Corbishley Lecture

Corbishley Lectures

Professor Tina Beattie


"Faith in Europe? - Remembering the Future" 

Wednesday, 7th November 2018

Conference Room, Europe House, 32 Smith Square London SW1P 3EU

We started with a short reception at 5.30pm followed by the address and questions finishing by 8.00pm. 

“Faith in Europe? - Remembering the Future”

(Figures taken from polls and studies by Ipsos Mori, LSE, UK in a Changing Europe and British Religion in Numbers, footnotes can be supplied)

A few months ago, I found myself waiting for a taxi outside Westminster tube station with the traffic at a standstill because of two simultaneous demonstrations. One was the annual world naked bike ride through London, with hundreds of naked cyclists campaigning against car culture and in celebration of the human body. The other was an English Defence League rally campaigning in support of Tommy Robinson, who at the time was in prison for contempt of court. The naked cyclists went dangling and wobbling on their way, in cheerful oblivion to the EDL with their Islamophobic banners and their violent rhetoric. Meanwhile, on a street corner near where I was standing, a group from a Black Catholic Charismatic Church was issuing dire warnings about the immanent return of Jesus and the rampaging seductions of the Devil.

That experience symbolised for me this pivotal moment in British national life. On the one side, an anarchic and good-humoured display of freedom, startling to the camera-toting tourists perhaps, but also strangely vulnerable in their paradisal nakedness. On the other side, an alienated and angry mob made up primarily of white, shaven-headed men celebrating the triumph of their values over the liberal elite they resented so bitterly – as was clear from several of the conversations I overheard. In the midst of all this was a proselytizing group of Christians representing a religious world that remains almost invisible to our media commentators, despite the fact that Black-led Pentecostal and Charismatic churches constitute a significant religious minority in Britain today. And across the road stood the Houses of Parliament, symbol of England’s proud claim to be the “Mother of Parliaments”. Big Ben was appropriately shrouded in scaffolding – a symbol of this time out of time when British history hangs suspended between a contested past and a conflicted future. Never has Yeats’s poem The Second Coming seemed so prophetic:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
… The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I’ve called my talk this evening Remembering the Future. I chose this title because first, I was thinking of the saying – attributed to various sources but probably first coined by Spanish philosopher George Santayana (1863 – 1952) that “those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That is a terrifying warning as we see the rising signs of extremism across the world’s democracies, with the latest being the election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro to become President of Brazil. The Republican losses in the House of Representatives in the US mid-term elections might hold out some hope in terms of that country’s rejection of Donald Trump’s volatile and violent political rhetoric, but we live in dangerous times and there are no fences to sit on.

I also use the word “remembering” to suggest the challenging task of piecing together the broken fragments of our society and discovering a different narrative of what it means to belong, to be a member of a community, a nation or a society, to take us through and beyond the crisis of Brexit. Whatever the outcome, Brexit confronts us with a daunting future in which half of our fellow citizens will feel they have been betrayed by the other half, whichever side claims the ultimate victory.

I want to argue this evening that we cannot remember the future unless we also remember both the wisdom and the failures of the past. Religion – particularly Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but also the religions of Britain’s postcolonial citizens – Hindus, Sikhs and others – is a vital dimension of faithful historical remembering and hopeful future imagining.

Let me introduce this theme of remembering with a quotation from Pope Francis’s address to EU Heads of State when they gathered in Rome in 2017 to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. Pope Francis said:

We cannot understand our own times apart from the past, seen not as an assemblage of distant facts, but as the lymph that gives life to the present. Without such an awareness, reality loses its unity, history loses its logical thread, and humanity loses a sense of the meaning of its activity and its progress towards the future.

That’s the idea I’m reflecting on this evening – the idea that historical awareness enables us to make sense of the present and gives meaning to our activities and aspirations. It is ‘the lymph that gives life to the present’.

