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An unprecedented vote by a commission of the European parliament underscores the growing conflict between extreme secularism and Christianity in Europe.

By Michael S. Rose | Print-friendly version

José Manuel Durao Barroso, the incoming European Commission president, disappointed his conservative supporters when he caved in to pressure from Socialist members of the European Parliament and withdrew his proposed 25-man slate of nominees to sit on the European Commission–a group similar in many ways to the President’s appointed cabinet in the US. His decision to withdraw his nominees, in order to put together a "better" team, was made on October 27, 2004–the very day that the 732-member EU parliament in Strasbourg was scheduled to vote on the nominations.

Up until that time, Barroso had called on the parliament to show "responsibility" by supporting him in what had promised to be an extremely close vote. Apparently he concluded, as the time for that vote arrived, that he could not win. He withdrew his nominees at the last moment, saying, "I have come to the conclusion that if a vote is taken today, the outcome will not be positive for European institutions or for the European project."

The controversy over Barroso’s nominees, which has thrown EU politics into disarray, centers primarily around just one nominee: Italy’s Rocco Buttiglione. Appointed as the European Union’s next Justice Commissioner, Buttiglione raised eyebrows when he aired his traditional views on women, homosexuality, and the family. His controversial comments came during a three-hour grilling by the European parliament over his conservative religious and moral views.


"The family exists in order to allow women to have children and to have the protection of a male who takes care of them," Buttiglione said at his confirmation hearing on October 5. "This is the traditional vision of marriage that I defend."

This comment was interpreted by some as degrading to women, especially single mothers, and as a condemnation of same-sex "marriage," which has been legally recognized in European countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and most recently in Spain, until recent times a Catholic stronghold of Europe.

During his hearing, Buttiglione also criticized the growing number of European women who put their careers before their families, pointing to the increasingly low birth rate in most EU countries, including Italy. And he defended his country’s recent crackdown on illegal immigrants, in which thousands of North Africans were deported earlier this year. "This is not an expulsion," he explained. "It is a refusal for entry at the border, which is in accordance with international law."

Buttiglione’s most controversial statement, however, came when he was quizzed on his views of homosexuality. "I may think that homosexuality is a sin," he said, "but this has no effect on politics, unless I say that homosexuality is a crime."

In his remarks on the subject, the nominee emphasized that as European Justice Commissioner, he would not try to enforce his personal beliefs. But listeners paid little attention to his reassurances on that score. Nor were reporters mollified when Buttiglione clarified his remarks, adding that he thinks all people are sinners–himself included. "I don’t think [others] to be worse sinners than myself," he said. "It is a theological issue, and it should not interfere with our policies." Nevertheless, the Associated Press characterized his remark that homosexual acts are sinful as "crude," while the BBC called it a "slur on gays."

These traditional views clearly rattled many members of the European parliament. Buttiglione was denounced by some as unfit for the important post of Europe’s Justice Commissioner. Josep Borrell, the Socialist president of parliament, described the Italian’s comments as "shocking," adding the observation that if Buttiglione would merely be in charge of beetroots, his strongly held traditional beliefs of sexual morality would not be such an important factor.

According to the logic of Buttiglione’s detractors, since the position of Justice Commissioner entails jurisdiction over issues of discrimination, including the rights of women and homosexuals, a man who operates according to a set of traditional moral principles is wholly unfit to look out for the welfare and freedom of European citizens. Following that logic, the Civil Liberties Committee of the European parliament voted, by a narrow 27-26 margin, to reject Buttiglione’s nomination. The committee cited the 56-year-old Christian Democrat’s "extreme" views. The same committee also voted, by 28-25, against the Italian’s re-appointment to a different EU post.

Although the parliamentary committee’s vote was not binding, this rejection of Buttiglione marked the first time that anyone appointed to a seat on the EU commission had ever been singled out as unacceptable for the post. The committee’s vote also served as the prelude to an escalating controversy that jeopardized the prospects for approval of Barroso’s nominees to the commission. The European parliament cannot reject individual commission nominees; it must accept or reject the entire panel of proposed commissioners. So the furor over Buttiglione’s nomination imperiled the entire slate, and raised questions about whether Barroso would have a leadership team in place when he took over the reins of the EU presidency.


