Making Europe: Saint Columbanus, Robert Schuman, and the Idea of Europe


[This post is the text of a lecture I delivered at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on 15 November 2018 for the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage and in Myshall, Co. Carlow for the 2019 National Heritage Week in Ireland at the invitation of Carlow County Museum. It won the “Le Cheile San Euroaip” (“Together in Europe”) Award at the National Heritage Week Awards at the Royal Irish Academy in 2020. The genesis for the lecture was an invitation from the Irish Embassy to the Holy See to speak on this topic in Rome in November 2015. I am grateful to Alan Fimister and to Henry Vyner-Brooks for sharing their work on Robert Schuman with me. I have learnt a great deal from both of them. Henry’s current book and film project is accessible here.]

The early medieval Irish monk Columbanus has been called the first European. His is one of the earliest and strongest voices of early Christian Ireland, the first Irish person to express a sense of Irish identity in writing, and the first to introduce us to the concept of a united Europe.

Columbanus (c. 550-615) and the French statesman and politician Robert Schuman (1886-1963) are two historical figures at either end of the spectrum of European history who have both been lauded in different ways as “Fathers of Europe”.

Despite the vast chronological gap that separates both men, what connects them was their idea of Europe: Columbanus was one of the first to voice the idea of Europe as a distinct community, while Schuman sought to build a new supranational community in Europe after the Second World War that was inspired by the same heritage and thought that had motivated Columbanus.


Now, seventy years after the Schuman Declaration on 9th May 1950 and the Treaty of Paris in 1951 that ratified the start of European economic integration, when the future of the European Union itself is uncertain, it is an opportune time to reflect on the origins and ideas that first underlay and gave impetus to this movement of European integration.

What does Europe now mean and what does it mean to be European when much of the ideological scaffolding that supported the historical development of Europe has fallen away or been discarded as irrelevant or cumbersome in contemporary European societies? When history as an academic subject is increasingly relegated to the sidelines in our secondary schools and universities, does the past have anything to say to us today? These are some of the questions that I want to explore here by, as it were, juggling these two historical figures and seeing them as bookends to the development of Europe.

The Origins of the European Union

In the wake of the devastation of the Second World War a small group of Christian Democratic politicians, Robert Schuman in France, Konrad Adenauer in Germany, and Alcide de Gasperi in Italy, came together to build a supranational political framework that would bring the war-torn countries of Europe together and ensure that future war in Europe would become untenable.

Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, and Robert Schuman

Within the context of the burgeoning Cold War and escalating tensions between the United States and Soviet Russia, this was a daring and innovative move. On the suggestion of the French financier and economist Jean Monnet, the then French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed to merge the coal and steel production of France and Germany into a common authority.

The idea was a first practical step in the re-unification of Europe. It led to the formation of the European Economic Community, the forerunner to the modern European Union. Schuman, Adenauer, and de Gasperi, were all frontiersmen – their roots lay in the contested frontier regions within Europe – Schuman’s family came from the Lorraine, Adenauer’s from the Rhineland, and de Gasperi’s from the Trentino.

All of them were also devout Christians who were inspired by the Christian heritage of Europe to form a model of solidarity for the new European societies they hoped to build. They were all equally influenced by the Thomism of the Neo-Scholastic movement from the end of the nineteenth century that witnessed the revival in interest in the philosophy of the thirteenth-century Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic social teaching of the Popes from Leo XIII to Pius XII. Having all survived persecution either under the Nazis or the Italian fascists and witnessed the destruction of nihilistic and materialistic ideologies they emerged after the War convinced of the necessity of rebuilding Europe on Christian democratic foundations.

The Medieval Origins of Europe

However, the idea of Europe of a distinct geopolitical and cultural zone that they sought to rebuild first emerged in the early and High Middle Ages. The period between 400 and 1200 AD saw the emergence of new fundamental modes of identification in Europe.

The idea of Western or Latin Christendom was borne from the disunity and the particular social and political contexts of the post-Roman early medieval world. The universal mission of Christianity was the basis of the medieval notion of Christendom: the practical disposal of Christians on the surface of the earth gave frontiers to what was universal by definition.

