Extracts from Sarkozy on church/state relations in France

On Dec. 20, 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was inducted as an Honorary Canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, a traditional privilege of the French head of state since the era of Henry IV in the 16th century. During the ceremony, Sarkozy delivered an address on church/state relations in the famous Hall of Conciliation at St. John Lateran, the room in which Benito Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri signed the Lateran Pacts in 1929 healing the rift between the Vatican and the Italian state. Sarkozy’s speech has been cited as a turning point in French attitudes towards the public role of religion. Since the era of the French Revolution, the concept of laïcité, usually rendered in English as “secularism,” has produced a strong separation between church and state, which, according to critics, has at times meant hostility towards religion. Laïcité was formally inscribed as a matter of French law in 1905. The following are translated extracts from Sarkozy’s speech, cited on Tuesday by Vatican spokesperson Fr. Federico Lombardi as important background material for Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 12-15 trip to France.

Extracts from speech delivered by President Nicolas Sarkozy at St. John Lateran on Dec. 20, 2007

With the baptism of Clovis, France became the eldest daughter of the church. It’s a fact. By making Clovis the first Christian sovereign, that event had important consequences for destiny of France and for the Christianization of Europe. Following that turning point, French sovereigns repeatedly had occasion to demonstrate the deep ties which connected them to the church and the successors of Peter. Beyond the facts of history, France has had a particular relationship with the Holy See above all because the Christian faith penetrated deeply into French society, into its culture, its towns, its mode of life, its architecture, its literature. The roots of France are essentially Christian. …

Christianity has counted for a great deal for France, and France has counted for a great deal for Christianity …

As with the baptism of Clovis, secularism is also a fact in our country. I know the suffering that its application in France has produced for Catholics, for priests and for religious congregations, before and after 1905. I know that interpretation of the law of 1905 as a text of liberty, of tolerance, and of neutrality is in part a selective reconstruction of the past. It was above all through their sacrifices in the trenches during the Great Wars, through their sharing in the suffering of their fellow citizens, that the priests and religious of France disarmed anti-clericalism; their common intelligence has allowed France and the Holy See to overcome their disagreements and to reestablish diplomatic relations …

Laïcité is to be affirmed as necessary and opportune, but laïcité should not mean negation of the past. It does not have the power to eliminate from France its Christian roots. It has tried to do so, and it shouldn’t have. Along with Benedict XVI, I believe that a nation which ignores the ethical, spiritual and religious inheritance of its history commits a crime against its own culture, against that blend of history, patrimony, art and popular tradition which deeply impregnates our way of life and our thought. To take away those roots means to lose meaning, to weaken the cement of national identity and to further fray social relationships that need symbols of memory. For that reason, we have to hold together the two ends of the rope: accepting the Christian roots of France, while also valuing and continuing to defend a laïcité which has reached maturity. This is the sense of the step I wanted to take tonight in St. John Lateran.

The moment has arrived, in this same spirit, for the religions, especially Catholicism which is the religion of our majority, and all the living forces of the nation to look together to the future and not simply to the wounds of the past. …

For a long time, the lay Republic has underestimated the importance of spiritual aspirations. Indeed, even after the restoration of diplomatic relations between France and the Holy See, it’s often revealed itself to be more diffident than benevolent with regard to matters of cult. Every time that it’s taken a step toward the religions – for example, the recognition of diocesan associations, or scholastic questions, or matters regarding religious orders – it’s given the impression of acting because it has to. Only in 2002 was the principle of a regular institutional dialogue with the Catholic church accepted. I’d also like to recall the virulent criticism to which I was subjected at the time we created a French council for the Muslim faith. Even today, the Republic keeps religious congregations under a form of supervision, refusing to recognize a character of cult to the charitable agencies or means of communication of the churches. It does not recognize the value of diplomas from Catholic institutions of higher education, even though the Bologna Convention expects it, and it does not assign any value to theology degrees, taking the view that it must not have any interest in the formation of ministers of cult.

I think this situation is damaging for our country. Certainly, those who do not believe must be protected from every form of intolerance and proselytism. But a person who believes is a person who hopes, and it’s in the interests of the Republic that there be many women and men who nourish hope. The progressive decline of the rural parishes, the spiritual deserts of the urban peripheries, the disappearance of patronages and the shortage of priests have not made the French happier. This much is obvious.

I would also like to say that, even if there is indisputably a human morality which is not specifically religious, it’s nonetheless in the interests of the Republic that there be a form of moral reflection inspired by religious convictions. This is above all because secular morality always runs the risk of becoming exhausted, or transforming itself into fanaticism, when it is not supported by a hope which addresses the human aspiration for infinity. Moreover, a morality shorn of ties to the transcendent is more exposed to historical contingencies, and above all to conformism. … At a certain point, the danger is that the criterion of ethics becomes not that of doing what we should, but that of doing whatever we can. …

In a lay Republic, a political figure such as myself cannot make decisions on the basis of religious considerations. It’s nevertheless important that the reflections and the consciences of public figures be especially illuminated by opinions which make reference to norms and convictions that lie beyond immediate contingencies. … It’s for this reason that I profoundly wish for the emergence of a healthy laïcité, meaning a laïcité that, while protecting freedom of thought, the freedom to believe or not, does not consider religions a danger but rather something positive. It’s not a matter of modifying the great balances of the law of 1905. The French don’t want that, and the religions aren’t asking for it. It’s a matter, rather, of seeking dialogue with the great religions of France, and of having as a guiding principle the goal of making the daily life of our great spiritual currents easier rather than more complicated. …

What’s in my heart to say to you is that in this paradoxical world, obsessed with material well-being but always searching for a sense of identity, France needs convinced Catholics who aren’t afraid to affirm who they are and what they believe in. As Henri de Lubac, a great friend of Benedict XVI, has written, ‘Life attracts, like joy.’ For this reason, France needs happy Catholics who give witness to their hope.

France has always been known throughout the world for its generosity and intelligence. For this reason, too, France needs Catholics who are fully Christian, and Christians who are fully active.

France needs to believe once more that the future is not to be suffered, but to be built. For that reason, it needs the example of those who, buoyed by a hope bigger than themselves, work every day to build a more just and more generous world. … France needs your generosity, your courage, your hope.

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 NCRonline.org and on NCRcafe.org.)

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