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In Europe, a search for what defines the EU's moral identity

Newer EU members struggle to promote a more traditional morality.

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Europe, it seems, is having a bit of an identity crisis. As leaders from Budapest to Barcelona vie to guide the continent's forward course, the needle on Europe's moral compass is bouncing frenetically between two increasingly polarized camps.

•The European Union last month rebuffed Poland's president over his interest in promoting a return to the death penalty. Tuesday, meanwhile, Polish students rallied against a plan to have stronger religious and patriotic values taught in schools.

•Last winter, Slovakia provoked an EU outcry when it negotiated a draft treaty with the Vatican to give legal protection to doctors who refuse to perform abortions.

•In 2004, the EU was embroiled in a dispute about whether its proposed constitution should include a reference to Christianity as a defining influence on European culture.

Amid the turmoil, however, thinkers from both sides are starting to agree on one point: Restoring Europe's moral underpinnings is essential if it is once again to develop a strong sense of identity.

"What the EU needs is a more robust affirmation of what makes it unique – its identity, its values," says Timothy Shah, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington. "And interestingly, very different people are starting to say the same thing."

Shortly before becoming pope, for example, Joseph Ratzinger teamed up with Marcello Pera, an agnostic and recent president of the Italian senate, to confront Europe's identity crisis in a book titled, "Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, Islam."

"I think what Marcello is trying to do is define a moral vocabulary on which both believers and nonbelievers can agree, a moral vocabulary based on a common understanding of the inherent, unalienable dignity of the human person," says George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and author of "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God." "And we'll see if that works. I think there ought to be some serious interest."

But Mr. Pera and now–Pope Benedict XVI are operating in an arena where Europe's values gap appears to be widening.

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