External threats to Western Europe served to give cohesion to a fledgling sense of unity. The rapid rise of Islam in the seventh century and the speed with which Muslim armies conquered the Christian territories of the Byzantine Empire in the Holy Land and Egypt and then conquered most of Spain in the eighth century served to unify disparate ethnic groups to respond to this threat.

The term ‘Europeans’ is first used by an eighth-century chronicler to describe the composite forces under the leadership of the Frankish commander Charles Martel who defeated a Muslim army at the battle of Tours in 732, the furthest north a Muslim army every came in Europe.

This does not mean that Latin Christendom was monolithic – Europe has always been characterized by its regionalism and diversity and it remained so also at this time. For the early Middle Ages, it is more helpful to think in terms of micro-Christendoms, local variants on a common Christian culture that were highly regionalized.

Whether it was Ireland, Anglo-Saxon England, Visigothic Spain, or Armenia, each articulated its own particular vision of what it meant to be a Christian society. This only began to change from the eighth century onwards when the balance of power in Europe shifted with the rise of the Frankish Carolingian dynasty and the creation of the Carolingian Empire. Charles the Great or Charlemagne, who ruled from 768 to 814, created a Frankish empire that encompassed the former European core of the Western Roman Empire and absorbed its German and North Sea periphery – it comprised an area of about one million square miles. Charles’s Empire was truly European in its scale and the scholars who flocked to his new court palace at Aachen saw his Empire within a European perspective.

The idea of Western Christendom and Europe began to merge so that over time they became synonymous. While the thirteenth-century Italian poet Dante never used the term “Europeans”, but merely the “inhabitants of Europe” by the time of Pope Pius II in the mid-fifteenth century he was using the term “European” as a synonym for Christian and this interchangeable use of the term continued up to the seventeenth century.

This world shaped by the Carolingian dynasty left a deep imprint on the following centuries. Regional micro-Christendoms survived. But for the first time their various representatives came together to create what they considered to be the one true Christendom which was seen within the framework of a Frankish-dominated Europe.

By the eleventh century and the advent of the Crusades it was a society that also defined itself against what it was not: the Eastern Orthodox Roman Empire based in Constantinople and the Islamic world. The idea of Europe as a distinct geopolitical, cultural, and religious zone gradually developed during the course of this period to define Western European societies.

For the ancient Greeks and Romans, Europe had merely been a geographical term devoid of any greater meaning, simply the third part of the then known-world after Asia and Africa.

From the ends of the earth: Columbanus in Europe

The Irish monk and émigré Columbanus was one of the first to use the term in a new way. Columbanus was born into a world of flux on the very edges of the late antique world. On early medieval maps Ireland is literally shown off the map – it was peripheral in every sense of the word.

From the perspective of civilized Graeco-Roman culture it was the barbarian island par excellence. Sixth-century Ireland was an ancient rural society by the time Columbanus was born there, sometime around 550 AD, in the fertile farm lands around Mount Leinster in southern Co. Carlow.

His birth coincided with the tail end of a period of endemic plague which had swept across Europe from Constantinople (now Istanbul) killing many in its wake. The new religion of Christianity spread by missionary bishops Palladius and Patricius (Saint Patrick) in the mid-fifth century was gaining ground and slowly transforming Irish society.

Columbanus’s family may well have been first-generation Christian. But the old religion was far from dead. Around the time of his birth the last pagan festival at Tara, the sacred site of the High King, was celebrated when the new high king ritually took possession of Eriu, the goddess of the land. New research suggests that Columbanus may have been a member of the royal Leinster dynasty of the Ui Barriche from southern Leinster.

His later Italian biographer, Jonas of Bobbio, who undoubtedly knew some of Columbanus’s Irish monks, ascribed his religious conversion to a holy woman who warned him about the dangers of women by reeling off a litany of Old Testament femmes fatales. But there may also have been political motivations.  As a young man he left home and travelled north to Ulster, first to study with a renowned scriptural scholar, Sinilis, probably Abbot Sinilis of Cleenish in Co. Fermanagh, and after his training there he entered monastic life in Bangor Abbey in Co. Down where he remained for a number of years until 590 when his request to leave Ireland as an ascetic exile or peregrinus was granted by his abbot.

