Pope in France: Averting a secular Iron Curtain

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Paris

Oddly enough, one good place to grasp the importance of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to France this weekend, at least as seen from the Vatican, is well outside French airspace – in France’s ancient rival, England.

Over the last two years, religious groups in England, above all the Catholic church, have fought a losing battle against a new law that makes it illegal for adoption agencies that take public funding to discriminate against gay couples. To date, church leaders have not succeeded in efforts to win an exemption, so some Catholic agencies have either cut their ties to the church or closed their doors.

In part, the British adopted the law in order to comply with the Treaty of Amsterdam, the most recent revision to the rules of the European Union, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Though the headquarters of the EU is in Brussels, the inspiration for much of its law, including its concept of church/state relations, comes from France.

tTherein lies the Vatican’s great fear: That the French model of laïcité, which treats almost any legal or political concession to religious sensitivities as taboo, will march steadily across Europe – perhaps not so much through democratic debate, but court rulings and bureaucratic adaptations of national statutes to European norms.

Some church officials talk about a new “Iron Curtain” falling across Europe, this one a matter not of competing political systems but rather an aggressive secularism that either muzzles religious groups or demands that they assimilate as the price of admission to public life.

In that light, Benedict XVI’s effort today in Paris to promote what he calls “healthy secularism,” meaning one which recognizes the legitimate autonomy of the state but which also values the public voice of religious believers, amounts to taking the battle to the place where he believes it has to be waged – in the nation where laïcité was invented, and from where it radiates out across the continent and beyond.

The pope began making the case before even touching down in Paris, in response to a question aboard the papal plane.

“It seems evident to me that laïcité, in and of itself, is not in contraction with the faith,” Benedict said in response to a question about whether France is in danger of losing its Christian identity. Yet, he argued, politics and religion should collaborate rather than remaining sealed off from one another.

“The possibility of being a believer is important for society today,” he said. “It’s important that there be people who know God so they can live according to the great values God has given us and can contribute to the presence of values which are fundamental for the building up and survival of our states and societies.”

The pope will be in Paris through tomorrow morning, then heads to the famed Marian sanctuary of Lourdes before returning to Rome on Monday afternoon.

The extent to which Benedict actually convinces the French to take a new look at laïcité remains to be seen. He may at least, however, get the benefit of the doubt; a poll published in the Parisian on Thursday found that 53 percent of the French have a “very positive” or “positive” view of the pope, as opposed to just 25 percent with a “negative” or “very negative” view. The pope’s approval rating rises to 65 percent among French Catholics.


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