The fundamental problem we face in Britain today is that of conflicting interpretations of history. For some, Brexit holds out the hope of a recovered sense of national dignity, identity and autonomy. It harks back to the former glory of the British empire, and to a time when Britain stood alone against the forces of darkness sweeping through Europe in the Second World War. This is a mythical version of the past, but all history is in some sense mythical. Our myths are what we live by, and the way we interpret the past is to a very great extent shaped by imagination as well as history, by hope as well as memory. Benedict Anderson describes the nation as an “imagined community” in his influential book of 1983,[1] which has become a key text for understanding the modern concept of the nation. Today, the “imagined community” of the British nation – which is of course a state made up of four different nations, each with its own myths and imaginings – is being broken apart because of very different ways of imagining what this community is and might become.

Anderson argues that national culture replaced religious culture with the rise of capitalism and the beginning of secular modernity. Perhaps it’s not coincidental that, when the Brexit referendum is analysed by religious affiliation (including those who claim no religion), Anglicans constituted the largest grouping to vote leave – 60% voted leave, and 40% voted remain. There is it seems a conflict between the urbane liberalism of CofE bishops who are with few exceptions pro-European, and their pro-Brexit congregations for whom perhaps the Church of England is part of what it means to be English. One could argue that the first version of Brexit was when Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church in England. So a little provocatively, I dare to suggest that, if a significant number of leave voters were elderly white Anglicans, the religion of Brexit may be the Tory party at prayer.

There is however a darker, more despairing version of this history seen from the point of view of England and Wales. (With Brexit, we must talk in terms of individual nations, for there is no consensus – Ireland and Scotland voted remain, England and Wales voted leave, though a recent poll by Channel 4 suggests that the Welsh would now vote Remain). This other version is the number of working class white people of all ages who voted leave. In the United States and in Britain, these communities were increasingly marginalised by the progressive and economically divisive neo-liberalism of the last thirty years. In the United States under Trump and in Brexit Britain, we are seeing the truth of James Baldwin’s claim that “the most dangerous man of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”

But there are of course other histories which produce different imagined communities rooted in different versions of the past, in different interpretations of Brexit, and in different hopes and fears for the future. Irish history has a very particular bearing on Brexit. As we know, the Irish border is one of the most insurmountable challenges of securing a deal for leaving the EU. Religion is a major factor in this, but Ireland is an excellent example – and there are many others – of why religion and politics are inseparable. In Northern Ireland, people were not killing each other because of doctrinal disputes about the Trinity. They were killing each other because of a history of colonialism in which religion was a significant marker of division between the colonisers and the colonised, the landowners and the disenfranchised. To understand that conflict, you’d have to study British history, not Christian doctrine.

Yet another narrative and another imagined community emerges in the Scottish context, where there is a widespread sense of betrayal over Brexit. There is talk of a second independence referendum, given that both sides in the first independence referendum were committed to remaining in the EU. Scotland voted 62% remain, 38% leave. So nation by nation, community by community, the story of Brexit morphs every time we change the historical and political lens through which we seek to evaluate its significance.

What about the many other religious communities that regard Britain as home, including Christians of the postcolonial diaspora, and those belonging to different religious traditions? The complex story of Catholicism in Britain is again a multi-facetted historical and political narrative, but Catholics constituted the most pro-remain Christian grouping, with a vote of 52% for remain. By way of comparison, of those with no religious affiliation – the so-called “nones” – 57% voted remain. Jewish voters were marginally more in favour of leave than remain, perhaps because Britain is less prone to anti-Semitism than some other European countries. Muslim voters, on the other hand, were the largest single group in favour of remain, with 69% voting to remain in the EU. This is hardly surprising given that much of the anti-immigration propaganda of the leave campaigners was implicitly and sometimes explicitly Islamophobic. British citizens from Commonwealth countries constitute a diverse and complex group, though the majority of BME citizens voted remain. Some people from the Commonwealth voted leave because they resent the fact that EU citizens have freedom of movement, while citizens of Commonwealth countries are subject to stringent immigration controls.

