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Irish bishop pushes for Yes vote on European treaty September 16, 2009

Sweeping aside the objections of pro-life activists, an influential Catholic bishop has stated the Catholic voters "can, without reserve and in good conscience, vote 'Yes' for the Lisbon Treaty" in a national referendum scheduled for October 2. In context, the statement by Bishop Noel Treanor is virtually an endorsement of the pact that would establish a new constitution for the European Union.

Bishop Treanor-- who, prior to his appointment to head the Down and Connor diocese, had served near European Union headquarters in Brussels as the secretary-general of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (COMECE)-- invoked the support of Armagh's Cardinal Sean Brady in his statement, which was delivered to a committee of the Oireachtas, Ireland's parliament, on September 15.

Although he stopped short of formally endorsing the Lisbon Treaty, saying that voters should make their own prudential judgments, Bishop Treanor made a point of rejecting the argument that the EU treaty could undermine support for the right to life in Ireland. He stated flatly: "There are no grounds to justify a ‘No’ vote in the Lisbon Treaty on the basis of specifically religious or ethical concerns."

Pro-life activists in Ireland-- as in other European countries-- have expressed concern that the Lisbon Treaty would make their nation's law subject to review by the European Court of Human Rights, which has shown a willingness to challenge national laws on abortion. (The European Court is currently weighing a case brought by three Irish women, who are challenging their country's ban on most abortions.) Bishop Treanor rejected those concerns with a blanket statement: "The Lisbon Treaty does not alter the legal position of abortion in Ireland." He did not address the concerns that Irish laws may be overturned by an EU court decision.

In fact, Bishop Treanor argues that Irish pro-life groups have distorted the debate on the upcoming referendum by supplying "misleading or inaccurate information" about the probable effects of the Lisbon Treaty. He pointedly reminded the Oireachtas committee that the groups campaigning for a 'No' vote in the October referendum were not endorsed by the hierarchy, stating that "no organization actively lobbying in the current campaign, using either print or other media, speaks for or on behalf of the Catholic Church."

Speaking himself as a representative of the Catholic hierarchy-- and explicitly assuring lawmakers that his views have the support of Cardinal Brady, the Primate of All Ireland-- Bishop Treanor left no doubt about his support for the Lisbon Treaty. He said that the agreement would solidify the development of a united European community, and emphasized the support that the Catholic Church has always given for European solidarity.

The all-but-explicit support given by Bishop Treanor-- and, by extension, the Irish Catholic hierarchy-- for the Lisbon Treaty is remarkable in three ways:

First, A push to endorse the Lisbon Treaty at this point appears to be an anti-democratic effort. The Irish people have already indicated their opposition to the European agreement. In June 2008, Irish voters rejected the EU treaty in a national referendum, by a clear majority of 53- 47%. That vote was a remarkable display of popular sentiment, in light of the fact that the treaty was unequivocally supported by all of the country's major political parties, and had the tacit support of the Catholic hierarchy. Ignoring the arguments of their own leaders, the Irish people chose to safeguard their own national sovereignty against any possible threats from European assimilation.

Almost as soon as those votes were cast in June 2008, Irish government leaders called for a new referendum, obviously hoping for a different result. Cardinal Brady joined in the plea for reconsideration, as did Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

But the Irish people had spoken in that referendum. And they were not alone. In similar referenda, in 2005, the citizens of France and of the Netherlands had rejected a proposal to endorse a new European constitution. The Lisbon Treaty is essentially the same document that voters have rejected in three different countries. Declan Ganley, a key figure in organizing opposition to the treaty in Ireland, recently asked the Wall Street Journal: "Why, when the French voted No, the Dutch voted No, and the Irish voted No, are we still being force-fed the same formula?"

Second, Bishop Treanor lightly dismisses the concern expressed by pro-life activists that the European treaty will force a change in Irish policies on questions such as abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research. In this statement to the Oireachtas committee, the bishop did not answer the argument that the Lisbon Treaty would make Irish laws subject to review by the European Court of Human Rights.

Third, Bishop Treanor's statement claimed that the Lisbon Treaty offered "an invaluable and unprecedented opportunity for churches and faith communities by recognizing for the first time in the primary law of the EU the existing status of churches at a national level." While it is true that the proposed European constitution acknowledges the roles of religious communities, the Lisbon Treaty falls far short of the goal set by Pope Benedict XVI-- and before him, Pope John Paul II-- for an explicit recognition of the Christian contribution to the formation of European culture. The proposed agreement recognizes the contributions of religious faith, without making the obvious point that European civilization is defined by the heritage of Christian culture.

For nearly a decade, the Vatican fought for a stronger recognition of the Christian contribution to European identity. The final wording of the European constitution, with its vague reference to religions in general, represents a defeat for the Vatican's lobbying effort. Yet Bishop Treanor argued to the Oireachtas committee that the lukewarm endorsement of religion in the European charter was not merely acceptable, but even a breakthrough. He said: "A rejection of the Lisbon Treaty might jeopardize 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."

Acceptance of the Lisbon Treaty would set the terms of Ireland's entry into the European Union, and acknowledge Irish acceptance of the European constitution. So it is interesting to compare the terms of the European agreement with those of Ireland's own constitution. Bishop Treanor cites the European pact as an "important achievement for faith and society," because of its general recognition of faith. In contrast, the Irish constitution begins with a preamble that makes a far more explicit profession of faith:

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ,….