Opening presentation of Bishop Noel Treanor to the Joint Committee on European Affairs

16 Sep 2009

16 September 2009

Opening presentation to the Joint Committee on European Affairs by Bishop Noel Treanor, Representative of the Irish Bishops’ Conference to COMECE

Mr Chairman, I thank the members of the Joint Committee on Europe for their invitation to discuss the Lisbon Treaty. I do so with respect for your particular role and competence as political representatives. The Standing Committee of the Irish Bishops’ Conference will make a statement on the issue of the Lisbon Treaty in due course. I have accepted your invitation in my capacity as the representative of the Irish Bishops’ Conference to COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community. I served that organization in Brussels for almost twenty years before returning to Ireland last year to become Bishop of the Diocese of Down and Connor. 

I join you today with the support of His Eminence Cardinal Seán Brady, Primate of All-Ireland and President of the Irish Bishops’ Conference. I convey his good wishes to the members of the Joint Committee and his appreciation for your respectful dialogue with him on this same issue in November of last year.

On that occasion, Cardinal Brady highlighted the critical role played by Irish Christianity in establishing the founding ideals of a united Europe and he spoke of believing ‘passionately in the European Union’. Confidence in ourselves as a people, confidence in our capacity to mould and shape Europe, this confidence – rather than fear or suspicion – should mark our fundamental attitude to Europe.

Cardinal Brady also made it clear on that occasion that a committed Catholic, even before the current legal guarantees had been secured, could vote in favour of the Lisbon Treaty.

I begin by echoing that conviction. I state unequivocally that a Catholic can, without reserve and in good conscience, vote ‘Yes’ for the Lisbon Treaty. There are no grounds to justify a ‘No’ vote in the Lisbon Treaty on the basis of specifically religious or ethical concerns.

As to other grounds on which citizens may choose to vote, such as economic or political considerations, this is a matter of prudential political judgment for each individual based on an informed and accurate assessment of all of the issues involved.

Accuracy is essential in this regard. The moral claim on all involved in this debate encompasses the duty to provide accurate information and to avoid provoking unfounded fears through misinformation. In the debate, the question of values applies not just to the content of the Treaty but also to the way in which the debate itself is conducted and the accuracy with which the EU institutions are presented. Here it is worth recalling the statement made by the Irish Bishops’ Conference prior to the first Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in May 2008. In that text the Bishops cautioned against ‘those who would seek to influence the outcome of the referendum either by offering misleading or even patently incorrect advice or by introducing extraneous factors into the debate.’[1] Unfortunately, there is evidence that there are a number of publications and organisations who are intent once again on influencing the outcome of the forthcoming referendum by introducing misleading or inaccurate information. This includes suggesting, for example, that the Lisbon Treaty would undermine existing legal protections in Ireland for unborn children. It is important to point out that no organisation actively lobbying in the current campaign, using either print or other media, speaks for or on behalf of the Catholic Church.

The Lisbon Treaty does not alter the legal position of abortion in Ireland. This is further assured by the legal guarantees (which will become protocols) secured by the Irish Government in the period since the first referendum. These legal guarantees represent a welcome and significant clarification of already existing safeguards in the relationship between the competence of the EU institutions and national sovereignty on important ethical issues.

In weighing up the Lisbon Treaty, citizens will wish to take account of the opportunities as well as the challenges which go with participating in a free, democratic political system at both national and EU level. Two vitally important considerations arise here.

The first is the concern about a ‘creeping’ impact of EU institutions on important ethical issues falling within national competence. While I am satisfied that the Lisbon Treaty does not give grounds for such concern, admittedly it is impossible to predict every future direction of legislation, jurisprudence and policy in a democratic system. Here the competent and robust exercise of their representative functions by our elected Ministers, acting in the Council, and by our Members of the European Parliament will be determinative in co-shaping, with our fellow Europeans, the ethical and societal fabric of tomorrow’s Europe. Moreover, those who do this work on our behalf will be elected by us, as has been the case since Ireland freely chose to become a member of the European Union.

