In his novel “A Legacy of Spies” John Le Carré ponders the relationship between England and Europe.
The most iconic character of his espionage tales, George Smiley, is an Englishman who has spent his life spying on the Soviets. Now retired in a post-Cold War world, he says to his subordinate Peter Guillam:
“So was it all for England, then? There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe.”
“A Legacy of Spies” was published in 2017, just one year after Britain passed a referendum in favor of leaving the European Union. Brexit has now become a ghost that haunts Europe and beyond.
The deadline for leaving the EU is Oct. 31, which is also Reformation Day. This is more than just a coincidence, given the historical-theological interpretation of the move that some Brexiteers have offered.
It is much more than a serious political situation. Rather, it represents a stark choice between whether to “leave the European Union” or to “remain.” They are two different choices that entail varying worldviews.
Brexit has become a sign of our times. It has been looked at from the perspective of economics, constitutional law, diplomacy and defense. However, very few people – including Church leaders – have discussed the repercussions of Brexit from the spiritual point of view.
There is the countless number of “leave vs. remain” choices that we face every day in a rapidly shifting world.
If it’s not leave or remain in the European Union, it’s about your job, your family, your country or your Church. In a world made of diasporas, we are all potential migrants and exiles – spiritually if not literally.
The whole debate about leaving or remaining in the Catholic Church in the times of the sex abuse crisis is a form of ecclesial Brexit.
The recent debate on the “options” of American Christians is just another way of presenting two contrasting visions of “leave vs. remain.” The best known is Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option,” which urges Christians to leave their local churches or parishes and Catholics to pull their children out of parochial schools in order to save their souls.
The situations and reasons why individuals choose to leave the European Union, their country or their Church are all different. But the questions these decisions raise are similar.
What do I expect from the future? Who is “us”? Who belongs and who does not? Do I still belong here? Is it possible to build a community with those who are or look different from me?
Sometimes one has no choice other than to leave (and to leave out others). But often the decision to leave is based on impoverished ideals: delusional expectations of self-sufficiency and an overly romanticized view of the past.
Whether it’s Brexit or the Benedict Option, it is not really a matter of practical convenience. It is actually elevated to a higher level.
The choice is always framed in moral terms: “the real ones” (real British, or real Christians) versus the illegitimate or the corrupt ones. In the intra-Catholic debate about Brexit, the leading voices who have campaigned since 2016 in favor of leaving the European Union are often part of neo-traditionalist Catholicism which sets itself apart from the rest of Catholics, a church within the Church.
The push for a “reform of the reforms” of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which seems to be fashionable among some Catholics in the United Kingdom, also has a political side – an astonishing enthusiasm for Brexit as fulfilling the dream of Victorian glories.
A scholarly article published at the beginning of 2019 studied the relationship between the values and shared history associated with one’s religion and the way a voter perceives the performance of the EU in delivering its policy objectives, as well as its operation as a legitimate institution. The article concluded that “the positive relationship between Catholicism and support for EU integration is not apparent in the UK.”
Brexit is a sign of our times because it shows the proliferation of fault lines compared to a much simpler map of the 20th century. The world of George Smiley had one major geopolitical scar: the Berlin Wall. It was the theater of clashing world views, but they met in one particular point on the map.
In today’s world, disrupted as it is by globalization, there are many geopolitical scars on the map – Lampedusa, Hong Kong, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, the US-Mexico border, the borders between Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. In all these instances there is a particularly rich history and presence of Christianity.
But added to today’s more complex moral and geopolitical landscape there is also an overly simplified religious narrative that tends to identify Christian character with culture in nationalistic terms.
Without a doubt, the Cold War was, at times, simplistically depicted as a great religious war between good and evil, between the godless and the God-fearing.
But there was also a spiritual reading of the West’s clash with Communism that included many nuances and warnings about the danger of a type of “God is on our side” self-righteousness.
This more nuanced reading was not only not found in Le Carre’s George Smiley novels, but also in Karl Barth’s 1958 “Letter to a Pastor in the German Democratic Republic” (East Germany), the 1965 document of the Lutheran Churches in Germany on “The Situation of Refugees and the Relations of the German People with Eastern Europe,” and John Paul II’s meditation of the false illusion of the morality of the victory of capitalism in his 1991 encyclical “Centesimus Annus.”
The narratives on the current global disruption have focused almost exclusively on the economic, political and security aspects of this multi-front crisis.
Without entering the specifics of the debate on the European Union, the one voice in the Catholic Church that has not gone missing on the spiritual aspect of leaving and remaining is that of Pope Francis.
In his speeches to the leaders of the European Union, the pope did not repeat his predecessors’ request to acknowledge the “Christian roots” of Europe.
Rather, he called the Church to face its responsibilities. In his May 2016 speech for the conferral of the Charlemagne Prize, Francis said:
“Only a Church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe.”
The decision to start the European project, on the rubbles of World War II, was also a spiritual endeavor. In the same way, the decision to leave or to remain also has a spiritual dimension that is much deeper than British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s use of biblical language in favor of leaving the EU as quickly as possible.
The underestimation of the spiritual dimension of “leave versus remain” – whether that be the EU, the Church or whatever else – reveals how little we know or value about the experience of migrants, despite the fact that we see them on our screens (at least) almost daily. Because within the phenomenon of migration there is a vastly untapped resource that could help us better understand the spirituality of leaving and of remaining.
Many migrants do not know the Church and even fewer know theology, but they know what leaving their family and their country does to their spirit and to the spirit of those who remain.
And yet, our Christian communities have done hardly anything to tap into this deposit of spiritual riches, probably because to do so would reveal tensions and contradictions.
One of those is that the price we must currently pay for this situation of mass displacement is only a small fraction of what we will end up paying for future migration movements caused by climate change.
Catholics will not find a simple answer in the Catechism, the documents of Vatican II, the Compendium of Catholic social doctrine or any of the papal encyclicals to guide their response to the European Union.
But in theological terms, the “fatal disproportion between the dream and reality” means the split between an idealized and ideological expectation of glory versus a humbler theology of incarnation in our fragmented reality.
The divisions around Brexit and the divisions within the Catholic Church both arise from different answers to the same question: is it possible to build a fraternal society and a shared humanity with non-believers and non-Christians, but also with Catholics and Christians of other nationalities and ethnicities?
This is not a battle between the Church and secularism or a battle between Christianity and other religions. In reality, it is a theological and spiritual crisis within Christianity itself.
The article was first published in La Croix International September 4, 2019.