Because studying the intersection of politics and religion is literally my job title, I decided to check in on the Church and see how it was handling this whole Brexit thing (well, actually my wife found an interesting article and said I should write on this, but my version makes me sound better). Anglicans were more likely to support Brexit and the Anglican Church hierarchy has been pretty blasé about the whole affair – “We kind of want to say in Europe. Oh, we’re leaving? Yeah, that’s cool, too, I guess.” (this may not be a direct quote).
The real action, in turns out, is with the Catholic Church, which has been more wary of leaving the EU, voicing concerns about Brexit that are shared by Catholic officials throughout Europe. Why are Catholic leaders in Europe worried about the effects of Brexit on the EU, and why does the Catholic Church in the UK especially troubled? To answer these questions, we turn to my favorite educational device: history peppered with anachronistic pop culture references!
Europe and the Catholic Church: Best Friends Forever
(Forever. Forever ever? Forever ever?)
The Catholic Church was once the unifying force for Europe. After becoming the state religion of the Roman Empire, the Pope asserted the right to crown the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (yes, I know, neither holy nor Roman nor an Empire, but “The Big State in the middle of Europe” didn’t have the same ring to it), and Europe’s monarchs were generally Catholic as well. The Church wielded significant power over the major states of Europe, and could inspire and manage these nations to work together for common goals – Crusading in the Middle East, conquering the Americas, you know (hey, I didn’t say it was good stuff).
Over the centuries, however, the Church’s influence waxed and waned, with more and more waning over time (“waning” is the bad one, right?). The churches in the east were generally Orthodox rather than Catholic and thus fell outside of the Vatican’s control (remember when Tupac and Biggie had a falling out and sparked an East-West feud? It was just like that for the Catholic and Orthodox churches, except with more excommunications).
Then, some guy named Martin Luther (the O.G. one, not his similarly influential American namesake) got fed up with the corruption in Catholicism and released his own diss record called “99 Problems” “95 Theses” and got a lot of people on his side (John Calvin, I’m looking at you). (Again, for rap fans, think of the Catholic Church as NWA, Luther as Dr. Dre when he went solo, and John Calvin as Snoop Dogg [hey, his first name actually is Calvin]).
With the G-Funk Era Reformation in full swing, much of Europe was divided between pockets Catholic and Protestant dominance. Wanting to hop on board the trend, King Henry VIII in England decided that he wouldn’t let a little thing like Catholicism stop him from marrying his mistress, so he took over the Church in England and separated it from the Catholic hierarchy (some have now called this the first Brexit).
The later French Revolution didn’t help the Church’s status much either, with the guillotining of clergy and all. Even the Catholic Church’s home base suffered setbacks when Italy decided Pinocchio-style that it wanted to be a real country, which meant taking control of most of the territory ruled by the Pope (the Church was allowed to keep Vatican City, a lovely country that is nonetheless so small that it fits entirely within a single city of a larger country).
The Church, Like the Kardashians, Constantly Struggles to Remain Relevant
Throughout these setbacks, the Church has continuously struggled to maintain its relevance and influence in Europe, with mixed success. Catholicism met the Reformation with a Counter-Reformation and an expansion of the Inquisition (no one expected that, right?). In response to the growth of European liberalism (“liberalism” with a small “l”, meaning a political focus on individual liberties and freedom, including freedom of religion, e.g. the government won’t make you belong to a certain church), the Church launched its own political parties, the Christian Democrats – Angela Merkel in Germany belongs to one of these parties, for example (political scientist Stathis Kalyvas has a great book on the subject). More recently, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, such as allowing church services to be conducted in local languages, were meant to make church more accessible and appeal to a growingly secular world. While the Catholic Church continues to remain strong in the Americas and grow in Sub-Saharan Africa, fewer Europeans, especially young ones, are identifying with the Church.
What’s all that have to do with the European Union? Several of the EU’s main architects were devout Catholics, and infused the group with Catholic principles of transnational authority and allegiance (rumor has it that even the EU flag may have been inspired by Catholic imagery). For many Catholics, the EU provides the sort of European unity that the Catholic Church once enforced, and a decline in the EU’s power or unity symbolizes a curtain closing on the dream of a renewed Catholic continent.
In England, Catholics were once seen as subversives by Anglican rulers and are still sometimes viewed with suspicion (although more by secularists than Anglicans these days). For Catholics in England, the EU represents an important link with their Catholic brethren and sistren (yes, sistren is a word, darnit!) on the Continent. Although Catholic voters were divided on the Brexit question, some British Catholics fear that the split will cut off the British Catholic Church from continental Catholic culture and from Catholic migrants to the UK, who have replenished the Church there in recent years. And of course, Catholic-Protestant hatred and divisions fueled decades of violence in Northern Ireland, and Brexit threatens the peace agreement that ended the “Troubles” that terrorized the region for years.
Overall, Brexit poses a threat, not just to unity within the United Kingdom and within Europe, but among European Catholics as well. Inside Britain and on the continent, Church officials and lay members are watching alongside everyone else to see exactly what Brexit might look like and how things will change. While Europe may never be united under Catholicism again, NWA has occasionally reunited alongside some newer acts, so maybe the Church can find a way to find its voice again in a diverse and divided Europe.