So when we include various factors of religion, class and ethnicity, the task of understanding Brexit not just in terms of economics and politics, but in terms of human belonging – in terms of the histories and traditions that shape us and the hopes and dreams that inspire us – we are a divided and conflicted society.

Let me nail my colours to the mast now. I am an ardent remainer. I’m the daughter of Scottish Presbyterian parents who emigrated to Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) as economic migrants in the aftermath of the Second World War. I converted to Catholicism when I was 32, and shortly after that I came to live in Bristol with my English husband and four young children. It was my newfound Catholicism that gave me the cultural key to understanding the traditions of European art, music, architecture and literature which have gradually created in me a deep and enduring sense of European identity. Soon after we came to live here in 1988, the world changed beyond recognition as both apartheid and communism collapsed. Suddenly, European borders were porous and people from East and West began to discover new friendships and alliances.

My eldest son Dylan is a globe-trotting software engineer and musician. He wrote a blog on the eve of the referendum as to why he was voting remain. Here is a bit of what he said:

In the last year, I've been lucky enough to visit Lithuania, Denmark, France, Belgium, Norway and Ukraine. … I've visited all these countries without applying for a visa. I've spent time in these remarkable places with friends and colleagues from all over the world. 

He goes on to quote Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl who, says Dylan,

dedicated his life to the study of human migration, researching the astonishing stories of people who crossed Earth's vast oceans on flimsy wooden boats in search of a better life. This wanderlust, the urge to venture beyond our comfort zone, is as old as humanity. Heyerdahl said, “Borders – I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.”

So borders, like nations, are imaginary constructs of the human soul, woven out of our deepest fears as well as our deepest desires.

Dylan concludes his blog with these words:

I believe that peace is more important than politics. I believe that the desire to travel in search of new ideas and new experiences is fundamental to what makes us human. I believe that open borders and common markets give us unprecedented freedom to explore the world we live in. I believe that membership of the European Union embodies all of these principles, and I’m voting to remain.

As a Richard Dawkins fan, Dylan wouldn’t invoke Catholic social teaching as a resource for these reflections, so I shall leave the eloquent ruminations of my atheist son to offer some of my own reflections as a Catholic theologian. In this second part of my paper, I’m arguing that the principles of Catholic social teaching are deeply woven into the idea of the EU. They have a vital contribution to make to the revitalisation of Europe and – if we can overcome the residual anti-Catholicism of English politics – to the healing of British society, whatever the outcome of Brexit.

The fundamental principles of modern Catholic social teaching emerged with the publication of Pope Leo XIII’s 1891encyclical Rerum Novarum, on the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour. This was a Catholic response to the rising revolutionary spirit of the working classes and the exploitative conditions of capitalist industrialisation. It set out the founding principles of Catholic social teaching, including the defence of workers’ rights. These principles are rooted in the transcendent dignity of the human person which finds expression in the pursuit of the common good by way of solidarity, subsidiarity and participation. I’ll discuss those in a little more detail, but let me reflect on how these ideas have contributed towards European integration.

In that address to Europe’s leaders on the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Pope Francis invoked the founding fathers of Europe for whom, says Francis,

Europe is not a conglomeration of rules to obey, or a manual of protocols and procedures to follow. It is a way of life, a way of understanding man based on his transcendent and inalienable dignity, as something more than simply a sum of rights to defend or claims to advance.

Quoting one of the pioneers of the European project – Italian Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Alcide De Gaspari – Francis observes that, “At the origin of the idea of Europe, we find “the nature and the responsibility of the human person, with his ferment of evangelical fraternity…, with his desire for truth and justice, honed by a thousand-year-old experience.”

