Catholics see devout losing out on EU jobs

The European Parliament's revolt against a new EU commissioner who sees homosexuality as a sin has left devout Catholics wondering if their beliefs are now so politically incorrect as to rule them out for high office.

Rocco Buttiglione, the conservative Italian Catholic named as the incoming justice commissioner, has come under a storm of criticism from the European left for slighting gays and saying marriage existed for women to have children and male protection.

The Italian communist newspaper Il Manifesto has branded Catholics like him "theo-cons," a play on the neo-conservatives it opposes in the administration of United States President George W. Bush, another fervent Christian.

The Vatican fired back vigorously, with a senior cardinal warning against "a new Inquisition." Outraged Italian Catholic intellectuals charged that anti-Catholicism was the anti-Semitism of modern secular Europe.

"This is the signal that believing Christians can't apply for certain jobs within the EU," Catholic Bishop Joseph Duffy of Clogher in Ireland told the Irish Independent newspaper, accusing Buttiglione's critics of "pure intolerance."


Odon Vallet, historian of religion at the Sorbonne in Paris, said believers were not excluded from politics in secularised Europe. But speaking about religion was becoming increasingly divisive and EU commissioners should not preach personal views.

"The big debates used to be about ideology -- for or against Marxism," he told Reuters. "But Marxism has collapsed and theology has replaced ideology."

Vallet noted that the European Parliament had approved as new EU transport chief Jacques Barrot of France, where the strict separation of church and state means politicians rarely mention faith, even if they are staunch believers themselves.

"Jacques Barrot is a convinced Catholic and a former seminarian, but he avoids mentioning his personal convictions when discussing political issues," he said. Buttiglione's views were "respectable but in the minority in Europe."

Earlier Catholic leaders such as EU founders Konrad Adenauer of Germany and Robert Schuman of France or former EU Commission President Jacques Delors tended to translate their religious belief into a secular concern for social welfare and justice.

In recent years, conservative Catholics have stressed the more controversial sphere of personal morality. "Traditionalist Catholics like Buttiglione think they cannot separate their personal convictions and their political activity," said Vallet.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the French-German Green deputy in the European Parliament, said the clash between Buttiglione's private views and his public duty to protect rights in the EU led him to oppose his nomination.

"He has to make clear he would actively fight against the discrimination of homosexuals," said Cohn-Bendit. "If he sees this as a sin and is so disgusted by it, how can he do that?"


Across Europe, Christian churches have become one voice among many in public debates and are no longer a reference.

In traditionally Catholic Spain, faith itself is no problem.

"But if politicians were to make an overtly religious statement in the context of their political activity, like Buttiglione, they would be ridiculed and rejected," said Madrid sociologist Juan Diez.

Ireland's Catholic Church lost much of its moral authority in a series of sex scandals in the 1990s.

"Politicians tend to steer clear of religious issues and the church mostly stays out of politics," said Michael Marsh, head of the political science department at Trinity College in Dublin.

"It would be problematic in Germany today for a politician to present himself as a devout Christian in the way that President George W. Bush does in America," said Richard Hilmer of the German polling group Infratest.

Prime Minister Tony Blair comes closest to Bush's religious bent and is spoofed in the satirical magazine Private Eye as "the vicar of St Albion" for it. The media have asked recently if he will convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism.

His Swedish counterpart Goran Persson considered becoming a Lutheran pastor before entering politics but does not speak much about religion. "I always say I don't know whether I believe or not but I think that I believe," he said last year.

Prime Minister Kyell Magne Bondevik in Norway, which is not an EU member, is a Lutheran minister who stresses morality in politics but also keeps in step with his liberal society.

A member of his cabinet, Finance Minister Per-Kristian Foss, married his homosexual partner in 2002.