Model of Bangor Abbey

He left the shores of Belfast Lough with twelve companions for the coast of Brittany and from there travelled inland to Burgundy. He established five monastic foundations in total over the next twenty five years before he died in Bobbio on 23rd November 615 aged in his mid sixties. The monasteries he established at Luxeuil in Burgundy and at Bobbio in northern Italy survived for over a thousand years up to the time of the French Revolution.  

Columbanus’s travels in Europe

The world of Late Antiquity into which Columbanus entered when he left Ireland towards the end of the sixth century was a world of different peoples or gentes. The pluralistic political landscape of the gentes had replaced a world of Empire.

The post-Roman kingdoms of Europe through which Columbanus travelled and established his monastic foundations were comprised of many different communities of peoples. As an outsider and an immigrant, how did Columbanus and his communities interact with these peoples? How did he and the diverse members of his communities negotiate their differences and what emerged from these encounters? How societies interact with outsiders can reveal the inner workings and social norms of that culture, as the recent migrant crisis in the European Union has shown.

During his two-thousand mile odyssey following seaways, old Roman roads, rivers, forest paths, and mountain passes through the lands of what we now know as France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy, Columbanus crossed many boundaries (both literally and figuratively) that brought him into contact with the religious and secular elites and local communities of post-Roman Europe.

Columbanus and his contemporaries operated in a gift-giving society that was rooted in reciprocal relations. As an outsider, Columbanus relied on the most powerful in society for patronage and protection even if he consciously sought to position his monasteries on the frontiers of the political orbit. He always went directly to the cities and the courts of kings to seek their support, but he established his monasteries on the rural peripheries of their kingdoms.

In return for the gift of land and patronage, the kings expected a spiritual counter-gift of prayer and blessing from Columbanus and his communities. Initially Columbanus appears to have been a kind of spiritual advisor to the young Merovingian king of Burgundy, Theuderic II, and relations were amicable. He appears to have been shocked at the moral turpitude of some members of the Gallic episcopate who were essentially state bureaucrats.

Columbanus refused to deal with them or acknowledge their authority while he fell afoul of them due to the fact that he followed a different method for calculating the moveable feast of Easter. He also refused the laity access to the inner confines of his monasteries which were strictly demarcated for members of his communities. While he had the protection of the king, Columbanus was safe from the machinations of the bishops. However, Columbanus’s influence over the young king threatened the position of his grandmother, the dowager queen, Brunhild, who was the power behind the throne.

Columbanus became more embedded in court politics when he chastised the king’s sexual conduct and urged him to take a wife. His refusal to bless the king’s illegitimate children by concubines and his later refusal of commensality with the king led to a break down in relations and ultimately to his banishment in 610 along with the Irish and British members of his communities.

His rigid adherence to the precepts of the Gospel and his unwillingness to compromise with the cultural and ecclesiastical norms of Gaul led to a break down in reciprocal relations. Columbanus was unwilling to fully give the counter-gift of his prayers and blessing if it meant compromising his own ethical and cultural values.

Out of this conflicting cultural encounter however emerged new forms of community building and engagement in the decades after Columbanus’s death as the saint’s Frankish communities in time made concessions and accommodated to external authorities. The monastic model that Columbanus advocated as a founder – rural monasteries that were “pure spaces” of intercessory prayer independent from bishops and secular authorities – became a new form of cultural contact that transformed the interrelationship between monastic groups and secular authorities.

During the course of the seventh century the foundation of monasteries by Frankish kings and the aristocracy became a new way for them to state their investment in the welfare of the kingdom while winning spiritual, social, and political prestige for themselves and their families. The new monasteries that sprung up throughout the kingdom and their close links to the court fostered new types of community and ways of exercising power that would continue to have a long reach into the early Middle Ages.

Columbanus’s ascetic exile was the first sustained contact in the historical record between a group of Irish men from a non-Romanized society and groups from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds whom they encountered on the Continent. As such, this contact provides an interesting case study for looking at the development of cultural hybridity that came about through this exchange. What were the effects of this contact between these different groups?

The historical anthropologist Peter Burke (Burke 2009) has delineated three stages in the formation of cultural hybridity: cultural encounter, appropriation, and fusion. The responses to exchange can vary from acceptance, to rejection, to segregation, to adaptation.

