A prevalent topic in Benedict’s apostolic journey to France is (understandably) the role played by religion within the context of France’s longstanding enforcement of secularity, or laïcité.
During a brief press conference on Friday, when asked whether “France is losing its Christian identity because of laicism” — Pope Benedict responded in the negative:
It seems evident to me today that laicism does not contradict the faith. I would even say that it is a fruit of the faith, since the Christian faith was a universal religion from the beginning. Therefore it did not identify itself with a state and it was present in all the states. It was always clear to the Christians that religion and faith were not political, but rather they formed part of another sphere of human life. … Politics, the state, were not a religion but rather a secular reality with a specific mission, and the two of them should be open to each other.
In this sense, I would say today that for the French, and not only the French, but also for us, Christians of today in this secularized world, it is important to joyfully live the freedom of our faith, live the beauty of the faith, and show today’s world that it is beautiful to be a believer, that it is beautiful to know God; God with a human face in Jesus Christ, show that it is possible to be a believer today, and even that society needs there to be people who know God and who, therefore, can live according to the great values that it has given us and contribute to the presence of these values that are fundamental for the building and survival of our states and societies.
Later, during a meeting with French politicians at the Elysée Palace, after reminding his audience of France’s Christian heritage and roots, the Holy Father again urged a rethinking of the relationship between church and state:
Many people, here in France as elsewhere, have reflected on the relations between Church and State. Indeed, Christ had already offered the basic principle for a just solution to the problem of relations between the political sphere and the religious sphere when, in answer to a question, he said: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17). The Church in France currently benefits from a “regime of freedom”. Past suspicion has been gradually transformed into a serene and positive dialogue that continues to grow stronger. A new instrument of dialogue has been in place since 2002, and I have much confidence in its work, given the mutual good will. We know that there are still some areas open to dialogue which we will have to pursue and redevelop step by step with determination and patience. You yourself, Mr President, have used the fine expression “laïcité positive” to characterize this more open understanding. At this moment in history when cultures continue to cross paths more frequently, I am firmly convinced that a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of laïcité is now necessary. In fact, it is fundamental, on the one hand, to insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the State towards them; and, on the other hand, to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring to – among other things – the creation of a basic ethical consensus in society.
Benedict’s discussion of the issue has found a sympathetic listener in the person of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Christian Science Monitor reports:
Unlike any French president in decades, Mr. Sarkozy sees a more open role for religion in French society. And he seized upon the conservative German pope’s four-day trip to directly challenge French secularism, one of the most prized traditions of La République and a strict legal and cultural sanction against bringing matters of church and faith into the public realm.
Secularism, or laïcité, is central to the modern French identity. It’s a result of hundreds of years of efforts to remove the influence of the Roman Catholic church from French institutions and reduce its moral authority. French media don’t discuss religion. At offices or work, most French believers don’t tell colleagues they are going to mass or church. It is seen as a private matter.
Yet here on Friday Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni, broke protocol and met the pope at the airport. They hosted the pontiff at the Élysée Palace, attended a papal talk at a newly restored Cistercian monastery in downtown Paris in front of 700 intellectuals and artists – where Sarkozy openly argued that while secularism is important, it should not be a hostile force that forbids all talk of God, faith, and transcendence. Sarkozy called for a “positive laïcité” that allows religion to help forge an ethical society.
“It would be crazy to deprive ourselves of religion,” remarked Sarkozy, condemning such repression as “a failing against culture and against thought” (Zenit News Service):
Religion, began Sarkozy, “and in particular the Christian religion, with which we share a long history, are living patrimonies of reflection and thought, not only about God, but also about man, society, and that which is a central concern for us today, nature.”
It would be crazy to deprive ourselves of religion; [it would be] a failing against culture and against thought. For this reason, I am calling for a positive secularity,” he said. “A positive secularity offers our consciences the possibility to interchange — above and beyond our beliefs and rites — the sense we want to give to our lives.”
The president explained the areas in which this vision of secularism could take root: “France has begun, together with Europe, a reflection on the morality of capitalism.
“Economic growth doesn’t make sense if it becomes it’s own objective. Only the betterment of the situation of the greatest number of persons and their personal fulfillment constitute legitimate objectives.
“This teaching, that forms part of the heart of the social doctrine of the Church, is in perfect consonance with the challenges of the globalized contemporary economy. Our duty is to listen to it.”
“Positive secularism, open secularism, is an invitation to dialogue, to tolerance and respect,” Sarkozy acknowledged. “It is an opportunity, an encouragement, a supplementary dimension to the political debate. It is an encouragement to religion, as well as to all currents of thought.”
According to the papers, Sarkozy is twice-divorced and a “lapsed Catholic”, in light of which I find it most encouraging to see him taking a stand in this manner against stiff opposition from militant secularists.