European leaders yesterday celebrated the EU's 50th birthday with a 'Berlin Declaration' which was quickly denounced by the Pope for not mentioning Europe's 'Christian roots'.
The Pope's criticism comes after grass roots Catholic movements signed a common document urging that the European Union be judged not on a Vatican 'obsession' with recognising its religious history, but on how it lives up to a vision of justice.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, told the leaders of 27 countries that modern Europe was a dream come true.
But commentators suggest that the birthday party summit for the EU - staged with rock concerts, Beethoven, beer and cake in brilliant sunshine in Berlin - was soured by the German Pope, Benedict XVI, who delivered a profoundly pessimistic verdict on Europe at 50, declaring that the continent could be heading for extinction.
Angry that a "Berlin Declaration" listing the EU's achievements and challenges on its 50th birthday contained no reference to the continent's Christian roots, Pope Benedict said that Europe could "not be built by ignoring its people's identities".
In his remarks to bishops gathered for ceremonies in Rome to mark the signing of the treaty that founded the EU in 1957, the Pope declared that the reluctance of women in Europe to have babies and Europe's failure to regenerate itself was putting the continent on the path to oblivion. "From a demographic standpoint ... Europe seems set on a path that could lead it to take leave of history," he warned. Europe was "losing faith in its own future".
Birthrates are at historic lows in many EU countries, most notably in strongly Roman Catholic countries such as Poland, Italy and Spain. According to UN projections, the population of the EU could shrink by 50m within a few decades.
The stark comments from the pontiff appeared timed to spoil the Euro-party mood, reports suggest. They contrasted graphically with the festive atmosphere in Berlin, while Mrs Merkel used the EU summit as a springboard for her central aim of reviving the European constitution.
"The European Union needs more and clearer powers than it has," Mrs Merkel said, before disclosing how she hopes to use the remaining three months of her EU presidency to drive her constitution project forward. Over the next couple of months said German officials, Mrs Merkel will canvass views on which parts of the European constitution can be salvaged.
Speaking yesterday in the courtyard of Germany's History Museum in central Berlin, a few hundred yards from the line of the old Berlin Wall, Mrs Merkel recalled that growing up behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, she never imagined she would see the west before her old age.
She also addressed Pope Benedict's objections, stating that as a Christian Democrat she believed that Europe's culture was rooted in "Christian-Jewish" traditions. But the Pope's criticism of contemporary Europe appeared deliberately timed to cloud the 50th birthday bash.
Last week a group of grass-roots Catholic organisations suggested the EU should adopt a different role in the future, particularly in respect to the relationships between the North and the South of the world. It also urged that its independence from the USA be affirmed, and that it pursued an active policy of peace and mediation in the world.
As part of these aims, a reduction in military expenditure from members states was called for along with an end to exports of commercial arms from the EU, and more support for nonviolent actions for prevention, mediation and control of conflicts.
Their statement also suggested that the EU should pursue, with greater determination, basic social rights, and a more welcoming policy for immigrants.
And in an apparent direct rebuttal to the Catholic hierarchy it urged that the relationships between the State and the Catholic Church should be inspired by the Gaudium et Spes, constitution of Vatican II, which in charter 76 indicates that the church 'does not place her hopes in privileges offered by the civil authorities but, on the contrary, renounces certain rights legitimately acquired, where it could be considered that their use could place in doubt the sincerity of her testimony'.