Burke has identified the city and the frontier as two specific locales that are particularly favorable for cultural exchange. These are places at the “intersections between cultures, in which the process of mixing ends in the creation of something new and distinctive.” Columbanus’s monasteries, located in border areas, can be understood as vibrant cultural contact zones where men from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds formed communities together, not always harmoniously.

Indeed, conflict is an important lens through which to study Columbanus and his communities. Through the conflict and rejection that Columbanus experienced both within his own communities and from the Gallic episcopate, and later through the conflict that erupted in his own communities after his death, we can trace the stages by which these communities negotiated and worked out their own identities.

From these liminal monastic communities we can also trace how, like cultural routers, their norms and ways of thinking were transported to the city, to the royal court in Paris, where monastic culture came to play an increasingly important role in influencing the court culture of Chlothar II and his successors.

What emerges from these processes of encounter, conflict, negotiation, and adaptation are new forms of cultural order, which we see gradually crystallizing in Merovingian Gaul from the mid-seventh century onwards. Something new emerged from this encounter, and we can see how religion increasingly comes to shape the vocabulary of identity politics in the early Middle Ages.

Columbanus’s peregrinatio and the establishment of his communities can in one sense be understood as a utopian project, as the activation of what had been for Saint Augustine a key way of imagining the new chosen people in contrast to Roman models of identification.

Coming from a non-Roman society on the fringes of the Roman world, Columbanus’s Christian universalist perspective allowed him to approach the world he encountered from the perspective of a plurality of peoples who, despite political and ethnic boundaries, could and should be united by their common Christian faith. It is in this context that his use of the term “the whole of Europe” needs to be understood.

The whole of Europe

In successive letters written to Popes, Columbanus repeatedly called for unity and concord and where he twice uses the term “the whole of Europe” (totius Europae). In a letter written around 600 AD from Burgundy to Pope Gregory the Great in Rome, Columbanus addresses the Pope: ‘To the Holy Lord and Father in Christ, the fairest Ornament of the Roman Church, as it were a most august Flower of all Europe in her decay (totius Europae flaccentis augustissimo quasi cuidam Flori), to the distinguished Bishop (egregio Speculatori), who is skilled in the Meditation of divine Eloquence, I, Bar-Jonah (a poor Dove), send Greeting in Christ.’

As one historian has commented on this passage, “The rhetorical contrast between a wilting Europe and its spiritual head, bathed in light and clothed in imperial epithet, reveals a new cultural landscape, however rugged and as yet fitful.” By contrast, Pope Gregory still saw himself and Rome within the imperial context of the Eastern Roman Empire – he was a loyal servant of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople and Rome was at that time the westernmost frontier of the Byzantine Empire.

Columbanus’s letter to Pope Boniface IV, written in 613 from Milan, was a call for unity within the Church. Columbanus wrote as an outsider and this made him an ideal arbitrator for the Lombard king and queen who had asked him to write the letter. In his address to Pope Boniface, Columbanus, for the second and final time invokes the name of Europe, in much the same context as he had done in his earlier letter to Gregory the Great. It begins with the address: ‘To the most fair Head of all the Churches of the whole of Europe (totius Europae).’

The Pope is seen to be the head of a European body of churches: in this period this meant above all western trans-Alpine Europe as opposed to the Eastern Roman Empire. Although Jonas of Bobbio, Columbanus’s Italian biographer who wrote an account of the saint’s life twenty-five years after his death, never uses the term Europe, his detailed account of Columbanus’s odyssey from Ireland to Italy reads like an early travelogue through Western Europe and anchors Columbanus’s vision within a concrete geographical and political framework. By the end of the seventh century we find a clear reference to Europe in the Life of St Gertrude of Nivelles, whose death on St Patrick’s Day is noted by the author who asks: “For who living in Europe does not know the loftiness, the names, and the localities of her lineage?”

View of Bobbio

Columbanus’s peregrinatio on the Continent was characterized in equal measure by success and failure. As a monastic founder Columbanus established two monasteries—Luxeuil and Bobbio—that were to have a lasting impact on their host societies as vibrant centres of religious life, hubs of economic exchange, culture and learning. He introduced a new and dynamic model of monastic foundation that sidestepped the oversight of bishops and provided the Frankish aristocracy with an attractive vehicle for establishing monasteries that could maintain control over their land while simultaneously providing (they hoped) for their salvation and enhancing their status.

