Cardinal warns EU officials risk populist backlash if they marginalize Christianity


ROME — A top European cardinal says efforts by some in the European Union to remove language referring to “Christmas” could push some Christians into supporting populist politicians.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg argued that the answer to the European Union having many religions and cultures is not to lock religions out, but to give them all access to the public space.

The prelate was answering a question about guidelines for internal use signed by the European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli of Malta, who had to retract them 24 hours after they were made public by an Italian newspaper earlier this month.

Leaked to the media on the first Monday of Advent, the dossier recommended stopping the use of the word “Christmas” since it’s not an “inclusive” term, and to instead replace the classic “Merry Christmas” greeting with a “Happy Holidays” and to refer to the Christmas holidays as the “winter break.”

“I think the European Union wanted to do no harm when they gave this instruction, but they had no feeling of how Christians would receive such a notice,” Hollerich said Friday. “Pope Francis called them anachronistic and he is right.”

The cardinal also acknowledged the fact that Europe today is a multicultural and multireligious entity, though statistics show the citizens in virtually all of the countries of the Union describe themselves as Christians. But the answer to making all feel welcome “is not to put religions in the sphere of the private, but to give access to the public space to all religions.”

Pope Francis greets Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, during an audience at the Vatican June 11, 2021.
(Credit: CNS photo/Vatican Media.)

Refusing to name Christmas when the reason for the celebration’s existence is the birth of Christ, and instead wish others “a nice winter feast or whatever,” is in fact, “a practical discrimination of Christians which we cannot accept.”

On the other hand, Hollerich, who heads the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), argued that this active discrimination against Christians from the Union is “politically not a very good step, because it pushes Catholics towards parties that are populist but with a Catholic discourse.”

“We have to encourage Catholic politicians not to be afraid to do politics motivated by their Christian faith,” he said. “If Catholic people in Europe see such politicians, they will not fall into the trap of populist politicians who use the name of Christianity to justify their very, nearly anti-Christian [orientation] in their practical attitudes.”

RELATED: Cardinal warns the rise of nationalist parties shows Europe is ‘fragile’

Cardinal Peter Turkson, who heads the Vatican’s Dicastery for an Integral Human Development, agreed with his Luxemburg peer, and building on his comments – which came during a press conference held in the Holy See’s press office – described the guidelines as a reflection of the desire of politicians to create a space for dialogue and to make people of all religions welcome.

“But to enter into dialogue you don’t need to lose your identity nor do you need to share the identity of the other enter into dialogue with them,” the Ghanaian prelate said. “Dialogue is rather a cause for affirmation of our identity, and an effort to understand and get to know the other dialogue partners.”

Third European Catholic Social Days

Hollerich and Turkson were presenting the Third European Catholic Social Days, which will be held March 17-20, 2022, in Bratislava. If travel conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic make the in-presence summit complicated, the event will be held online. 

Though the summit was in the works before the coronavirus pandemic, Hollerich said the health crisis had an impact on the final program of the event.

“The consequences of the pandemic have shaken the apparent certainties of our political, economic and societal systems, and exposed our vulnerabilities,” he said. “Let us not forget that the COVID-19 pandemic has come at a time already marked by demographic imbalances, technological disruption, and ecological injustices.”

With an eye on “Europe beyond the pandemic” and towards “a new beginning,” the event will be an occasion to reflect on the importance of solidarity and social justice in a Europe in transition, the prelate said. 

Over 300 delegates sent by the bishops’ conferences of Europe – among whom are young people, academics, EU and national politicians and Church representatives – will come together in the capital of Slovakia to contribute to the process of discernment on key social issues in Europe. 

“Our aim is to reflect and debate on the way forward towards a just recovery in Europe, and through this reflection, contribute to the rebuilding process from a Christian perspective,” Hollerich said, speaking of three main transitions that will be explored during the present era: the demographic transition and family life; the technological and digital transition; the ecological transition.”

The previous European Catholic Social Days were held in Gdansk, Poland, in 2009, and in Madrid, Spain, in 2014.

At the end of the first edition of the Catholic Social Days in Gdansk, participants encouraged all of us “not to be afraid. Solidarity, they stated, is the basis of our common future,” Hollerich said. “Selfish behavior and materialism must give way to solidarity, as the current health crisis has shown. We must let the principle of solidarity guide our actions and remain united throughout Europe to share the burden of its socio-economic implications.”

The event is organized by the Commission of the Bishops’ (COMECE), the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE) and the Slovak Bishops’ Conference, in collaboration with the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

The chosen title of the event is “Europe beyond the pandemic: a new beginning.” And the under-title is “European societies in Transition: a Christian contribution towards Solidarity and Social justice.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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