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Can politicians really be saints?

Robert Schuman at his desk in Strasbourg in around 1960 - Credit: Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

While ministerial sins make headlines here, ‘father of the EU’ Robert Schuman is on the path to canonisation.

The founding father of the European Union may soon be getting a halo.

Robert Schuman was the Luxembourg-born French statesman who founded the Council of Europe and masterminded the post-war plan for a single European steel and coal authority.

It laid the foundations for the 1957 Treaty of Rome and the European Economic Community that was established the following year, and Schuman became the first president of the European parliament.

Last month, Pope Francis recognised Schuman’s “heroic virtues”, bestowing on the privately but devoutly Catholic politician the title ‘Venerable’, the first of the three stages towards full sainthood.

The Schuman Declaration, delivered on May 9, 1950 – the date Europe Day is now celebrated – was intended to tie together Germany and France’s essential resources for armaments manufacture and therefore make any future conflict between the major European powers “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.

Schuman had seen the ravages of the war first hand and for all its apparent mundanity, a plan focussed on coal and steel was in fact a mission for universal brotherhood.

Conflict in Europe had shaped Schuman’s very identity. His father was born in French Alsace-Lorraine but became a German citizen by default when the region was annexed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Schuman was born 15 years later with automatic German citizenship but when Alsace-Lorraine reverted back to France after the First World War he gained French citizenship. Having trained in law, he played a key role in the reintegration of the region back into the French legislative framework as member for Moselle, Lorraine, in the French Chamber of Deputies from 1919.

By the time war again came to Europe, Schuman was a junior minister in the French government. He refused to serve after Pétain’s puppet regime was established and became involved with the French resistance. Arrested by the Gestapo in late 1940 and held in captivity for seven months, he was earmarked for deportation to Dachau but escaped to the French free zone and managed to remain in hiding, often in monasteries and convents, until the end of the war.

Schuman held several French ministerial posts from 1946, formulating the Schuman Declaration during his tenure as foreign minister between 1948 and 1952 after having held the post of prime minister of France for two short periods.

As well his role in the European project, Schuman was a key figure in the creation of Nato, which reflected the words of his Declaration: “World peace cannot be
safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”

Schuman’s recognition by the Vatican makes sense in light of Pope Francis’ negative noises about Brexit and its undermining of the European project. In the month before the Brexit vote the Pope received the Charlemagne Prize for European unity – a prize won by Schuman himself in 1958 – and observed that the “desire to create unity seems to be fading”, speaking disapprovingly of those who “consider putting up fences”.

In off the cuff comments made just after the vote he emphasised the importance of continuing to guarantee “the coexistence of the entire continent of Europe”, while last
year’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti (‘All Brothers’) spoke of how “in many countries, hyperbole, extremism and polarisation have become political tools”.

While Francis criticised the EU’s weaknesses in his Charlemagne Prize speech, at which many EU leaders were present, particularly targeting its handling of the migrant crisis (“I dream of a Europe where being a migrant is not a crime”), he indicated his continuing faith in the European project, as first conceived of by Schuman and others: “The founding fathers [of Europe] were heralds of peace and prophets of the future. Today more than ever, their vision inspires us to build bridges and tear down walls”.

It is no surprise that he is supporting Schuman’s elevation to the altars.

And neither is it as surprising as it might seem for a life in politics to be accommodated within the Church’s definition of sainthood. Pope Francis has said “Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good”, and Schuman himself considered the unification of Europe to be the final realisation of the Roman Church’s failed efforts to unite Christendom in the Middle Ages. And before ‘the Venerable Robert Schuman’, there were precedents for outstanding individuals who managed to emerge unsullied from the rough and tumble of politics to be set on the path to sainthood.

Schuman’s concept of a supranational European community had been partly shaped by Thomas More’s Utopia which, he said, “created in the abstract the framework for systems that were both ingenious and generous”, and More is the most famous politician-saint of them all. Canonised in 1935, his martyrdom in unwavering defence of his Catholic faith made him a shoo-in for sanctification.

His violent persecution of protestant heretics – dismissed as “reflect[ing] the limits of the culture of his time” when Pope John Paul II made him patron saint of statemen and politicians in 2000 – proved no barrier to saintly success.

More recently, Julius Nyerere, Catholic president of then Muslim-majority Tanzania for more than 20 years and founding father of the nation after the independence of 1961, has been put forward for possible canonisation.

He is still on the bottom rung of the ladder, his title ‘Servant of God’ only indicating that his suitability for sainthood is being investigated. His championing of family, community and the poor fits Pope Francis’ messaging, but it is unclear whether the regime’s human rights abuses, including extensive detention without trial, will bar his progression.

With declining congregations in the West, the Church has a vested interest in the PR value of figures like Nyerere in regions where its future vitality lies.

But such politician-saints are rare, and martyrs and those who lived a formal religious life are far more likely to receive attention as potential saints. Ten such individuals – nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Elizabeth in Poland, murdered by the Red Army in 1945 and considered martyred ‘in hatred of the Faith’ – were beatified at the same time as Schuman was declared Venerable.

This recognition of victims of war in Europe alongside the man who vowed to ensure permanent peace is a reminder of the millions of individual tragedies that spurred on Schuman’s project 70 years ago and shows what is really at stake when we talk about European unity.

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