By seeking to remain independent from external authorities so that he could remain true to his vocation as an ascetic exile, Columbanus inadvertently served as a catalyst for an explosion in monastic foundation that in time reconfigured the spiritual and economic topography of Western Europe.

More than one hundred new monasteries were founded within a hundred years of Columbanus’s death largely in the north and east of the Merovingian kingdom. This was achieved through a close co-operation between the Merovingian royal court and Columbanus’s monastery of Luxeuil, an interrelationship that marked a new symbiosis in how secular authorities and monastic groups related to one another.

As an author Columbanus left behind a corpus of work – six letters, two monastic rules, a manual of penance, thirteen sermons, and two poems – that are our primary source of information about him as well as one of the most remarkable sources for this period. He was the first to express an Irish sense of identity in writing and the first to introduce us to the idea of a united Europe. His writings reveal a man who was fully engaged with the issues and the leading figures of his age. While Columbanus was successful at winning patronage and followers at the highest levels of society, his unwillingness to compromise and his autocratic style of leadership led to conflict both with those who had supported him and from within his own communities.

Columbanus’s tomb in Bobbio

Columbanus’s death at Bobbio in 615 marked the culmination of a remarkable European odyssey that had begun some twenty-five years before when he had set sail from Ireland with a group of twelve monks. Columbanus transcended the petty factionalism and ethnic myopia of his environment by appealing to a supranational sense of unity grounded in scriptural authority: the message, most fully expressed by Saint Paul, that we are all one in Christ.

As an outsider and immigrant, Columbanus was capable of transcending the ethnic, political, and religious divides of his time by appealing to a sense of a supranational unity of which he saw the Pope, the successor of Saint Peter, as the spiritual head. While the full extent of this vision would not be worked out until the following centuries, Columbanus gave voice to a new Continent that was taking shape in the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire.

Post-War Christian Democracy

In the post-war period after World War II men like Schuman, de Gasperi, and Adenauer drew on the same ideas and resources in their plans to build a new Europe from the ruins of war as the idea of a unified Europe began to take shape.

In 1934 the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, already living in exile in London, wrote a lecture for a talk in Paris which he never gave on “The Unification of Europe: A Discourse”. In it he stated that the task of building a supranational sense of Europe would take time, but that it now demanded practical organization and a central visible foundation: “until the European idea achieves these basic forms of the visible and tangible, of what we can feel passionate about, until it becomes for people a sort of patriotism and supranationalism – until then it is doomed to remain sterile and it will never manage to become reality. We must above all else locate a central idea which is visually recognizable!”

Zweig later left Europe in 1940 for New York and then Brazil as he became aware that his life in Europe had no future. From New York in 1941 he wrote to a friend that: “We need a completely different kind of courage.” In his nostalgic and beautiful memoir The World of Yesterday which he wrote in Brazil about his youth in Vienna and growing up in the cosmopolitan world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he wrote of his continent leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War and of how: “I felt that Europe in its state of derangement, had passed its own death sentence.” The despair he felt about the world he had lost in Europe ultimately him to commit suicide with his wife in Brazil in 1942. The new kind of courage that Zweig had called for fueled Robert Schuman and a group of like-minded Christian Democratic politicians to try to rebuild Europe from the ruins of war.

Robert Schuman

Robert Schuman was born in 1886 in Clausen, a suburb of Luxembourg. He had lost both his parents by the age of twenty-five and briefly considered joining a monastery before a friend persuaded him that his talents lay outside the cloister. He remained a bachelor and a daily Mass goer for the rest of his life. He finalized his legal studies and became a lawyer in Metz in 1912, at that time part of the German Reich. Though born in Luxembourg, his father had been from Lorraine so he thought of himself as a Lorrainer and spoke French with a German accent.

