Kant and Catholics (Buttiglione Blues II)

“I don’t know if I would have the faith to have my head cut off for my beliefs, but I have enough faith to renounce a job in the Commission if need be,” Mr Buttiglione told the BBC last Thursday in what appears to be a pre-emptive face-saving operation. Faith, of course, is what it is all about – and discrimination: “If I should be discriminated against because I am a Catholic, I prefer to remain a Catholic.” Although in the meantime Italian government comments on the affair have, wisely, been delegated to the diplomatic Mr Frattini, others have used even stronger words to describe what is happening: “Poor Europe: the arse-fuckers (culattoni) are in the majority” (Mr Tremaglia, Minister for “italians abroad”) , “Maybe we are being faced by a sort of ‘Berufsverbot’ against Christians” (Mr Buttiglione himself), and: “It looks like a new inquisition” (Cardinal Renato Martino, giving his expert opinion).

But could they have a case? Could it be that the politically correct thought police (not my words!) is judging Mr Buttiglione, who is definitely one of the most interesting of the new Commissioners, unfairly? I, for one, would not a priori exclude that possibility, so let us try to find out.

Two aspects in particular seem to be important: 1. Mr Buttiglione’s views on moral issues, and 2. how he intends to (not) translate these into politics.

1. Moral views: Sin, single mothers and homosexuality
Mr Buttiglione’s views on a number of key issues, which are close to the Vatican’s, have been widely reported in the media. Homosexuals are, in his opinion, sinners, marriage exists so women can raise children under the protection of their husbands, and a single mother is not a very good person.

However, Mr Buttiglione has also said that he does not regard most other sinners worse than himself, which, although hardly comforting for the thousands of gay adolescents struggling with their sexuality, still is an important nuance. On single mothers he later said that he had been quoted out of context, and that what he said was a metaphore for transatlantical relations (although this does not alter the fact that, for a metaphor, most speakers use images they assume are obvious for their audience). It should also be added that Mr Buttiglione did not mean to say women should not work at all – in fact, his party favours better facilities for working mothers so they can combine childcare with a career.

Whatever the nuances, it is clear that Mr Buttiglione’s values are, in the broad European context, on the conservative side. This is also how he sees it himself, for instance when formulating his political CDU party’s political credo (emphasis by eulogist):

Dobbiamo saper essere conservatori sul terreno dei grandi valori, riformisti su quello delle politiche istituzionali, liberali nell’economia e democratico-cristiani nelle politiche sociali, privilegiando, sempre e comunque, la difesa in concreto della dignità di ogni singola persona umana.

This conservatism emanates clearly from the central place of the family in CDU’s political programme. And make no mistake: it is an “obvious truth” that a ‘family’ can only consist of a man and a woman: “la famiglia è costituita da un uomo e una donna“. On its website, the leader of CDU’s parliamentary group underlines strongly that gay and unmarried couples do not qualify as families, for instance when allocating social housing. Such an “obvious manipulation of reality” could never be tolerated:

Per primi su questi temi siamo intervenuti, come per primi, nel settembre del 1996, con il collega Giovanardi, abbiamo sollevato il problema della sostanziale parità di trattamento nell’assegnazione delle abitazioni popolari tra famiglie riconosciute dalla Costituzione, coppie di fatto e coppie gay. Il nostro Stato democratico, la nostra Costituzione e il nostro Parlamento non posso accettare quest’evidente manipolazione della realtà.

Not surprisingly, Mr Buttiglione and his CDU party are strongly opposed to abortion (legalised by ‘law 194’ in Italy) and any research in the field of therapeutical cloning. And the French daily Le Monde recalls in an article how Mr Buttiglione stopped very short of calling AIDS a punishment from God at a Vatican sponsored conference in 1989.

However, as his supporters do not cease to point out, Mr Buttiglione does endorse the anti-discrimination paragraphs in the EU Treaties (articles 6 and 7 TEU, article 13 TEC).

2. Moral and legal laws: Kant and freedom
So far Mr Buttiglione’s values. The real test is, of course, in his actions: he is entitled to be as conservative as he wants in his opinions, but as long as his policies take sufficient account of other views there should not be any problem. In his hearing by the European Parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs (LIBE), the professor of philosophy refered to Immanuel Kant to make clear that not everything that is immoral should be prohibited: “I may think that homosexuality is a sin, and this has no effect on politics, unless I say that homosexuality is a crime.

Kant, famous for his “categorical imperative” as the prime motivator of moral action, did indeed distinguish between moral and legal laws. As an intentionalist, someone who is interested in the motivation behind people’s actions, he attached great value to moral righteousness: people should do the right thing of their own accord, not because they are forced to. Most of what is ‘right’ should be achieved by people doing the right thing out of conviction. Coercion by law is there only for what remains. For Kant, what is morally right could be discovered from the general principle laid down in his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”. Its extension to the realm of politics meant that there should be established: “A constitution allowing the greatest possible human freedom in accordance with laws which ensure that the freedom of each can coexist with the freedom of all the others.” This leads to a rather limited expectation of how much of ‘the right thing’ can be achieved through the state. The role of the state, according to Kant, was therefore not to make people happy (which was why he opposed utilitarianism); happiness was something for the individual.

If this seems quite liberal, we should not forget that for Kant, there was only one moral right: he was definitely not a moral relativist or subjectivist, nor did he, in his time, have to deal with the problem of clashing value systems forced to coexist within one state or globalised world. The “internalisation (into the individual conscience) of moral sources” that is characteristic for modern western thought and is the source of its built-in tolerance had only just begun in Kant’s time.