The second consideration is that the debates about moral values and public policy are as much part of the national cultural and political environment as they are at the EU level. Many of the concerns which have been expressed about the Lisbon Treaty and ethical issues arising from it are already a matter of democratic debate at national level. Fear and uncertainty in the face of some of the issues proper to the national level are being projected on to the EU and the Treaty. In the same way it would be unrealistic and inappropriate, precisely because of the principle of subsidiarity, to expect the EU to protect against the outcome of democratic debates about ethics and culture at a national level.

Whether it is the influence of secular ideology, cultural forces which undermine a consistent ethic of life, or concerns about the status of marriage and the family, the ideal of participation invites Christians to engage fully with the representative and democratic institutions available to them at both national and EU level. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, Christians need to ‘be actively present in the public debate on a European level, knowing that this discussion is now an integral part of the national debate.’[2] We need to promote the dialogue of reason and faith in the life of the EU and its institutions. Citizens of religious faith need to secure and use the opportunities provided to Churches and faith based organisations in Article 17 of the Lisbon Treaty to secure their rightful place in the dialogue about Europe and its values. This Article provides an invaluable and unprecedented opportunity for Churches and faith communities by recognising for the first time in the primary law of the EU the existing status of Churches at a national level, their ‘identity and specific contribution’ to society and by committing the European Union to ‘maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue’ with them.

A rejection of the Lisbon Treaty might jeopardise this important achievement for faith and society and might therefore weaken rather than strengthen the influence of our Christian heritage and values on the future direction of the European Union and its prospect as a community of values.

As they cast their vote on the referendum each citizen will remember that the European Union is a project and a process. It is a process which is still young and in some respects fragile.  The Lisbon Treaty marks an important point in its evolution but it is not the final word on the potential direction and identity of the EU project. The Union will develop further in years to come. Our political representatives, elected by us, will continue to have the responsibility to shape and develop it further. They will do so within the EU institutional framework on the basis of the democratic and transparent procedures agreed by the member States. The opportunity to co-determine with our fellow Europeans the shape and quality of the future of Europe is enhanced, not diminished, by the Lisbon Treaty.

Ireland’s role in shaping this historic project as a key member State should not be put at risk by a vote based on frustrations or even anger with domestic political parties. Similarly, concerns about our economic or other difficulties at a domestic level should not fuel a ‘no’ vote. It is my belief that the EU is a necessary and vital support to Ireland and its economy in addressing these issues.

The Catholic Church has consistently supported the general aims and direction of the EU. It has engaged constructively and transparently with its institutions. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI:

‘If, after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, certain excessive hopes were disappointed, and on some points justified criticisms can be raised about certain European Institutions, the process of unification remains a most significant achievement which has brought about a period of unwonted peace to this continent, formerly consumed by constant conflicts and fatal fratricidal wars. For the countries of central and Eastern Europe in particular, participating in this process is a further incentive to the consolidation of freedom, the constitutional state and democracy within their borders.’[3]

In a participative democracy, such as we enjoy here in Ireland, the primary responsibility for clarifying and promoting the Lisbon Treaty rests primarily with politicians. The Church recognises, respects and does not usurp this responsibility. The Church rather reminds all Christians of their duty to vote on matters of such importance on the basis of accurate information, and an informed conscience and with due regard for the pursuit of solidarity and the global common good.

Allow me to conclude with the following words from Pope Benedict XVI in reiterating my respect for your responsible and important task as members of our national legislature:

‘I am sure that God will bless the generous efforts of all who, in a spirit of service, work to build a common European home where every cultural, social and political contribution is directed towards the common good. To you, already involved in different ways in this important human and evangelical undertaking, I express my support and my most fervent encouragement.’[4]

Thank you.


[1] Irish Episcopal Conference, Pastoral Reflection on the Lisbon Treaty: Fostering a Community of Values, 29th May 2008
[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to COMECE Conference, Vatican City, 24 March 2007
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Authorities and the Diplomatic Corps, Hofburg, Vienna, 7th September 2007.
[4] Ibid.

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