Due to his ill health Schuman was not fit to serve in World War I but saw out the war as a civil servant for the Germans. He began his political career in 1919 as an MP for the Moselle region in the French Parliament. By the outbreak of World War II, Schuman was working in the Council for Refugees, but on returning to Metz in September 1940 was arrested by the Gestapo and held in solitary confinement for seven months before the Nazis tried to persuade him to collaborate with them. He was kept under house arrest by the Gauleiter Josef Bürckel, a high-ranking Nazi official close to Hitler, who tried to “turn” Schuman, and who had been responsible for the deportation of the Austrian Jews. Schuman managed to escape on 1st August 1942 and crossed the Vosges into Free France taking with him vital data for the resistance and the first qualified news of the Holocaust.

Schuman went into hiding for the next two years until the end of the war upon which he was re-elected to the Moselle region as MP. In 1948 he was appointed Foreign Minister and was with Churchill for the Hague Congress on European Unity in which Churchill advocated European integration. That same year the Soviets blockaded Berlin, and the following year NATO was signed in Washington D.C. and the Soviets successfully exploded their first atomic bomb. 

It is in this fraught political climate that led to Schuman becoming involved in orchestrating an academic congress on Columbanus and where the two strands of our story converge in unexpected ways.

The Luxeuil conference of 1950

Towards the end of summer 1948 Professor Gabriel Le Bras, a jurist and sociologist at the Sorbonne, was summoned by Robert Schuman – he was looking for a cover and a suitable pretext to gather representatives from the United States to discuss without witnesses his idea for a European community.

Schuman wanted to organize a summit, but he was not in a position to do so openly. His position was tenuous because he did not have the support of the National Assembly.  Le Bras, a Breton who had a particular interest in Columbanus, persuaded Schuman of the cultural and religious importance of the saint and especially of his European dimension.

Luxeuil was also well situated because it was far from Paris and close to Schuman’s electoral base in Lorraine. But due to his position as Advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Le Bras could not be seen as the principal organizer of the conference. He instead approached a former student and colleague at the Sorbonne to act as the official organizer, a young French Anglo-Saxon philologist, Marguerite-Marie Dubois, who subsequently published a book on Columbanus in 1950 which Schuman read.

The congress was organized by Dubois, but it provided Schuman with the perfect cover to discuss his plans in secret with European and American diplomats. Schuman needed allies and to make alliances at this delicate stage before launching the project on the political scene. Delegations from Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Vatican, and the United States were invited. The Irish delegation consisted of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sean MacBride as well as Taoiseach John A. Costello, and the leader of the opposition, Eamon de Valera.

Robert Schuman at Luxeuil, July 1950

In his vision for the future of Europe, Schuman drew inspiration from the social encylicals of Popes Leo XIII to Pius XII, the political philosophy of the French Catholic writer Jacques Maritain, and the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas with which he was well versed. This was a political philosophy grounded in the Gospel and focused on how to build societies centered on the common good. Yet Schuman was not advocating a return to theocracy, but clearly understood the necessity for the division of Church and State.

Schuman was deeply conscious of the historical context that had given rise to Western European civilization and of the similarities between his own time and that of the early medieval world in particular. In his political manifesto, Pour L’Europe (“For Europe”) which was published posthumously soon after his death in 1963, and which he collated from his numerous political speeches, he stressed the importance of cohesion for the European peoples.

While Jean Monnet’s idea of pooling coal and steel production provided the start-up experiment on a practical level of binding France and Germany closer together, Schuman knew that the project would ultimately flounder if it remained primarily an economic and technical enterprise.

He was fully aware of the dangers of excessive bureaucracy and technocracy and the kind of administrative paralysis that this could lead to: “European integration must, generally speaking, avoid the mistakes of our national democracies, especially excessive bureaucracy and technocracy … Administrative paralysis is the basic danger that threatens any supranational organization”. Schuman’s vision was much more ambitious and far reaching – the economic and technical merger were merely the preliminary conditions in creating “a cultural community in the most elevated sense of the term.” This was to be a community fostered by education, free movement of peoples within Europe conscious of their historical affinities and ties. European unity would not, he realized, be achieved by European institutions on their own.

National isolationism or exceptionalism was no longer tenable in the post-war period which called for subsidiarity and co-operation. Schuman was adamant that Europe needed its own army and defence as crucial to European federation. France’s refusal to ratify the European Defence Community Treaty (EDC) in 1954 came as a severe blow to Schuman and to federalists’ hopes for a genuine supranational community.

