Vatican diplomats, and the pope himself in meetings with European officials, want to see a strong reference to Christianity included in the preamble to the European Union's Constitution, now being drafted by the Convention on the Future of Europe chaired by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
Working through the Catholic delegates among the more than 100 European parliamentarians attending the convention, the Vatican hopes to have a statement written into the text identifying the EU with the Christian faith, a senior European official in Washington told United Press International Thursday.
The Vatican argument is that Christianity's fundamental role in shaping European culture should be acknowledged in what is destined to become the EU's key document.
"It's something that is apparently close to Pope John Paul's heart," the official said. "But it won't survive the process."
A reference to the EU as a Christian institution would further complicate the debate in Europe over whether Turkey is eligible for admission, some analysts said. Turkey, officially a secular state, is seeing a revival of its Muslim origins. A party with Muslim roots, the Islamic Justice and Development Party, emerged with a majority in last November's elections. But the main objection of some member countries has less to do with the Islamic upsurge and more with their belief that Turkey is not a European country.
European sources said the Turkey issue is only a secondary point. Although the picture was mixed, few of the 15 EU member states, and of the new members scheduled to join in the next two years, include a reference to religion in their respective constitutions. These sources report a widespread reluctance among convention delegates to oblige the pope and involve religion in the process of shaping the new Europe.
Even predominantly Catholic Italy and Spain are not officially described as Catholic countries. The Italians removed the religious designation from their post-war constitution in 1945. France's tradition of secularism goes back to the French Revolution.
Greece is still officially an Orthodox country, but the Greek government, under pressure from the EU, recently removed the bearer's religious affiliation from Greek passports. Britain recognizes the Anglican Church as the country's official religion, and the British monarch is the head of the church.
The timing of such a statement would be difficult for European member states in another respect, the sources argue. Putting an emphasis on Christian values now could alienate the large immigrant populations of Muslims that now reside in virtually every member country.
The convention expects to complete its work on determining the shape of the EU by the autumn, after which its proposals will be sent to member governments for approval and finally adopted at a special conference in 2004.
"If anything, the statement the Vatican wants should more correctly refer to the Judeo-Christian culture, but that would really set the cat among the Islamic pigeons," the European official pointed out. "But any reference to Christianity would create additional problems, and the EU has enough of them already."
But another official said that in seeking a strong mention of Christianity, the Vatican was facing its own reality. Pope John Paul has often expressed concern at the decline of religion in Europe. "The Vatican must now look on Europe as missionary territory," the official said. "They need to conquer lost ground."