Buttiglione was not without his supporters. Even the Portuguese Socialist Antonio Vitorino, the outgoing EU Justice Commissioner, publicly backed Buttiglione’s appointment. He said that while he did not agree with the Italian’s views on homosexuality, he believed that Buttiglione’s personal moral views would not "interfere" with his ability to handle issues of human rights and civil liberties.

A German member of parliament, Eva Klampt, suggested that opposition to the Italian politician was itself a contemptible form of discrimination. In an interview with BBC’s Europe Today program she said, "This is really discrimination against a man who has a personal religious belief."

Buttiglione, a professor of political science at Rome’s St. Pius V University, is known as a close friend and counselor of Pope John Paul II. He is the author of the intellectual biography Karol Wojtyla: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II. In the United States, he has ties with Michael Novak’s American Enterprise Institute, George Weigel’s Ethics and Policy Center, Father Robert Sirico’s Acton Institute, and Father Richard John Neuhaus’s Religion and Public Life Institute. The Italian Communist newspaper Il Manifesto has branded Buttiglione a "theo-con," in a scornful reference to the American "neoconservatives" with whom he associates.

As a devout Roman Catholic, Buttiglione holds to the traditional teachings of the Church on sexual morality and has consistently taken a conservative position on political issues involving the dignity of life, opposing abortion and artificial insemination. His stance on both of these issues was found to be "extreme" by Socialist members of the European parliament.

But beyond the questions about the nominee’s particular views and associations, the dispute over Buttiglione’s appointment highlights the growing conflict between secularism and Christianity in Europe. Writing in Corriere della Sera, Ernesto Galli noted that no true Catholic would say that he finds homosexuality morally acceptable. The parliamentary committee’s vote, he added, therefore "means in practice that, with few exceptions, anyone who adheres to Catholicism or shows it without reticence is no longer suitable to hold a position at the top of the EU [and that] Catholic Christianity is substantially incompatible with the principles on which Europe as an institution is based."

Avvenire’s Maurizio Blondet seconded Galli’s assessment, but went one step further. He argued that the debate in Europe is not so much about Buttiglione’s comments as about the reaction they provoked. He denounced the "open sneering" and "wicked delight" of Buttiglione’s detractors as ominous. Blondet said: "The fact that those sneers come from the sector that calls itself ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ throws a dark shadow over the future of freedom in Europe."

Perhaps the harshest critics of Buttiglione’s rejection have been high-ranking members of the Italian clergy. Ravenna’s Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, for example, told La Repubblica that the commission’s rejection of Buttiglione was "pure ostracism, an assault." The Vatican also responded, at least indirectly, when Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Vatican’s Justice and Peace Council, charged that "new holy inquisitions fueled by money and arrogance" were taking aim at the Church’s position on moral issues in Europe. Italian Catholic intellectuals pointed at the Buttiglione controversy as just another example of anti-Catholicism–a force that has become the contemporary equivalent of anti-Semitism in the new secular Europe.

What most commentators failed to point out is that Buttiglione’s comments represented the widely held opinions of the mainstream Catholic electorate in his native country. The sort of comments he made at his confirmation hearing are in fact de rigueur for politicians in Italy, where homosexual lobbyists have not yet gained the stronghold they have in some northern European nations.


Up until the day before the scheduled full parliamentary vote to ratify Barroso’s commission, the incoming president steadfastly maintained his support for his full slate of appointments. In an effort to ease the fears of those who were protesting the Buttiglione nomination, Barroso stressed that the Italian nominee would be just one member of the 25-man commission, and his entire team would be liberal enough to please the critics on questions of "sexual orientation." But again, those reassurances failed to disarm the critics.

The crisis within the European Union had ramifications for Italy’s internal political situation as well. Italy’s left-wing opposition parties hailed the parliamentary committee’s vote against Buttiglione, saying that the nomination had caused another embarrassing moment for Italy in the eyes of European institutions, and ultimately blaming the incident on the perceived missteps of the conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was primarily responsible for Buttiglione’s nomination. Berlusconi, for his part, criticized the parliamentary vote as a display of "fundamentalism," because it called into question "the freedom of conscience and opinion of a Catholic commissioner."

Rocco Buttiglione himself seemed largely unruffled by the escalating flap. "I have said what I think, and I gave honest answers. I’m satisfied with my situation," he told journalists at a press conference in Rome. "We must not be afraid of…confrontations sometimes. I think that Europe grows when we talk about the values we cherish."