It is this caveat which we, as modern readers, should keep in mind when reading 18th-century pleas for individual freedom like Kant’s. Even more so when when they return in 21st-century accounts drawing heavily on thinking that predates the Enlightenment, like those of conservative christians. Mr Buttiglione favours “individual freedom”, “respect for the person” and “non-discrimination” and refers to Kant in order to make clear that “not everything” should be regulated by law. Familiar and reassuring words, that seem to refer to modern concepts. But this freedom, respect and non-discrimination is entirely defined within a value system that substantially predates modernity, a value system that is rigid, unipolar and external, and which is the only, unquestionable, road to morality. Kant, who after all was also a product of his time, saw no contradiction between his plea for equality and individual freedom, and his standpoint that woman could never be eligible to vote. Much in the same way, for Mr Buttiglione, his concept of freedom and non-discrimination does not include things like abortion or equal treatment of homosexuals. It is, quite literally, “freedom, but not as we know it”.

It is also this pre-Enlightenment kind of ‘liberation’ which is refered to in the names of movements like “Communione e Liberazione“, which was cofounded by Mr Buttiglione. It is “fundamentalist” in the true sense of the word: it is highly critical of the “hedonism” of the modern world and does not distinguish between politics and the doctrines of faith. Nor, it has to be feared, does Mr Buttiglione, who, for instance, tried to remove sexual orientation from the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination in the European Constitution. This is the same list he now vowes to defend as a Commissioner.

From the non-fundamentalist point of view, there are still numerous discrepancies between the principles of human rights and non-discrimination laid down in the EU Treaties on the one hand, and Member State and EU laws and practices on the other. Think of differences in ‘age of consent’ for hetero- and homosexuals, the position of women, reproductive rights or the mutual recognition of national marriage and partnership arrangements. The European Commission could play an important role in bringing more unity and consistency with fundamental principles in this area. As I pointed out earlier, Mr Buttiglione would, in his role of European Commissioner for Justice and Home Affairs, be the sole person who could take initiatives in this area, but it should be clear by now that he will not do so. That is the main problem with his appointment: not what he will do (as we still have the Council and the European Parliament to block any proposals that are too much out of centre), but what he will not do.

updated: 23-10-04 16:40

latest news updates:
26-10-04 13:47 – Le président des eurodéputés libéraux tente de sauver la Commission Barroso (Le Monde)
26-10-04 10:05 – Barroso warns of EU crisis, urges Parliament to accept his 24-member team (CNN)
26-10-04 05:00 – Concessions offered by EC president as crunch vote looms (Guardian)
22-10-04 14:07 – M. Barroso reste sous la menace d’une censure du Parlement européen (le Monde)
22-10-04 08:45 – No absolution for Buttiglione (EurActiv)
21-10-04 18:01 – Buttiglione peace plan rejected (EUpolitix)
21-10-04 14:30 – Barroso’s EU line-up stays – Buttiglione ‘sorry’ (EUpolitix)
21-10-04 12:32 – Barroso offers to cut Buttiglione duties (FT)

4 Responses to “Kant and Catholics (Buttiglione Blues II)”

  1. Reflections on European Democracy » Barroso: Exit without a strategy? Says:

    […] uld not only be good news for civil liberties in the European Union (I have explained in a previous post why I think Mr Buttiglione’s d […]

  2. Reflections on European Democracy » Values that shake the world: II - Tolerance in the Netherlands Says:

    […] reasingly rights-oriented instead of virtue-oriented. They do indeed, as Buttiglione said (and as he does himself!), fail to distinguish betw […]

  3. Hero von Esens Says:

    Your analysis is interesting but in its cloudy philosophical musings it doesn´t engage with the fact that Buttiglione was attacked because (a) he is a traditionalist Catholic, and (b) he was Berlusconi´s nominee and ally, and berlusconi had mocked the EU Parliament´s leader of the left. This case and that of Austria demonstrate the EU Parliament´s absolute inability to stomach serious opposition. In bulldozing such opposition out of the way, it tends to go for symbolic, rather than substantive, targets. This is a serious failing and no good will come of it.

  4. eulogist Says:

    (1) The indeed rather ill-advised sanctions against Austria (when it included the far-right FPÖ party in its coalition government) were entirely the making of the 14 national governments of the Member States. The sanctions were also (supposedly at least) bilateral, between each of those countries and Austria. They were not EU sanctions: the European Commission continued its relations with Austria as before. The European Parliament adopted a resolution that was highly critical on the political issues (i.e. the FPÖ’s viewpoints and its inclusion in the Austrian government), but carefully avoided supporting the sanctions issued by the national governments. All in all, I would say the reaction of the European institutions was much more mature than that of the national governments.
    (2) From my own experience with the EP, I am pretty sure that a majority there does take offence at Mr Buttiglione’s views on women and homosexuals (which I recall he also tried to put into law, contrary to what he says) and would have voted him out under any circumstances. It is true that Mr Berlusconi is by many MEPs considered a clown and an idiot, but that does not extend to just anyone in his government. Several of his ministers (including the now Commissioner Frattini) are actually widely respected.
    (3) Yes, Buttiglione was voted out because he is a traditionalist catholic. The European Parliament, rather than being the lapdog of national governments, held the EU “government” to account and voted out a Commissioner whose views a majority of its members does not agree with. That is what parliaments do, it is called democracy. Why is it that the pro-Buttiglione people are such bad losers?

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