This article was first published by the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Cambridge, here, April 2017, together with a companion piece by Professor Richard Bauckham arguing for an opposing position.
In the year of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, the UK has formally triggered its departure from the European Union. These two events, so distant in time, are inherently connected in a specific way that we all need to recognise.
The great historian of Christian thought, Jaroslav Pelikan, called the Reformation a ‘tragic necessity’. Catholics, he argued, take the tragedy of it for granted but tend not to recognise how necessary it was. Protestants take the Reformation’s necessity for granted but at best downplay the tragedy: the legacy of deep division and conflict, and so of woefully weakened Christian witness.
The UK’s departure from the EU is neither necessary nor a tragedy. We could be staying in and continuing to thrive; we are leaving and will continue to be an affluent, stable and culturally rich country. If our departure is momentous, this is less because of its impact on the UK than because it marks a reverse in one historical trajectory of movement beyond the Reformation’s divisive legacy. This is the connection we need to understand.
The history in question is of relations between political power and nationhood. Central within this story is nationalism, which makes the clearest and simplest claim about how power and nation should be related: each nation ought, as a matter of principle, to be a separate sovereign state. Nationalism emerged in the late 1700s and is arguably the most successful political ideology of modernity: in 1800 there were fewer than 20 recognizable nation-states; now there are more than 150.
The seeds of what became overt nationalist doctrine were sown earlier. The Reformation was followed by a century or so of war – Europe’s ‘wars of religion’ between dynastic powers defined in part by confessional difference. While some scholars, such as William Cavanaugh, argue that religious identity was much less a factor in those wars than a liberal conventional wisdom assumes, one reason for them was no doubt the belief held by most that civil peace was a practical impossibility without shared religious confession. In other words, they assumed that religious freedom was not a political option (just as we assume the opposite).
Against this background, the 1648 treaties of Westphalia that marked an end to those wars rested on one pragmatic formula: cuius regio, eius religio – to each country its own religion. This was a kind of giving-up. Neither Catholic nor Protestant powers were going to prevail everywhere, so all needed the modus vivendi this formula provided. As international relations students all learn, Westphalia was pivotal in bringing into being the modern world of sovereign states that we still inherit. A century or so after Westphalia, early nationalist thinkers, such as Herder, began to theorise this political order, not merely as a practical way of resolving conflict, but as an inherent part of God’s created order. The ideology of nationalism gave a rationalization for the post-Reformation division of Europe into separate states.
But nationalism was problematic, to say the least. Nationalist practice has contributed to some peoples under imperial subjection gaining freedom, but it has fostered innumerable wars. This is especially in places where there is no neat coincidence of national identity and territorial boundaries, of which there have been many (think, even now, of Israel/Palestine, the United Kingdom, the parts of the Middle East where Kurdish people live and the Ukraine). Both the First and Second World Wars were in large part generated by nationalism, the latter by an explicitly racist version – nationalism does not itself contain resources to prevent a slide in that direction.
It was especially these world wars that provoked a powerful reaction against the nationalist doctrine. Theologically, Karl Barth demolished the Herder vision of the world’s people as divided into nations by ‘nature’; rather, nations are phenomena only of history: they rise and fall in accordance with God’s inscrutable providence (Church Dogmatics, III.4, Sec. 54). Nations are just one of various forms of cultural community made possible by the rich potentials in the created order: family, tribe, neighbourhood, city, region, nation, even continent; Yorkshire, London, England, Britain, Europe... We can celebrate and love them all, even as we are aware of the pervasive ways human sin corrupts them. In contrast, by rationalizing ex post facto a political order that happened to emerge after conflict, nationalism privileged just one level of community and produced a kind of zero-sum picture of political order.
After 1939-1945, it was Christians in Europe who took the lead in seeing beyond nationalism, in practice and theory. As Chaplin and Wilton’s recent book brings out, it was in the light of their faith that Buchman, Schumann, Adenauer and de Gasperi, pioneers of the project that became the EU, recognised that sovereignty needed to be shared among different levels of government. The way to lasting peace and future prosperity depended on moving beyond the nationalist myth. In the whole post-Reformation period, this project was unprecedented. It had pivotal importance and has moved towards realization of its promise to an astonishing extent.
But in recent decades the European project has also gone wrong in certain ways; these even threaten to end it and to take the continent back to unmediated nationalist competition. The EU is supposed to embody not just solidarity but subsidiarity, and, in a parallel way to justice, subsidiarity needs to be both upheld and seen to be upheld. However desirable the Euro and the free movement of people might be, how are they consistent with the principle of subsidiarity? How can the economic vision incarnated in the German social market economy be sustained in a European economy that now appears virtually indistinguishable from a neoliberal paradise? Such lines of critique have been well made by, for example, Gisela Stuart (pro-Leave) and Adrian Pabst (pro-Remain).
More generally, have EU leaders (so many still Christian, especially Catholic) lost sight of the very great practical wisdom in Thomas Aquinas’s observation that law can effect cultural change only very slowly? If people are not ready, they will be ‘unable to bear such precepts’ and will ‘break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written “He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood”’ (Summa Theologiae, I-II 96.2, citing Prov. 30:33).
How should we read the signs of the times? I have argued that Brexit is a reverse in a long-term development of post-nationalist political order. But it can be also a sign that provokes people across Europe to reconnect the astonishing enterprise that is the EU with its original vision. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, surely should, as a matter of principle, support this historic project we call the European Union, even as we also can and should take the lead in pointing to its failings. That the EU survives and flourishes matters far more than whether the UK is a member, especially if we are all to continue to move, slowly, beyond the tragedy of the Reformation’s legacy of division and conflict.
Nicholas Townsend is a Research Associate at KLICE, a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College, Salisbury, and has written extensively on Catholic Social Teaching for the VPlater Project based at Newman University, Birmingham.