That thousand year-old experience begins perhaps with the rise of Europe’s universities in the 12th century. This marked the emergence of a Catholic culture of values and ethics that drew upon the philosophies and politics of ancient Greece which were brought to the medieval West by Islamic and Jewish scholars from the East. These were distilled through the theological vision of the great medieval scholars, called into question by the theologians of the Reformation, and later secularised by the philosophers of the Enlightenment who were still, with only one or two exceptions, theological thinkers. Theology – once known as the Queen of the Sciences – was dethroned by Science in the 19th century, but the foundations of these ancient categories of knowing and the values they enshrined remained more or less secure through all these cultural revolutions. The foundations were shaken by thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Darwin. Together these constitute the crucible of doubt which, after the catastrophes of two world wars and the Holocaust, provided the intellectual resources for the emergence of a wave of new intellectual, social and ethical paradigms collectively known as postmodernism. This was pithily over-simplified by its pioneering philosopher Jean François Lyotard as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’. The metanarrative of western universalism – which wends its way from Aristotle and Plato through medieval theologies (Islamic and Jewish as well as Christian) to the Enlightenment and beyond, has collapsed under the burden of its own violent history – crusades and conquests, wars and empires, hierarchies of race, class and gender that allowed the western man of reason to rule the world unchallenged for five hundred years and more, first in the name of God, and then in the name of evolutionary scientific rationalism.

When I became a mature student in the early 1990s, postmodernism was in the ascendancy. There is no truth (is that true?), only an endless proliferation of competing and conflicting narratives, each with its own particular claim to historical authenticity. I never signed up for full membership, but I found food for thought among the faithful disciples of Freud, Lacan, Foucault, Zizek, Judith Butler. These postmodern scholars were – and still are – endlessly reinventing and fragmenting language and meaning around an ever-expanding discursive Babel of identity politics, intersectionalities and relativisms peddled by metropolitan elites with little to lose. And like every metanarrative, postmodernism too is parasitic upon its excluded others. As Hegel warned, the slave knows the master’s discourse better than the master himself. Into the postmodernist vacuum of meaning come those who claim to speak for those who have nothing to lose – welcome to the politics of Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Rodrigo Duterte, Jair Bolsonaro. They too are postmodernists, for when anything goes, everything goes.

I’m not here tonight to proselytise, nor am I proposing an uncritical reading of Catholic teaching. Particularly in the areas of sexuality and gender, this teaching is not fit for purpose in its current form. However, Catholic social teaching is a rich resource for those seeking a common language in which to explore the ties that bind western societies through shared values that can be traced back to a medieval dialogue around Aristotelian philosophy. This was informed by the philosophical ruminations of the three major religious traditions of the western world. Averroes (1126-1198), Maimonedes (1135 or 1138 – 1204) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) are remembered as the three great medieval Aristotelians in Islam, Judaism and Christianity respectively. Today there is increasing recognition among some scholars that this common philosophical heritage remains a viable resource for thinking through the challenges of our contemporary multi-cultural, multi-religious western societies.  

In its Christian form, that tradition lives on most dynamically in Catholic social teaching. At its best, this intellectual tradition comprises the ideals, values and aspirations which have shaped European history, despite the tragic failure of those values again and again in Europe’s political, military and economic escapades. A caveat though. I am not here subscribing to the nostalgia of some Christian theologians for a return to the pre-modern world of medieval Aristotelianism. That was a system based upon a hierarchical model of society and an ancient cosmology that needs to be reimagined around new social and scientific paradigms, not least with regard to our modern democratic and egalitarian principles. Nevertheless, the idea of Europe in its modern form – not as an economic empire nor as a self-serving coalition of powerful states, but as a project of peace which emerged from the blood of the trenches and the ashes of Auschwitz, is to a large extent shaped around the principles of Catholic social teaching.

The origins of the EU can be traced back to the Schuman Declaration of May 1950, when French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman gave a speech proposing the integration of French and German coal and steel production under a single authority, open to participation by others, which would unite two of Europe’s historically hostile enemies in a new project of unification and cooperation. Schumann described his aim as to “make war unthinkable and materially impossible and to reinforce democracy”.  This idea rapidly gained support from other countries, including the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Konrad Adenauer, and the Italian Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Alcide De Gasperi whom I’ve already mentioned. All three of these men were committed Catholics deeply influenced by Catholic social teaching.