In his address to NATO in 1959 Schuman voiced his ideas of what the West stood for: “The West is not a simple geographical notion, not merely one of two parts of a duality of East and West, but a cultural and political classification”. Soviet Russia was inimical to the West and Schuman was under no illusions about the need of the West to defend itself against Russian aggression – hence the need for a European army under the supreme command of NATO – “everything which Europe does and everything which Europe must do needs to be within the context of NATO and the interests of NATO.”

Following 1954 and the failure to ratify the EDC, Christian Democratic influence began to wane in France. Schuman retired in 1960 and died three years later soon after the world had come to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He died exactly one week after Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

The tomb of Robert Schuman

Looking to the Future

Has Schuman’s own dream for the future of European integration still to be fully realized? One recent historian of Schuman, Dr Alan Fimister, has commented: “The Christian Democratic Thomism of Robert Schuman has imposed a lasting character upon the European project which sits uncomfortably with the present secular age. The supranational elements of the integration project were the product of this intellectual movement within the Church. The purely secular forces behind integration did not require these elements, and, without the power of Christian Democracy, secular utopian federalism was too weak to push national governments beyond the intergovernmental level. Secular utopian federalism and Catholic solidarism differ markedly, in that the former seeks the replacement of the sovereign nation state with a new sovereign federal entity where the latter seeks to build a supranational edifice … upon the essentially natural foundations of enduring nation states. In the absence of genuine Christian Democracy, the debate is dominated by secular nationalists who seek to confine sovereignty to its natural frontiers in the existing nation state. The Communitarian Europe is left as an anomalous no-man’s land between them.” 

With the decline in Christianity in the West, which provided a unifying moral and soteriological framework for so many centuries and which substantially shaped European societies and values, the loss of this cohesive metanarrative coupled with rising inequality poses grave risks for the future of genuine democracy in Europe.

As the British journalist and political commentator Douglas Murray observed in his 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe: “At any time the loss of all unifying stories about our past or ideas about what to do with our present or future would be a serious conundrum. But during a time of momentous societal change and upheaval the results are proving fatal. The world is coming into Europe at precisely the moment that Europe has lost sight of what it is.”

Murray concludes his book with some reflections about the past and how we perceive our heritage:

“Any solution to our crisis would also involve not only a fresh attitude towards our future but a more balanced attitude towards our past. It is not possible for a society to survive if it routinely suppresses and otherwise fights against its own origins … I cannot help feeling that much of the future of Europe will be decided on what our attitude is towards the church buildings and other great cultural buildings of our heritage standing in our midst. Around the questions of whether we hate them, ignore them, engage with them or revere them, a huge amount will depend.”

In his address to the European Parliament in November 2014 Pope Francis highlighted some of the challenges now faced by the European Union. He drew attention to the sense of alienation and loneliness felt by many people and to the prioritization of economic and technical issues dominating political debate, to the detriment of genuine concern for human beings and the transcendent dignity of the human person. At the same time he highlighted the prevalent cultural amnesia and disregard for Europe’s Christian heritage which helped shape our Continent and his conviction that “a Europe which is capable of appreciating its religious roots and of grasping their fruitfulness and potential, will be all the more immune to the many forms of extremism spreading in the world today, not least as a result of the great vacuum of ideals which we are currently witnessing in the West.”

Common stories not only inform and shape who we are, they also influence and shape our social reality. In making connections with our past and with acknowledging the historical roots of Europe, we can perhaps better navigate the future. What is less acknowledged today within the EU and in society more generally are the Christian semantic and philosophical roots that lay behind the European project from the very beginning, the idea of European unity that Columbanus first tentatively voiced some 1,400 years ago and which in turn inspired Robert Schuman at the start of his very own European venture.

Suggested Further Reading:

Saint Columbanus: Selected Writings, ed. Alexander O’Hara (Dublin: Veritas 2015).

Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe, ed. Alexander O’Hara (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). 

Jonas of Bobbio: Life of Columbanus and His Disciples, Life of John, Life of Vedast, ed. & trans. Alexander O’Hara and Ian Wood (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press 2017).

Alan Fimister, Robert Schuman: Neo-Scholastic Humanism and the Reunification of Europe (Peter Lang, 2008).

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