In the weeks and months before this fateful vote, unlike at General Elections, there was no collective guidance from the Catholic Bishops on the issues at stake in terms of Catholic social teaching, or indeed the interests of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in this country. This is doubtless because there was an honest case from the point of various Catholic Christians’ faith for either choice. The Church stands above the political fray, since its wisdom applies to this world from the Kingdom of heaven. But, after the result was known, it was clear that great bitterness and resentment was unleashed, with some terrible mutual recriminations – young versus old, north versus south, Scot versus English, British verse foreigners, even white versus those of other colours. Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops’ Conference, immediately called for calm, “respect and civility”, appealing to our better nature as a country, and to its implicitly Christian civilisation when it comes to a generous “welcome for the stranger and shelter for the needy”.
Let us now set the referendum decision and its aftermath explicitly in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Since we as Catholics strive for the communion of all in Christ in the Catholic faith, and by leading truly a spiritual life in union with Him, it is important that we look forward to the next year, with its undoubted upheavals ahead, with our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus Christ our pioneer on the life we pass through in this world (Hebrews 12.2).
This last week, I have heard of a Spanish restaurant in south London vandalised with offensive graffiti, and we all know of the similar attack on a Polish centre in north London. I also learned of a British charity for the needy, which has built up considerable work in other European countries, now considering a new office in Germany to protect its work across borders; and a Belgian colleague speaking Flemish to relatives on the phone on a bus, was confronted in public with a threat that her job was shortly to come to an end. Among us we know of numerous other incidents of physical and verbal assault, ranging from the xenophobic to the unvarnished racist.
To this we say that the Kingdoms of the World have become the Kingdom of the Lord and of His Christ (Apocalypse 11.15), and that the Kingdom of God transcends all our ideas of patriotism, nationality, nationalism, state-interest. “Here,” says St Paul, “we have no abiding city... for our true homeland is in heaven”. (Hebrews 13.14 & Philippians 3.20) And the Lord Himself says to "seek first the Kingdom of God" (Matthew 6.34). At Vatican II, the Church taught that the authority of the Church and of civil society are not subject one to the other, but are free to achieve their highest aims as they operate in their respective spheres. This does not mean that the Gospel and the authority of the Church to proclaim it fail to apply to the world, and that the Church must refrain from interfering in the affairs of society. On the contrary, it is the teaching of the Church that the objective of both Church and State, Religion and Society, is to serve the realisation of God’s Kingdom on earth. It is thus the Church’s prophetic duty to call the world, its leaders, its governments, its cultures, its societies and each individual member to constant repentance, to return again and again to the principles of the Beatitudes, to strain repeatedly to ‘hear the Angels sing’ of glory to God on high and peace on earth to those of good will, and thus to orient the entire world toward the blessed state that is ours by virtue of our creation in God’s own image.
Secondly, it is vital to recall that, in the beginning, what has now become the European Union (whatever you think of it) was established largely by Catholic Christians intent on realising this Kingdom of God in the hands of the remaining people of good will, transcending states and languages and divisions, so that the resources of Europe could never again be used for making war, or for oppressing the free dignity of human beings to live to the full before God, in faith and hope and love. No more Fascism and Nazism; no more atheist materialist communism. Everywhere confidence in truth, in goodness and justice.
What has emerged in the last few weeks has clearly been lying under the surface for years and now feels unbound and empowered to assert itself. Perhaps it is a catharsis that will soon be over as the poison is dissipated. Perhaps we face a more lasting darker outlook, recalling that such attitudes were once commonly assumed and potently pursued before the Second World War in this country as elsewhere. So we must remember that the Lord Who said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” went on to say, “and His righteousness.” It must therefore be the heartfelt duty of every Christian, who believes above all else in the Universal Reign of Jesus Christ over all peoples and nations, to withstand all thoughts, words and deeds that contradict His design for humanity’s perfect liberty in Him, and that contradict the dignity of all human beings, regardless of colour, race, religion, age, sex, or language, or outlook. It must be that Christians who “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” declare unrighteous, unChristian, all that stands against Christ’s will for us all, both to be one in His own single humanity and to thrive as He has appointed us in His single creation with all our differences and backgrounds and origins. For we see that by the Holy Spirit He has both been penetrating our societies so that they may providentially become more like His Kingdom, and is even now redeeming from them all their ills, oppressions, cruelties and acts of spiteful pride and wickedness, by the power of His holy Cross.
I fear that this will require of us great strengths in the time ahead as we make a new history. Perhaps we are in an unreal calm before a coming storm, or perhaps, as we hope with the Cardinal, we will prove after all to be good neighbours. Perhaps, though, when we insist as we must upon Christ’s bearing on the world, it will involve the further vilification of the Church. Perhaps to exalt the Kingdom of God and righteousness will involve profound sacrifices for the sake of the truth, of justice and the love of God. But the evil at work will not prevail. It must bow. For “the earth is the Lord’s with all that is in it” (Psalm 23.1) and “the Lord alone … will be King” (Zechariah 14.9); and “He will reign for ever” (Apocalypse 11.15). Him alone do we serve (cf. Matthew 4.8 & 10).