist that conceals a very important conceptual twist. The fact is that when you speak of anti-discrimination, you tend to a form of idealism that is blind to differences, while the tradition of European countries has always been that of linking differences to equalities, because they are strong in common human nature. “Unity in diversity” was to have been the motto proposed for the European Union. All state legislations have always tried to value differences as far as possible, without making them a form of exclusion. For Europe, instead, non-discrimination has come to mean treating everyone the same. And this is a principle that ranges across many sectors.

Is this where many of the so-called “new rights” are born? I am thinking of common-law marriages, homosexual marriages, and the battle over “gender difference.”

In one sense, yes. After the fight for equality between men and women, we have passed on to the question of difference in sexual orientation. There is a strong tendency to put homosexual couples on a par with other partnerships, including marriage. For example, it is said that if some countries recognize gay marriage, why can a homosexual who marries in Spain not have his marriage recognized in Italy? The principle of non-discrimination, linked with the freedom of circulation–a cornerstone of the Union–puts enormous pressure on the family policy of the various states.

Apart from the family, by means of these principles there is the risk of unhinging other areas. Let’s take the famous resolution of January 14th. What does Brussels mean by “closed institutions”?

For now, there are only hints, but it seems that the next frontier will be the ambits of social pluralism. The reasoning is this: anti-discrimination means not treating people differently on the basis of politics, religion or cultural orientation. Social life, though, is made up of many subjects who have strong cultural identities: non-state schools and other types of institutions, including the Church. If you apply that principle to this type of subject, in the ambit of private spheres of autonomy, the risk is that they would have to behave according to orientations that deny their proper cultural identity. In other words, there is a risk of cultural homologation. You could get to the paradoxical point of obliging a Catholic association operating in the field of adoptions to favor homosexual couples, as happened in Great Britain. Or, as in the case pending in Strasbourg, the question arises as to whether or not a Catholic university can send away a teacher who does not teach according to Church principles. This means denying spaces of freedom that are recognized in certain State constitutions. The problem is that Europe’s idea of equality is abstract.

But how was this conception reached? How did we pass from equality to anti-discrimination

Probably there’s more than one factor involved. We are speaking of Europe understood as a Union, but in this sense there can be noted a strong pressure from the non-governmental organizations operating in various international environments (the UN, Council of Europe, and so on). They have played an active part, lobbied, and found virgin soil in institutions which, not having an outlook of their own, have accepted these cultural orientations. A stronger political Europe would perhaps be more respectful of many traditions; it would offer more resistance. Instead, a weaker way has been chosen, as shown by the fact that the Constitution makes no reference to Europe’s Christian roots.

Another front on which Europe is pushing forward is secularization.

It’s true. In the community institutions, there is a strong tendency to secularize politics. This is the idea that democratic societies are worthy of the name only if they confine the religious fact within a purely private ambit. Look at, for example, the question of the veil in France, which the other day came to border on the ridiculous: they obliged a Sikh to have his photo taken without his turban because it is a religious symbol. Here, too, however, it is the absence of public debate that has led to this result. All these questions, from the end of life to homosexual marriage or multiculturalism and so on, are questions that are being forced by society. In the absence of politics, other ambits are left to make the decision. The decline of Europe as it was in its origins has left room for this phenomenon–Europe of the judges, of bureaucracy, and of rights. Probably the huge and indiscriminate enlargement has had an effect: since 2004, the number of member countries has almost doubled without a restructuring of the decisional procedures. It is clear that the mediation typical of politics, by decisions and agreements, has become more difficult. This can be seen easily in another crucial point.


Immigration. It is a question that will alter the very composition of the demos, the people. The paradigm is the same. Europe sees in the immigrants, whether legal or not, weak subjects to be protected from discrimination. And this is quite proper. But the instrument used to tackle it is egalitarianism. The rights of the European citizen tend to be extended indistinctly to all foreigners present in the territory. From the bond of belonging to a people, we have passed to the idea of residence as the criterion that makes one the subject of rights.

And this, too, is an abstraction.

Yes. It is a dynamics of hospitality in which there is someone who offers hospitality and one who receives it, which could truly create a situation of realistic welcoming compatible with the solidity of our society.

Does this insistence on anti-discrimination not seem to you a denial, and a not overly implicit one, of reality? It is reality itself that is made up of differences. Why should we be afraid of them?

I think that the fear comes from a weakness regarding our own identity. When a person, or a people, a social body, have a clear identity, they are rarely afraid to measure themselves against another. They know that they acknowledge something common between them, which enables them to form a relationship.

