Faithlessness is so ingrained in French culture that the president’s mere consultation with the nation’s Christian leaders apparently verges on a constitutional crisis. Emmanuel Macron appealed to the nation’s clergy to bring their faith’s insights to bear on national issues, specifically economic stagnation and human dignity. But his decision to meet with the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of France (CEF) and 400 guests inside the College des Bernardins in Paris on Monday set off a national row over whether he had violated the principle of laïcité – a pervasive and legally prescribed secularism.
The English term “secularism” does not adequately express the deeply exclusionary way French authorities have sometimes applied the doctrine, which one former government minister defined as “secular totalitarianism.”
The Third Republic had encroached on the life of the Roman Catholic Church for decades before formally codifying laïcité in the 1905 law “concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État.” Pope Pius X wrote that the change, which transferred ownership of religious buildings to the government, “tramples under foot the rights of property of the Church … which belongs to her by titles as numerous as they are sacred.” At various times, faithful Catholics were denied promotions in the military, and the Church was perpetually admonished to reserve comment on affairs of state.
“Laïcité has become the first religion of the Republic,” wrote French political scientist Dominique Moïsi. Last year, when presidential candidate François Fillon said, “I am a Christian,” National Front candidate Marine Le Pen deemed the sentiment “contrary to the principle of laïcité.”
Militant secularism has not diminished mankind’s longing to punish heretics. This is verified by the comment in Macron’s speech the public has found most offensive: “The link between Church and state has deteriorated, and that it is important for us, and for me, to repair it.”
The backlash came swiftly. “Mr. President, the link with the churches has not been damaged! It was broken in 1905!” tweeted Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-Left La France Insoumise. Premeditated dialogue with bishops is “irresponsible” and holds the potential to “unmake the Republic.” The Socialist Party’s 2017 presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon, called Macron’s speech “an unprecedented violation of laïcité.” Olivier Faure, first secretary of the Socialist Party, replied that “laïcité is our jewel.”
And as if to fulfill Moïsi’s words, the former socialist prime minister and Macron supporter Manuel Valls wrote, “Laïcité is France.”
Macron, anticipating this furore, told the bishops that “laïcité certainly does not” have to “require denying the spiritual in the name of the temporal, nor uprooting from our societies the sacred.” Furthermore, “a church claiming to be indifferent to temporal questions would not fulfill its vocation,” and a president “claiming to be uninterested in the Church and Catholics would fail in his duty.”
This is in part because Christianity has motivated so many of his nation’s heroes:
If Catholics … agreed to die, it is not only in the name of humanist ideals. It is not in the name only of a secularized, Judeo-Christian morality. It is because they were driven by their faith in God and by their religious practice.
Macron, having cast the faith in an unfamiliar role as a positive influence, said France needs Christian insights to impart a meaning to life and work. The nation suffers not just from “the economic crisis,” but from “relativism” and “even nihilism,” which “suggests that [effort] is not worth it – no need to learn, no need to work.”
While French economic policy denies people the full exercise of their gifts by not “remunerating work” and by “discouraging initiative,” a renewed emphasis on Catholic social teaching can “restore the first dignity, that of living from his own work.”
Christianity teaches the inherent dignity of all honest labor, the responsibility of earning one’s daily bread, and the unique way each person’s temporal vocation serves the rest of humanity. Such doctrines would prove a powerful arrow in the quiver of a nation currently aspiring to two-percent annual economic growth and watching unemployment dip below nine percent for the first time in nearly a decade.
Macron’s speech – which came as the nation is debating a bioethical law that would have taxpayers underwrite in vitro fertilization for same-sex couples and ease assisted dying – classed these teachings alongside traditional respect for “the dignity of the most fragile” members of society.
Citizens recognize humanity’s innate value when religion, rather than the vague abstract of “European values,” suffuses life with meaning. Macron said:
Our contemporaries, whether they believe or do not believe, need to hear from another perspective on man than the material perspective. They need to quench … a thirst for the Absolute. It is not a question here of conversion, but of a voice which, with others, still dares to speak of man as a living spirit – which dares to speak of something other than the temporal, without abdicating reason or reality.
Macron, the 39-year-old president, asked to be baptized as a Catholic at age 12. While those close to him say he is an agnostic, many consider him a “Zombie Catholic” – one whose faith continues to influence him after formal belief has died.
If so, the wake left his views anything but sectarian. He has cultivated a cordial relationship with members of all religions – France has Europe’ largest population of Muslims and Jews – inviting interfaith leaders to meet at the Elysée last December. Macron made an awkward ecumenical gesture this week, when he told the French bishops it was “impossible to disentangle” the “ardent Catholic faith” of a soldier who gave his life for a civilian during a terrorist attack last month from his patriotic ideals “nourished by his Masonic career.”
But the president’s professed desire to have Christians offer their unique perspective alongside other faith communities in a respectful national dialogue may flounder. While professed Catholics make up as much as three-quarters of the French population, only 2.9 percent practice their faith – less than the cohort of active Muslims in France’s fast-growing Islamic population which, in its fundamentalist form, has no interest in ecumenism. In the most memorable line of her speech to this year’s CPAC, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen said that France is transforming “from the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church to the little niece of Islam.” If so, an unyielding laïcité played the midwife.
“Do not give up on Europe, whose meaning you have nourished,” President Macron exhorted the Catholic bishops on Monday. “Do not leave the land you have planted fallow.”
As goes Europe’s Christian population, so goes the uniquely transcendent-yet-rational voice that gave birth to its culture.
For the continent not to fall barren requires a greater cultural openness to both the seed and its Sower.
(Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis. CC BY-SA 2.0.)