Like those pioneering visionaries of European unification, I believe that the principles of Catholic social teaching can transcend their particular religious narrative to become an invitation to all Europe’s citizens to remember what we hold in common, and what we can offer to future generations to light their way along a tangled and overgrown path that still might lead in the direction of justice. As Martin Luther King observed, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

In Pope Francis’s address to the European Parliament in November 2014, he referred to Raphael’s famous fresco of the School of Athens:

Plato and Aristotle are in the centre. Plato’s finger is pointed upward, to the world of ideas, to the sky, to heaven as we might say. Aristotle holds his hand out before him, towards the viewer, towards the world, concrete reality. This strikes me as a very apt image of Europe and her history, made up of the constant interplay between heaven and earth, where the sky suggests that openness to the transcendent – to God – which has always distinguished the peoples of Europe, while the earth represents Europe’s practical and concrete ability to confront situations and problems.

Today we might ask what would constitute openness to the transcendent in a continent that represents so many different religious and non-religious world views, but we also have to ask if any shared vision is possible without some faith in enduring realities of justice, goodness and beauty that transcend their particular historical and cultural contexts. I’m setting that question aside, but let me briefly reflect on those three principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and participation that constitute Catholic social teaching in practice.

Solidarity is the spirit of cooperation and peace-making which inspired the founders of the EU. We might invoke the three musketeers’ motto – one for all and all for one. It’s about the responsibility of each for the good of all, and a political ethos built on cooperation rather than competition.

Subsidiarity is a principle that was vigorously promoted by Jacques Delors and controversially enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty. It refers to the devolution of power from the centre to the smallest and most localised social and political authorities. So if solidarity constitutes the unity of the European Union, subsidiarity should in theory protect its diversity and the relative autonomy of the states and institutions within it. Finally, participation refers to the need for communities and individuals to have some sense of investment in and engagement with these larger institutions, to feel a sense of being represented by and included in the processes of formulating and implementing policies and laws.

If we consider these principles, we can see that part of the impetus for those who voted leave was a sense of betrayal of these core values– or perhaps more truthfully, a betrayal of the British people by the tabloid press. Many British people don’t feel a sense of solidarity with their European neighbours, particularly those who represent the cosmopolitan multi-culturalism of post-imperial Europe. The ethos of subsidiarity has not been sufficiently robust to persuade people that Britain is not being run by policy wonks and legislators in Brussels and Strasbourg. And related to that, the sense that the EU is a participatory project in which all are both stakeholders and beneficiaries clearly has not found support among many people in England and Wales for many different reasons. Wales is an interesting paradox, because so much Welsh development is funded by the EU and yet Wales voted leave.

There is however another dimension to Catholic social teaching which is the most urgent challenge facing every person on the planet today, and that is the environmental crisis. Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, is an eloquent appeal to wake up to the impending catastrophe and to take urgent action at all levels of political, social and individual life to protect the environment and the poor communities that suffer most devastatingly as a result of environmental degradation. It is chilling that the most recent budget made no allowance for environmental protection. Nobody can go it alone in the face of climate change, for this is a cataclysm that cannot be contained by our imagined communities and the borders that divide us. So after Brexit – if it happens – we will still need to find a way of communicating across boundaries and taking concerted action if we are to leave our children and our children’s children a habitable home on planet earth. One way or the other, the rhetoric of angry confrontation must yield to reasoned and informed dialogue on both sides. I’m suggesting that the pursuit of the common good, rooted in respect for the transcendent dignity of the human person, and informed by the principles of solidarity, subsidiarity and participation, might help us on our way.

Let me give the last words to John Donne:

'No Man is an Island'

No man is an island entire of itself; every man

is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe

is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as

well as any manner of thy friends or of thine

own were; any man's death diminishes me,

because I am involved in mankind.

And therefore never send to know for whom

the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.


[1] Benedict R. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edn. (London: Verso, 1991).

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