Reuters blog archive
French President Nicolas Sarkozy took time out from a busy schedule on Friday to welcome 18 Catholic cardinals, archbishops and bishops from across Europe into the Elysée Palace for a short talk about laïcité. The prelates were in Paris for an annual session of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (CCEE), a Swiss-based body that brings together all those bishops' conferences. Among the topics at the three-day conference are relations between church and state in Europe, so it was natural that they'd take the opportunity to learn more about France's trademark secular system. (Photo: Zagreb Archbishop Josip Bozanic (L), Esztergom-Budapest Cardinal Péter Erdö (C) and Bordeaux Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard arrive to meet President Sarkozy, 2 Oct 2009/Charles Platiau)
Cardinal Péter Erdö of Esztergom-Budapest, current CCEE president, came out full of praise for the president's presentation. It was "maqnifique", he told waiting journalists in French. "We're very pleased to hear the president's point of view", which he described as "a constructive way of interpreting laïcité". Erdö recalled that France's legal separation of church and state, imposed forcibly in 1905, had led to "great conflicts" in the past. "But today, I think it is one form of constructive collaboration and mutual respect" in Europe. He added that the bishops gave Sarkozy a copy of Pope Benedict's encyclical "Caritas in veritate" (Charity in Truth) signed by the pontiff himself.
Outside of France, laïcité is sometimes seen as a hostile system the Catholic Church must be instinctively allergic to. It can give rise to some hostility, especially from officials who are actually what has to be called laïcité fundamentalists. And it can complicate life not only for the Catholic Church but all religious groups there. But in fact, most religious groups here have learned to live with the system and defend it to visiting foreigners who expect to hear them groaning about it.
An Italian professor who conducted a study of church-state relations across the region for the CCEE reported that "religious freedom is assured everywhere, with one serious exception -- Turkey". The Vatican accepts that church-state relations will be different from country to country, depending on their histories, and there is no single model -- such as the traditional concordat -- that it considers to be better than others. "These relations are better right now in secular France than in Spain, which has a concordat," Professor Giorgio Feliciani of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan told journalists.
A running crisis in relations between Silvio Berlusconi's government and the Church deepened when Italy's top Catholic weekly accused him of acting like a "prince" while many Italians were struggling financially. A scathing editorial in Famiglia Cristiana, Italy's largest circulation weekly news magazine, also indirectly criticised the media mogul's private life and attacked the type of women politicians he has promoted in his centre-right party. And it did so without naming him once. The clever editorial in its online edition on September 16, here in Italian, was unsigned, meaning it was written by the magazine's editor, Father Antonio Sciortino.
The editorial came several weeks after relations between the government and the influential Church nose-dived when a newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family launched a personal attack against a top Catholic editor, forcing him to resign. Read our previous blogs on that episode here and here.
A new on-line forum launched on Tuesday seeks to spark discussion among faith and secular leaders and activists about ways to find some elusive common ground on the divisive issue of abortion.
It's being rolled out by RH Reality Check, which focuses on reproductive health and rights issues, and can be seen here.
When President Barack Obama delivers his long-awaited speech in Cairo on Thursday, will he address the Muslim world or the Arab world? In the pre-speech build-up, it's being called a speech "to the Muslim world" or "to the world's 1.x billion Muslims" (the estimated total mentioned in different articles fluctuates between 1and 1.5 billion). But the venue he's chosen -- Cairo -- and all the focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict make it sound like a speech to and about the Middle East. (Photo: President Barack Obama, 21 May 2009/Kevin Lamarque)
The Middle East is the heartland of Islam, but Arabs make up only about 20 percent of the world's Muslims. Not all Arabs are Muslims. And non-Arab Iran is a major part of the Middle Eastern political scene. So is it correct to call this a speech to the Muslim world? Would it be better to call it a speech to the Middle East?
The latest issue of The Economist has a provocative essay on Darwinism asking if Charles Darwin's insights can be used profitably by policymakers. You can read it online here.
"America ... executes around 40 people a year for murder. Yet it still has a high murder rate. Why do people murder each other when they are almost always caught and may, in America at least, be killed themselves as a result?" it asks.
Where is the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable criticism of religion? How should the media cover issues that offend certain believers? These issues came up at last week's Catholic-Muslim Forum in Rome and in the public editor's column in the Sunday New York Times. In both cases, useful distinctions were made. But I'm not sure how much agreement they will produce the next time someone finds a depiction of a religion, its beliefs or its symbols outrageous. (Photo:Filipino Muslims protest outside Danish embassy in Manila, 15 Feb 2006)
The Catholic-Muslim Forum, an unprecedented meeting between Vatican and Muslim leaders and scholars, approached the issue as one of the rights of a minority religion, since cases they are concerned about -- such as the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad -- involved criticism of a minority faith by the local majority. They agreed that "religious minorities are entitled to be respected in their own religious convictions and practices ... and their founding figures and symbols they consider sacred should not be subject to any form of mockery or ridicule."
Today is Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg in eastern Germany and set off the Protestant Reformation. It is a public holiday in the five eastern German states, in Slovenia and -- this year for the first time -- in Chile.
Chile? Isn't that traditionally a Catholic country? Even the Catholic parts of Germany don't celebrate Reformation Day.
A non-religious Kansas soldier is suing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on the grounds that his constitutional rights were violated when he was forced to attend military events where "fundamentalist Christian prayers" were recited.
Specialist Dustin Chalker's cause has been taken up by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which is joining him in the suit.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had dinner with around 200 people of various faiths including Mennonites, Quakers, United Methodists, Jews and Zoroastrians who said they wanted to promote peace by meeting such a prominent foe of the United States. You can read our story about the meeting here.
The French are a tough audience to please and speaking to them about church-state relations is a tall order. Pope Benedict got right down to it at the start of his visit to France, using his courtesy call on President Nicolas Sarkozy to outline his view of the role religion should play in the public sphere. Fluent in French and well-read in the country's history and culture, he made several interesting points in his short speech.
Here's the part on church-state relations:
During your visit to Rome, Mr President, you called to mind that the roots of France – like those of Europe – are Christian. History itself offers sufficient proof of this: from its origins, your country received the Gospel message. Even though documentary evidence is sometimes lacking, the existence of Christian communities in Gaul is attested from a very early period: it is moving to recall that the city of Lyon already had a bishop in the mid-second century, and that Saint Irenaeus, the author of Adversus Haereses, gave eloquent witness there to the vigour of Christian thought. Saint Irenaeus came from Smyrna to preach faith in the Risen Christ. This bishop of Lyons spoke Greek as his mother tongue. Could there be a more beautiful sign of the universal nature and destination of the Christian message? The Church, established at an early stage in your country, played a civilizing role there to which I am pleased to pay tribute on his occasion. You spoke of it yourself, during your address at the Lateran Palace last December. 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. The thousands of chapels, churches, abbeys and cathedrals that grace the heart of your towns or the tranquility of your countryside speak clearly of how your fathers in faith wished to honour him who had given them life and who sustains us in existence.