11/04/2016 11:01 BST | Updated 11/04/2017 06:12 BST

A Religious Perspective on the EU Debate

As the government's leaflet about the EU begins to sail through our letterboxes, we are being overwhelmed by arguments about the economy, security and sovereignty.

But one aspect has been largely ignored so far: the religious perspective. It is worth considering not because faith groups have any greater understanding than others, but because there was a religious theme to the foundation of the EU that needs to be considered when discussing whether to stay or leave.

The religious element was certainly not for missionary purposes, but it was a deep belief in the need for harmony and peace that stemmed from messianic ideals and then became translated into secular politics.

The original concept of the EU developed from the Christian Democrat ideology that dominated the original six states who came together in 1951: Belgium, France, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy and West Germany.

They had a moral and spiritual vision of a Europe based on justice and integrity. This became funneled into a vehicle for economic growth and concentrated on free trade, but the fundamental thinking behind the European project rested on a desire for peace between nations and an improved quality of life for individuals. They did not expect a lamb to lie down with a lion, but they certainly wanted Germany and France to co-exist, and others around them to be at ease.

It is significant, for instance, that the term 'subsidiarity', which is associated primarily with the EU, actually comes from a Papal Encyclical from 1931, Quadragesimo Anno. Moreover, it is seen not merely as a matter of governance but of justice. As Pope Pius XI summarised it at the time: 'It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organisations can do' (1).

The EU's purpose today of better relationships between nation states and between peoples certainly chimes with religious values. But goodwill is not enough by itself, particularly when self-interest or political struggles might suggest countries pursue a more individualistic course. Structures are needed to reinforce those ideals.

Just as individuals need the Ten Commandments to remind them that morals should take precedence over instincts, so nations need treaties and obligations to lock them into letting the overall long-term good prevail over less noble criteria.

This includes the enormously important role that the EU tries to achieve of the wealthier countries supporting the poorer ones, thereby promoting social and economic justice. For some, this can be labeled as 'redistribution of wealth'; for others, it can be described as 'loving your neighbour as yourself'.

The EU also facilitates policies that can only work effectively on a larger scale with international agreement, such as on climate change or corporate responsibilities. Some may balk at the restrictions on their particular industry, but that should distract from the much wider good that is achieved.

A religious perspective in favour of the grand designs of the EU does not mean that it always operates at its best, or that reforms are not necessary, but any criticism of the way it works should be tackled separately and should not be confused with its value as a whole.

One area, for instance, where there is need for great care is that of acknowledging national identities within the EU super-structure. There is a delicate balance between giving them expression and imposing limits. If they are repressed, it will cause a backlash that could lead to the disintegration of the EU.

Another religious issue is the way the EU debate is conducted: that it should avoid the hostility and divisiveness that characterised the Scottish Referendum. Opinions should be given freely, but without personal invective and abusive language.

June 23rd is important, but so is June 24th and we have to still be on talking terms with family, friends and neighbours whichever way the vote goes.

1. see Ben Ryan, A Soul for the Union, Theos 2015