At the same time, Buttiglione maintained that under no circumstances would he change his religious or moral beliefs in order to gain office. "I have already said several times that if I have to choose between the European Commission and my religious and moral beliefs, I would choose the latter," he told the Italian news agency ANSA.

Many left-leaning European political activists in fact wanted him to withdraw his own name from nomination, in order to save face for Barroso and ensure the quick approval of the rest of the new government team. Some pundits went so far as to attack Buttiglione’s honor, suggesting that any decent person would have had the good sense to step aside once he realized he had become the focus of so much controversy. Buttiglione–with firm backing from Berlusconi–refused to back down.

Barroso, after withdrawing his proposed nominees, went about the business of putting together a new commission, hoping to placate his political opponents without further alienating his conservative supporters. In a step that would accomplish the former goal (but endanger the latter), he vowed to create a new "rights agency" designed to handle directly "racial and sexual prejudice," and to draft EU legislation outlawing discrimination on grounds of "sexual orientation."


The Buttiglione controversy overshadowed October’s landmark meeting of European leaders in Rome, at which–amid great ceremony–the political heads of the 25 member-nations signed the European Constitutional Treaty. The signing of that document–which itself had been the focus of controversy, primarily because of a failed bid to include some mention of Europe’s Christian heritage in the preamble–marked the beginning of a campaign to win ratification votes in each of the nations across the continent.

The prolonged dispute over the Buttiglione nomination, which ultimately forced a delay in the start of Barroso’s presidential term, also underscored a growing concern about the limits being placed upon free speech in relation to political, religious, and moral views that do not conform to the militant secularism that now reigns in many European nations.

Sweden, for example, recently criminalized speech critical of homosexual behavior, allowing for penalties of up to four years in prison for offenders. And Sweden’s "hate crime" legislation is no idle proposition. It has already been used against a pastor of a Swedish Pentecostal church, the Rev. Ake Greene, who was prosecuted earlier this year for citing Biblical quotations denouncing sodomy during a sermon in his church.

The ramifications of rampant secularism for Catholic politicians in Europe could be equally serious. Some analysts now say that traditional Catholics need not apply for top posts in the European government, since they are allegedly unable to separate their personal convictions from their political activity. Ironically those who make such a claim (which, in principle, ought to be true) include those who–like the EU’s Green party deputy Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a famous radical activist of the late 1960s–color all of their own political activities with their idiosyncratic personal convictions on matters such as a woman’s "right" to procure an abortion, or the "right" of homosexuals to join in same-sex partnerships and receive all the same legal rights as married couples. In sum, what the whole affair boils down to, as Bishop Joseph Duffy observed in the Irish Independent, is "pure intolerance."

This article was originally published as "Catholics Need Not Apply" in the January 2005 edition of Catholic World Report.

Michael R. Rose, the editor of the Cruxnews.com web site, is the author of several books, including Goodbye, Good Men.


After the withdrawal of his nomination to serve as Justice Commissioner in the European Union, Rocco Buttiglione told the BBC television network that he had "suffered unfair discrimination." Buttiglione pointed out that during hearings before the European parliament he had made a point of saying that his views on homosexuality were private beliefs. Those views, he added, have "no impact on politics until I say that [homosexuality] is a crime, and I emphatically do not say that."

However, Buttiglione said that Europe today needs "to change some moral attitudes." Pointing to the recent American elections, in which 11 different states approved referenda barring same-sex marriage, he observed that "America has shown itself more religious and more attentive to values than Europe." He added that Europe could learn from the American example, because the US "is surely a symbol of economic efficiency, and sets the standard of that modernity which is a point of reference for so many policies even here in Europe."

A few days later Buttiglione added more fuel to the controversy by wondering aloud whether the Italian nominee who replaced him on the list of nominees to the European Commission was a Freemason. Buttiglione offered his best wishes to Franco Frattini. But then he added a warning shot, saying that during Frattini’s confirmation hearings, "I hope nobody asks him if he is a Freemason." It was not clear whether Buttiglione was actually charging that Frattini is a Freemason, or indicating that the new Italian nominee could be subjected to false accusations–as Buttiglione says he was.

The Masonic movement is legal, but highly unpopular, in Italy today. Scandals involving the exposure of Masonic lodges during the 1980s resulted in the collapse of the Christian Democratic government.

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