“Why the Church should be wary of the EU”, David Twiston Davies highlights a concern that is both legitimate and far reaching and already rocking Europe.
It is the way of newspapers that the smallest stories often turn out the most significant; and this could well be true of last week’s Catholic Herald report of an attempt to force the Orthodox monastic communities on Mount Athos to change their rules. The 20 monasteries and their dependencies, which have been established on a peninsula in Northern Greece for 1,000 years, bar women visitors. They do not even tolerate the presence of female animals. But the long experience, which has taught the monks that this is the best way for them to live out their vocation, seems to count for little if it clashes with the system of fundamental human rights established in the European Union. Fode Sylla, a French MEP, has introduced a “proposal-report” into the European Parliament, recommending that Greece abandon its support for the monks’ prohibition.
Mount Athos comes under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, but enjoys the status of a semi-autonomous republic within Greece. Not only was this spelt out in the Greek constitution as recently as 1975, when Greece entered the European Union six years later the monasteries were specifically excluded from the jurisdiction of EU equality legislation. Recruits are drawn to the Holy Mountain from throughout the Orthodox world. Today there are now some 2,000 monks, almost double the number 40 years ago. But just as an individual risks compromising his independence when he accepts a large gift, they have weakened their position by accepting EU funds to help preserve both their treasures and the fabric of the monasteries. Their brethren on Valamo Island, on the Russian border with Finland, were more canny when they were offered an EU grant.
These monks’ suspicions were raised by the vast amount of paperwork that arrived; then, when the superior spotted the number 666 on one document, they rejected the offer as the Devil’s work.
The legal position of Mount Athos is unclear. Everyone has a right to decide who will be permitted to enter his house, and the monastic buildings are the monks’ homes. Although women cannot come into the monasteries to see how their taxpayers’ money is spent, the monasteries allow their works of art to appear in public exhibitions abroad.
The demand for Mount Atho’s exemptions to be ended failed to win majority support when it came before the European Parliament in Strasbourg; all the Greek MEPs (except for one woman) voted against the proposal. But the issue will return to the debating chamber. Few in the Greek Orthodox Church have total trust in the Athens government, particularly when Athens is frantically preparing to host the Olympic Games next year. It is also undeniable that anyone claiming to champion the cause of feminism makes a formidable opponent in today’s western world.
The potential consequences of a change on Mount Athos are enormous. It would not be long before somebody accuses the monasteries of the West of failing to fulfil European legislative requirements and told them to open their inner doors to outsiders. The clear implication is that the right to practise a religious faith must come second to the new fundamental rights. This could end in a demand for the Church to accept homosexual clergy and women priests.
Nevertheless the position is not hopeless. The Eastern European nations who will joint the EU next year are already uneasy about the EU’s agenda, and they may well join the resistance to such ambitions. But they must be willing to say “no” to money offered with EU strings attached.