Pope lays down the law to French Catholic bishops
Pope Benedict’s speech to France’s bishops at Lourdes was a classic example of an “iron first in a velvet glove” address. Delivered calmly and in elegant French, it basically laid down the law to a group that has been among the most critical in the Church of his turn towards traditional Catholicism. It was billed as a meeting but was in fact a monologue. He read it out without hardly ever looking at the 170 cardinals and bishops before him and left right after finishing the text.
“Benedict XVI gave the bishops a veritable road map to help them trace the paths of the future for the church in France,” wrote Jean-Marie Guénois, religion correspondent of Le Figaro. “He wanted this meeting. It’s the only one he imposed on the organisers. Which shows the importance, in his eyes, of what he wanted to tell them.”
The most striking part was his call to the bishops to make more place for traditionalists. The French bishops lobbied the Vatican last year before Benedict liberalised the use of the Tridentine Latin Mass, arguing that giving the traditionalists too much leeway would undermine the authority of the bishops. The “tradis” are especially strong in France, both in the form of those loyal to Rome and those who have broken with it. The culture war between them and the majority church is deeply rooted and mutual suspicion is strong. Bishops worry that traditionalists want to form a “church within a church” if given the slightest chance. Among mainstream Catholics, that can translate into a high sensitivity to anything seen as rolling back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
“I am aware of your difficulties, but I do not doubt that, within a reasonable time, you can find solutions satisfactory for all, lest the seamless tunic of Christ be further torn,” the pope said while talking about the Tridentine mass. “Everyone has a place in the Church. Every person, without exception, should be able to feel at home, and never rejected.”
To bishops faced with serious priest shortages, Benedict warned the bishops not to rely too much on the lay people who now replace missing priests in many functions. He urged them to continue to try to encourage vocations instead. “Where their specific missions are concerned, priests cannot delegate their functions to the faithful,” he said.
With a growing number of Catholics divorcing and then remarrying outside the Church, bishops in several developed countries have asked whether the Vatican could relax the marriage laws that require an annulment before a divorced Catholic can remarry in the Church. Benedict recognised that “a particularly painful situation concerns those who are divorced and remarried.” But he said he could not change Church teaching: “The Church, which cannot oppose the will of Christ, firmly maintains the principle of the indissolubility of marriage, while surrounding with the greatest affection those men and women who, for a variety of reasons, fail to respect it. Hence initiatives aimed at blessing irregular unions cannot be admitted”
Benedict also encouraged the bishops to remind the French of their country’s Christian roots now that President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he wants to take a more flexible approach to laïcité, the traditionally rigid separation of church and state. He said: “Drawing attention to France’s Christian roots will permit each inhabitant of the country to come to a better understanding of his or her origin and destiny. Consequently, within the current institutional framework and with the utmost respect for the laws that are in force, it is necessary to find a new path, in order to interpret and live from day to day the fundamental values on which the Nation’s identity is built. Your President has intimated that this is possible. The social and political presuppositions of past mistrust or even hostility are gradually disappearing.”
Things are changing, but this is still a touchy issue in France, where many Catholics are wary about reopening the debate on laïcité. One of them, for example, is François Bayrou, a prominent centrist politician and practicing Catholic who boycotted Benedict’s speech at the Elysée Palace because he thought it violated the separation of church and state. But he was here in Lourdes for the pope’s mass on Sunday, as a private citizen. Another issue is whether the bishops want to be seen to be so close to Sarkozy himself. “Speedy Sarko” was quite close to France’s Muslims a few years ago, before they fell out in a big way. He has made pitches to the Jewish community with mixed success. The Catholics are the focus at the moment, but you never know with Sarko when his attention will shift elsewhere.
The bishops gave Benedict a standing ovation at the end of his address, which is probably to be expected during a papal visit. It remains to be seen how much of his road map they follow.