This means that here, too, we are faced with an evident case of “separating reason from experience”…

Look, Europe was born of the idea of Christian forgiveness. After the failure of many attempts for peace based on revenge, on the humiliation of the enemy, that embrace of Germany, reaching out to her after the horrors of Nazism and the Second World War by means of economic collaboration, was the incarnation of Christian forgiveness. That was possible because the founding fathers had these ideas of acceptance and solidarity as something lived. What happened later on? That living tradition was transformed into a series of abstract values: acceptance, equality and solidarity, etc… They became values; as a great jurist of the last century wrote, values tend to be tyrannical; if they are applied without keeping in mind all the factors of reality, they became absolute. They themselves become dictators. This happened just in the moment in which those values changed from being lived experiences and became a text–precisely in the moment when the European Constitution was drafted. They were put down on paper with the idea that they should no longer be lost as an inheritance; but reduced to words, they became prey to a distorted use of reason. Anti-discrimination underwent a process of this kind. But the same thing happened to another cornerstone of the “new rights.”

Which one?

The idea of freedom as self-determination. It is another lexical change that has developed over the last few years, but has older matrices. In the philosophical field, it has its origins long ago, but in the juridical world, it matured in the ’60s, thanks to an evolution which in America was formalized in the right to privacy: “I decide on this question myself.”

You mean the “Roe versus Wade” case that introduced abortion in the United States.

Exactly. It was then that this “right to privacy” became law. Someone said that it was born “in the penumbra of rights”–there was not even a text for them to refer to. The principle of self-determination had great appeal and quickly went around the world, because in fact it draws on a noble yearning of man–the desire not to be a slave. We have behind us a history in which the individual had to be freed from a state that was oppressive, but totalitarianisms have left us a weighty heritage. In order to be free from this burdensome heritage, freedom was conceived only as a refusal of eternal bonds. When the tyrannical state was no more, the idea remained that the only thing that counts is man’s free decision, thus violating reality, because freedom moves in the given situation, in the space that reality offers, not against it.

Thus, we reach a paradox: we end up denying what is there (a child in the womb; a comatose woman’s life) and vindicating what is not there, as if it were a right rather than a gift.

Thus, everything becomes a right. There is a proliferation and a banalization of rights–everything people desire must be guaranteed by the state, as if life or health were rights that can be demanded.

In this detachment from reality, don’t we find the signs of a basic irreligiosity? It is a conception of man and reality that does not recognize the first evidence of experience–if you exist, then it means that there is Someone who makes you, that you depend on an Other.

As Fr. Giussani writes in The Religious Sense, there are two figures worthy of humanity: the anarchist and the authentically religious man. A mentality of this kind works because it pivots on this need man has for infinite affirmation. An anarchist has chosen the way of absolute self-affirmation rather than recognizing his bond with the Absolute.

Speaking of The Religious Sense, don’t you think that precisely the heart, as Fr. Giussani intends it, is the only point that enables us to focus again on freedom and equality without imbalance? I ask this because if Europe is what it is, the question arises regarding where we can start from again without resorting to anti-historic battles or marching on Brussels.

I think we can try to start again by trying to value the positive impetus that can be easily recognized, albeit amidst the ashes of this cultural degeneration: the value of the subject. What lies behind this obtuse affirmation of non-discrimination and self-determination? The attempt to affirm the value of the individual. Certainly, no one wants to question the value of the individual; we need to affirm absolutely the value of each “I.” But the fact is that every “I” is given. This is why we have to go on to say, even in political and juridical terms, “I who am you,” “I who am us.” The path to follow is an increased understanding of the point where we are, a deeper reflection, not a battle “against.”

What can help us in this?

It’s not easy to answer. However, there is passage in The Religious Sense that can help us, where it speaks of experience as a source of knowledge. Here it is not a question of a battle for Catholic values against secular values, but to start off again from a cognitive capacity. It is not an ethical battle, but a battle of knowledge. It is on this terrain that there is still the chance of an encounter even with those who, in good faith, in order to affirm the value of every person, end up taking us towards an inhuman society, as the Englaro case shows [ordering feeding tube removal for a comatose patient]. There, the problem was not defending the value of life against the value of freedom but, rather, asking ourselves, “Do we want a person in flesh and blood, who belongs to our society, to die of hunger and thirst?”

It was unthinkable even as a question at the time of the founding fathers, Schuman and De Gasperi…

If you take the Schuman declaration that gave origin to the process of European integration, you find great ideals and great realism. It said: we have to build Europe so as to bring peace and prosperity but we have to do it in small steps, not at a desk, and not all of a sudden. The idea of Europe was wonderful, but a fundamental component has been lost–the incarnate dimension of the ideal. In Schuman, there was the ideal inside the incarnation. You tend towards something great, but you do so step by step, just as Fr. Giussani writes in Is It Possible To Live This Way?: “An ideal is the reality that you conquer, bit by bit, step by step; whereas a dream fades and changes…” It’s better to set dreams aside and get back to the ideal.

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