Sarkozy explains French laïcité to visiting Catholic bishops

October 2, 2009

bishops-elyseeFrench 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.

(Photo: President Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni chat with Paris Cardinal André Vingt-Trois after the funeral of the popular French nun Sister Emmanuelle, 22 Oct 2008/Benoit Tessier)

French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard, who’s the Bordeaux archbishop and CCEE vice-president, said Sarkozy focused on his frequently expressed view that religions — not just the traditional Catholicism here, but all faiths present in France — played an important social role. Recounting the president’s presentation, he said: “He developed the point that we’ve heard him express before, namely that religions deal with the meaning of life, with the search for living together peacefully and seeking the common good, and act as a possible source of hope. We live in a society and in a Europe that needs that. The role of the state is not to give meaning to life, but to organise life. The meaning of life comes not only from religions, but from other schools of thought as well. Everyone develops his own convictions. But in this domain, religions have their place and their role to play.”

We only got excerpts of the report about the state of church-state relations across Europe, so it’s hard to say much about it (we’ll post a link if it finally turns up on the CCEE website). There was one interesting section a handout concerning the way Church declarations on “socially important matters” are received in different countries. Note the different phrases (highlighted below) used to describe the different approaches:



“From all the responses, one can deduce that such interventions from the Church are appreciated or at least valued, as in Germany, France, Lithuania, but also in Albania and Greece. On the other hand, in other states they receive no attention (Bosnia and Slovenia), or, and especially when they are contrary to the predominant way of thinking, they cause outright hostility, as highlighted by some Austrian and Czech bishops, and sometimes they are also ridiculed by the mass media, as the Swiss bishops report. However the bishops of England and Wales, Moldavia, Poland, and Portugal, rightly report that there is a need for a distinction. In fact, while statements about sexuality, the family, bio-ethics, when they are not completely ignored, give rise to negative reactions, those concerning social problems such as human rights, solidarity, and development are appreciated and valued. It even happens that, when they are completely opposed to the former statements, considering them an unforgiveable intrusion, they would like to see greater commitment on the part of the Church in the latter. Through direct knowledge, this is the situation in Italy. In any case it should be borne in mind that publicly taking a stance along with other churches, or also with Jewish and Muslim communities and with people of no religious conviction, is better received.”

What a patchwork! Are we talking about the same Church here? Or just different European countries?

That last line also caught my eye — “Publicly taking a stance along with other churches, or also with Jewish and Muslim communities and with people of no religious conviction, is better received.That’s an interesting message for interfaith dialogue all over Europe.

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