Laïcité - Pope urges France to re-think its secular republic
Cranmer is delighted to say that he fully accords with His Holiness on this, and looks forward to being invited to the Vatican for a private audience to discuss the details over wafers and wine. He would be happy to philosophise on the 1905 concept of ‘laïcité’ which has no easy translation into English: it is not ‘secularism’ - as frequently defined by the clericalism it opposes - but more a term for the separation of church and state. Intrinsic to it are various Enlightenment notions of liberté, including freedom of thought, conscience, expression and religion. And it is predicated upon the post-Enlightenment settlement of the division between the private realm of spiritual belief and the public realm of political policy. Laïcité is a founding principle of the French Constitution, which states in its First Article: ‘La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale.’
But erstwhile Catholic France – known as Rome’s ‘eldest daughter’ since Frankish king Clovis converted in the fifth century - is presently confronting a substantial transformation in its religious landscape. The country has the largest population of Jews and Muslims in Western Europe. Despite its deeply Catholic roots, of the 75 per cent of the nation's 62 million people who are baptised, fewer than 5 per cent attend Mass every week. And many of its centuries-old cathedrals are crumbling in towns that lack money or the motivation to renovate them.
But it is the growing number of Muslims whose ‘public’ customs – such as the wearing of hijabs - have resulted in a severe restriction of such expressions of religious adherence in government-owned buildings. The laïcité which applies to the church must also apply to the mosque. And yet these two religions are clearly not held as equals by the secular Republic, and obviously not by the Pope.
His Holiness rightly asserts that ‘the presence of Christian values is fundamental for the survival of our nations and our societies’, and he appears to be meeting President Sarkozy in one of those illogical, postmodern ‘third ways’ which permit mutually exclusive concepts to fuse into an oxymoronic nebulous entity which feels more than it means.
Thus we have a papal blessing upon the notion of ‘positive secularism’ – which will uphold the Republic’s demand for the separation of church and state while creating space within the public realm for religion. Curiously, the very act of inviting His Holiness to the Elysée Palace is the incarnation of the concept, for it is clear from this photograph that the Pope was not asked to remove his rather prominent cross or any other religious symbols he was wearing.
Pope Benedict said it was ‘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’. But he added that societies must also be ‘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 within society’.
The problem then is égalité, for secularism demands a ‘neutral’ religious outlook, such that what is permitted to Christianity in the public realm must also be granted to Islam. And if La République does not oblige, the EU will enforce it under its Human Rights anti-discrimination legislation.
The President’s ‘cultural Catholicism’ is weak, and only a vibrant and vehement expression of Christianity will fill the spiritual void which is being occupied incrementally by a very different brand of clericalism. While he is intent on rejecting the ‘negative laïcité’ of restriction in favour of a ‘positive laïcité’ of mutual benefit, the President speaks of a hope in faith which must be extended not only to Christian groups, but also to those religious groups which are inimical to France’s Christian roots.
It may be ‘madness’ to ‘deprive ourselves of religion’, as the President said. But, in the last analysis, there may be some expressions of religion of which it is undoubtedly better to be deprived, and the French may one day thank God that religion is subjugated to secularism.