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Behind the European bishops’ reluctance to acknowledge Brexit

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 04, 2020

In case you missed the announcement, despite Brexit the Catholic bishops of the United Kingdom will continue to participate in COMECE. COMECE, in case you’ve forgotten (or never knew) is the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union. So the bishops of the UK—which is not a member of the EU—will remain active in an umbrella organization for bishops of countries in the EU.

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There are precedents for this, actually. For example, the bishops of Northern Ireland are members of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, although Northern Ireland is politically separate from Ireland. This odd sort of arrangement usually reflects a tacit belief among Catholics (or at least among Catholic bishops) that the political boundaries are not properly placed—in this case, a sympathy for the age-old belief that Ireland is a single nation.

(There is more than a little irony, by the way, in the fact that many people in Northern Ireland are now anxious to achieve union with the Irish Republic, in order to avoid the consequences of Brexit and remain in the European Union. There’s still more irony in the fact that in all of Ireland today, the only major political party that supports the pro-life cause is the Democratic Unionist Party in the north—the party founded by the notoriously anti-Catholic Ian Paisley. But that’s another story.)

In this case, COMECE has not been particularly subtle about its institutional sympathies. The group has been extremely consistent in its support for the EU, and expressed deep misgivings about Brexit—misgivings that were repeated in the COMECE statement released after the January 31 break.

“Even if the United Kingdom is no longer part of the EU, it will continue being part of Europe,” COMECE stated. And later: “Despite Brexit, the Bishops’ Conferences of the United Kingdom will remain an integral part of the Church in Europe.” Both statements are true, of course. No one has suggested that the UK is seceding from Europe. The question—which was finally resolved last week—was whether the UK would remain a part of a particular political body known as the European Union.

Should Catholics support that particular political body? That’s obviously a political judgment: a prudential question, which should be decided by lay Catholics, acting in their own proper sphere—not by bishops, still less by episcopal conferences.

But, you might say, if Europe has a common culture, doesn’t it make sense to create a group that brings together the Catholic bishops of the European nations, just are there are organizations that bring together the bishops of Africa and of Latin America? Yes, it does make sense. And there is such a group: the Council of Bishops’ Conference of Europe (CCEE). So if the goal is to ensure that the bishops of the UK remain active in the deliberations of Catholic bishops from all over Europe, that goal can be achieved through the CCEE.

But the goal of COMECE is somewhat different. The purpose of COMECE is to facilitate relationships between the Catholic hierarchy and the political institutions of the EU. Since the UK is no longer involved with those institutions, it’s hard to see why the bishops of the UK should be involved with COMECE.

Unless, of course, the unspoken reason for retaining a British presence in COMECE is to work toward a time when Brexit might be undone, and the UK return to the EU fold. Like every organization, like every bureaucracy, COMECE has its own institutional interests. Having been joined to the EU since its creation, COMECE takes that the existence of that political body for granted, and any suggestion that the EU should be abandoned is, implicitly, a suggestion that COMECE might be disbanded as well.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: wenner1687 - Feb. 05, 2020 4:40 AM ET USA

    I don't want the already invertebrate UK Bishops to have ANYTHING to do with any ecclesiastical Quango which includes the heretical German Bishops as members in good standing. It is a lie that post-Christian Europe "shares a common culture": The political equality and fraternity encouraged by the EU is not Christian, but based on Freemasonic ideals. What has the Kingdom of God to do with the kingdom of darkness? British Catholics should protest to UK bishops, not that it will do any good.