Benedict makes a case for 'healthy secularism'

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Pressing the case for what he called a “healthy” form of laïcité, Benedict XVI today said the time has come to reopen the debate over the relationship between church and state in France. (The concept of laïcité is usually rendered in English as “secularism.”)

Though addressed to the French, the pope's argument has far broader implications. With the exception of the United States, Benedict worries that much of the West today is in the grip of a form of secularism hostile to any public role for churches and religious believers. Privately, Vatican officials often charge that this secularism is heavily conditioned by the French model, and is spreading across the continent through various European Union treaties as well as rulings from European courts.

The pope’s comment came in remarks to French President Nicolas Sarkozy during an early afternoon ceremony at the Elysée Palace.

“I am firmly convinced that a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of laïcité is now necessary,” Benedict said.

“In fact, it is fundamental, on the one hand, to insist upon 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 toward them,” the pope said during the encounter with Sarkozy and other officials of the French government.

“On the other hand, [it is important] 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 within society,” the pope said.

Benedict pointed to five specific areas where church and state can work together:

• Moral formation of the young
• Social justice, especially a “surreptitious widening of the distance between the rich and poor”
• Environmental protection
• Human rights
• Countering a “resurgence of old suspicions, tensions and conflicts among nations” – among other things, an indirect reference to the current conflict between Russia and Georgia.

While calling for a re-think of laïcité, Benedict also said that “past suspicion” between church and state in France has abated, saying that today a largely “serene and positive” dialogue exists between the two forces.

Quoting past remarks by Sarkozy, Benedict said that “the roots of France – like those of Europe – are Christian.”

“The transmission of the culture of antiquity through monks, professors and copyists, the formation of hearts and spirits in love of the poor, the assistance given to the most deprived by the foundation of numerous religious congregations, the contribution of Christians to the establishment of the institutions of Gaul, and later France, all of this is too well known for me to dwell on it,” Benedict said.

“The thousands of chapels, churches, abbeys and cathedrals that grace the heart of your towns or the tranquility of your countryside clearly speak of how your fathers in faith wished to honor him who had given them life and who sustains us in existence,” Benedict said.

In Sarkozy, Benedict finds a host more disposed to his message on laïcité than many other French politicians and intellectuals. During a December 2007 lecture at Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran, Sarkozy said he supports the concept of laïcité, but that it “does not have the power to eliminate from France its Christian roots.”

“It has tried to do so, and it shouldn’t have,” Sarkozy said.

In his remarks today, Sarkozy said that it would be "madness" to "deprive ourselves" of religion.

The French leader said it is "legitimate for democracy and respectful of secularism to have a dialogue with religions. ... That is why I have called for a positive secularism."

Vatican officials and French bishops, however, have complained that while Sarkozy always seems receptive to the church in his public comments, his government has not taken concrete steps to back up those words. For example, despite referring at the Lateran to the desirability of state recognition of diplomas from Catholic universities, Sarkozy has yet to convince the French government to take that step.

In part, many analysts say that any effort on the part of Sarkozy to rethink laïcité is complicated by the rising Muslim presence in France, now estimated to be somewhere between five and fifteen percent of the national population.

In that context, some French worry that any new accommodations for traditional religious bodies, such as the Catholic church, could be exploited by Islamic radicals. For example, if the French state recognizes degrees from confessional schools run by Catholics, how could it refuse a similar form of recognition, or public funding, to an Islamic madrass?

French commentators thus see Sarkozy walking something of a tightrope: wishing to encourage traditional markers of French identity, including the country’s Catholic roots, while at the same time not wanting to inadvertently encourage religious fundamentalism, especially its Islamic variant.

For that reason, most expect a basic agreement at the level of general principles between Benedict and Sarkozy during the pope’s four days in France, accompanied by a fair bit of fuzziness about what exactly those principles might mean in practice.

John Allen is filing stories throughout the pope's visit to France and Lourdes. Read all the stories in his daily news column: John L Allen Jr Daily Column. Stories he has already filed include:

Sept 15
Pope in France: A lesson in 'Marian cool'

Sept 14
Pope offers prayerful meditation on Eucharist: Jesus 'past, present and future'
Pope in France: Traditionalists deserve 'a place in the church'
The Cross, Mary, and hope for 'new vigor' in the Church

Sept 13
Pope tells shrunken church, 'Don't be afraid'
Lourdes: Nothing says 'Catholic' like the Virgin Mary
Explaining Benedict's discretion on Islam

Sept 12
No reference to Muslims, but pope makes a call to resist 'disaster for humanity'
Benedict makes a case for 'healthy secularism'
Pope in France: Averting a secular Iron Curtain
Pope in France: Latin Mass an 'act of tolerance'

Earlier stories
Extracts from Sarkozy on church/state relations in France
Cardinal Tauran on the pope's trip to France
The Marian Papacy of Benedict XVI
Benedict hopes to tap the 'creative minority' of French Catholics

(Editor's Note: Some stories are double posted, on and on

(John Allen is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

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