EU Catholic bishops lament ‘anti-religious bias’ in guide discouraging word ‘Christmas’

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., pictured at the Vatican on Oct. 10, 2018. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Europe’s Catholic bishops said on Tuesday that a withdrawn document discouraging European Commission staff from using the word “Christmas” was marred by “anti-religious bias.”

The Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) welcomed the withdrawal on Nov. 30 of the 32-page internal document called “#UnionOfEquality. European Commission Guidelines for Inclusive Communication.”

“While respecting the right of the European Commission to model its written and verbal communication, and appreciating the importance of equality and non-discrimination, COMECE cannot help being concerned about the impression that an anti-religious bias characterized some passages of the draft document,” the bishops’ commission said.

The guide urged officials at the European Commission — the executive branch of the European Union, a political and economic bloc of 27 member states — to “avoid assuming that everyone is Christian.”

“Not everyone celebrates the Christian holidays, and not all Christians celebrate them on the same dates,” the document said.

The guide encouraged staff based in the Belgian capital, Brussels, and Luxembourg to avoid a phrase such as “Christmas time can be stressful” and instead say “Holiday times can be stressful.”

It also recommended using the term “first name,” rather than “Christian name,” and said that when presenting hypothetical examples, officials should “not only choose names that are typically from one religion.”

Instead of “Maria and John are an international couple,” the guide recommended saying “Malika and Julio are an international couple.”

COMECE president Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., said: “Neutrality cannot mean relegating religion to the private sphere. Christmas is not only part of European religious traditions but also of European reality.” 

“Respecting religious diversity cannot lead to the paradoxical consequence of suppressing the religious element from public discourse.”

The archbishop of Luxembourg and relator general of the upcoming Synod on Synodality added: “While the Catholic Church in the EU fully supports equality and countering discrimination, it is also clear that these two goals cannot lead to distortions or self-censorship. The valuable premise of inclusiveness should not cause the opposite effect of exclusion.”

The document discouraged staff from using the terms “Ms.” or “Mr.,” saying: “In case of doubt, use ‘Mx.’” It also called for forms to “include non-binary options (beyond male and female).”

Shortly before the guide was withdrawn, the Vatican’s Secretary of State sharply criticized the document.

In an interview published by Vatican News on Nov. 30, Cardinal Pietro Parolin said that the text was going “against reality” by downplaying Europe’s Christian roots.

Helena Dalli, the EU Commissioner for Equality, launched the guidelines on Oct. 26 but announced on Nov. 30 that she was recalling them.

She said: “It is not a mature document and does not meet all commission quality standards. The guidelines clearly need more work. I therefore withdraw the guidelines and will work further on this document.”

COMECE, which is based in Brussels, expressed concern that the document may have caused “damage” to “the image of the EU institutions and to the support for the European project in the member states.”

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“It is to be hoped that a revised version of the document will take into account these concerns,” it said.

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