Tombs, Real Estate and Crucifixes: Church-state relations in Europe today

This week has seen a concentrated spate of church-state events in Europe: a tomb raid in Belgium by government inspectors looking for hidden evidence relating to pedophilia investigations, a corruption case involving real estate deals managed by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, currently the Archbishop of Naples, and the continuing saga of the EU vs. crucifixes in Italy.

So far, despite sending a sharp-worded statement about the respect shown to the tombs in Belgium, the Vatican has given full signal to cooperate with the civil authorities in both cases, although it has reserved its diplomatic rights in the Sepe case as stipulated by its Concordat with Italy (stipulations the Vatican does not enjoy in Belgium).

These structures governing the relationship between religion and state, as Belgium attests, have a surprising degree of variance throughout Europe, and often reflect the success of negotiations between liberal and conservative forces over the future of religion in political life in the early 20th century. While often taking advantage of and trying to expand these privileges in the years immediately following these deals, the Church more or less backed away from them after she had re-found her footing, for better or worse, in modern, democratic, post-war European politics.

Depending on the country, and the institutional deal, the Church has tried to articulate a new, public and even political voice over the last twenty years in Europe, one more closely tied to its strength in “civil” society than in state institutions.

The political maneuvering in these two cases, therefore, might tell us something about the level of confidence the Church has in its relatively new role as a civil society leader and how much distance with a the world of authority and privilege the Church still feels it needs to give up to preserve that role in Europe as the pedophilia scandal continues to tread its wake across the continent.

Interesting questions to think about as Italy brings its appeal on the legal decision against keeping crucifixes in Italian schools before the European Union’s Human Rights Court today.