07 November, 2009

European Union manages to offend Italy (again)

The European Union's Court of Human Rights recently ruled that the Italian government must pay damages to a family whose daughter had to endure the sight of a crucifix in every classroom. The National Catholic Registrar's daily blog offers disdainful commentary here; the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera editorializes here. Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy, has said that crucifixes will not be removed from the classrooms, adding with some interesting insight:

Non è rispettosa della realtà: l’Europa tutta e in particolare l’Italia non può non dirsi cristiana. …Se c’è una cosa su cui anche un ateo può convenire è che questa è la nostra storia. Ci sono 8 paesi d’Europa che hanno la croce nella loro bandiera… Cosa dovrebbero fare cambiare la loro bandiera?

([The decision] does not respect reality: no part of Europe, let alone Italy, can declare itself non-Christian. …Even an atheist can agree that this is our history. There are eight European nations that have the cross in their flag… What should they do, change their flags?
I think Berlusconi is undercounting here: European countries with the cross in their flag include Denmark, Finland, Greece, Norway, Portugal (implied in design), Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Maybe he's excluding countries that are not (yet) part of the European Union, but at this point we're picking nits. His overall point is appropriate.

To get an idea of the strong reaction throughout Italy, consider these observations that open the Italian editorial:
Il giovane Sami Albertin — la cui madre ha chiesto la rimozione del crocifisso dalle scuole statali approvata dalla Corte europea dei diritti dell’uomo, ricevendo per questo su forum e blog volgari insulti da chi, per il solo fatto di proferirli, non ha diritto di dirsi cristiano — dev’essere molto sensibile e delicato come una mimosa, se, com’egli dice, «si sentiva osservato» dagli occhi dei crocifissi appesi nella sua classe.

The mother of Sami Albertin requested the removal of the crucifix from state schools. The European Court of Human Rights has agreed. For this, they have received vulgar insults on forums and weblogs. Now, the mere fact of proffering such insults strips one of the right to call oneself Christian; nevertheless, this must be a very sensitive child, as delicate as a mimosa, if, as he says, he felt himself "watched" by the eyes on the crucifixes hung on his classroom wall.
This is not, let me point out, an opinion that happens to disagree with the long-term goal of a secular Europe; to the contrary, the author argues,
La difesa della laicità esige ben altre e più urgenti misure: ad esempio — uno fra i tanti — il rifiuto di finanziare le scuole private, cattoliche o no, e di parificarle a quella pubblica, come esortava il cattolicissimo e laicissimo Arturo Carlo Jemolo.

The defense of the secular state requires other, more urgent measures: as one example among many, the refusal to finance private schools, Catholic or otherwise, and to bring them up to par with public schools, as exhorted by the very Catholic and very secular Arturo Carlo Jemolo.
Nevertheless, he disagrees with the notion that the crucifix must be removed.

I myself believe strongly in the symbol of the Crucifix, and I pay money so that my son will attend a school where crucifixes are free to hang from the walls. I don't see it as the symbol of any institution, but as a dual acknowledgment of God's universal and infinite love for fallen creation, and of the wretched depths of that fall, that we would crucify our own God. Yet hanging it in the state schools symbolically runs the risk of making God an instrument of the (fallen) state, rather than the other way around. And I think the arguments made prove my point; since they are along the lines of, "This is our culture and our past and we will keep it."

A better argument, I say, is the following: "We want to direct our youths' minds to the necessity of self-giving, a human value that even state schools should foster. Even if you do not believe in the story behind the Crucifix, there is no symbol of self-giving, universal love that is more effective or pedagogical than this one. Indeed, it transcends our culture."

Update: Grahnlaw corrects a bit of confusion on my part (the EU and the Council of Europe are not the same) and on his website offers some thoughtful analysis. In particular,
The Catholic Church would hardly have reacted as clearly, if the crucifix was only a state symbol (in Italy). …Generally, I prefer the state and the public sector more broadly to be secular and non-discriminatory, but I think that tolerance is sometimes more valuable than a stubborn application of principle. [and in the comments, he adds:] Protection for a 'right' not to be offended cannot go very far (cf. blasphemy).


I'm also reminded some time ago of the EU Parliament's debate (I'm pretty sure it was EU here) on eradicating Nazi symbols from public places. This went on fine until some Eastern Europeans proposed banning Communist symbols from public places. Since Communists Parties so-named are still abundant in Western Europe, this created difficulties. I don't remember how it turned out.

7 comments:

Grahnlaw said...

The Council of Europe with 47 member states and its Court of Human Rights are not European Union institutions.

jack perry said...

I was genuinely unaware of this; thank you very much. Can you comment on whether the judgment is binding?

Brian Westley said...

A better argument, I say, is the following: "We want to direct our youths' minds to the necessity of self-giving, a human value that even state schools should foster. Even if you do not believe in the story behind the Crucifix, there is no symbol of self-giving, universal love that is more effective or pedagogical than this one. Indeed, it transcends our culture."

Even your better argument isn't good enough to use the power of the state to impose religion in state schools. What's the problem with actual religious freedom without interference from the government?

Grahnlaw said...

Jack Perry,

The members of the pan-European Council of Europe are sovereign states, but they have undertaken to enforce the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights, and the CoE monitors enforcement.

In this case the judgment is not final, because Italy will use the extraordinary means of referring the (unanimous) decision to the full Court.

jack perry said...

Grahnlaw,

Thank you very much. I was wondering whether Italy could in fact refuse to comply with the court's decision.

Brian,

I don't see it as imposing religion, any more than I see a frank discussion of Medieval Art and Church Architecture during a World History class to be am imposition of religion. But I'm not keen to debate this. What interests me more is your opinion on the matter that Berlusconi raises: do you feel the same way regarding the crosses that appear in the European nations' flags? Should those also be removed?

Brian Westley said...

I don't see it as imposing religion, any more than I see a frank discussion of Medieval Art and Church Architecture during a World History class to be am imposition of religion.

A disingenuous comparison. A discussion of medieval art during an appropriate class is very different from having a religious symbol hanging in every single classroom of every single day, whether the class is on mathematics, history, art, grammar, or anything else. Nazi propaganda is appropriate if the class is studying WWII, but it's very different if the school has nazi propaganda hanging in every class, every day, even in classes like math.

But if you aren't keen to debate this, why did you bother to write a blog post about it?

jack perry said...

Is there some rule that blogs must be debates, rather than an exchange of information and/or opinions?

Speaking of which, I'd still like to know your opinion on whether the crosses must be removed from European flags.

In any case, it is a fact that much of European history, and every subject of the curriculum, is intertwined in some way with Christianity, in both positive and negative ways. For centuries, the Catholic Church was the sole agent preserving ancient learning. Hanging a cross in the classroom, like working a cross into the design of the flag, acknowledges that fact—note that flags hang throughout Europe in front of civil buildings. Does that turn the flag, and therefore the building, into an agent of propaganda for Christianity?

Finally, the analogy with Nazism does not apply, for several reasons. First, Nazism did not hold sway over Europe for centuries. Second, many symbols of Nazi propaganda do remain on buildings, as do many symbols of Communist propaganda. Indeed, it's somewhat ironic that Communist parties continue to flourish throughout Europe, despite the very real damage they did during the twentieth century.

As it happens, I'm not opposed to any of this; in fact I once expressed the opinion (perhaps not on this weblog) that a EU resolution to remove all Nazi symbols from public spaces, along with a proposed amendment by Eastern Europeans to remove all Communist symbols—an amendment that sent the Western European Communists into conniptions—risked destroying important history.