FaithWorld

Sarkozy explains French laïcité to visiting Catholic bishops

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.

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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.”

Prominent cardinal backs coup and rule of law in Honduras

ormMen touted as a possible next pope of the Roman Catholic Church rarely get involved in public debates over a coup d’etat or wars of words with heads of state. But that’s what Tegucigalpa Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga has done recently in the the political crisis in his country, Honduras. Before the overthrown President Manuel Zelaya made his failed attempt to return home, Rodriguez issued a statement in a televised address declaring his ouster legal and warning Zelaya could spur “a bloodbath” if he came back to Honduras. (Photo: Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, 16 April 2005/Kimimasa Mayama)

The July 3 televised statement, signed by the 11 bishops of Honduras, exhorted Hondurans to seek a peaceful solution to the political crisis and rejected international criticism of Zelaya’s ouster even as it condemned the manner he was kicked out of the country.

Rodriguez, one of the Latin America’s most prominent Catholic leaders, was frequently mentioned as a possible next pontiff in 2005 when he and his fellow cardinals gathered to elect a successor to Pope John Paul. There was much talk at the time that a cardinal from the developing world, where the majority of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics live, took over at the Vatican. When the conclave opted for Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the German was called “the last European pope.” The Latin Americans could win the next conclave if they could only rally behind one candidate, the Italian media speculated. Rodriguez, then a young 62, was often mentioned as the man with the best chances.

Germans fall out of love with their pope

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the head of the Roman Catholicism in 2005, the best-selling daily Bild caught the national mood with a frontpage headline crowing Wir sind Papst! (We’re Pope!). Now, Germans are falling out of love with their pope for readmitting to the Church an excommunicated bishop who denies the Holocaust. For the vast majority of Germans, denying the Holocaust is beyond the pale. Shunning anyone who does deny the Holocaust is considered a civic virtue. So seeing the world’s most prominent German rehabilitate a Holocaust denier is quite distressing for a upstanding, post-war German democrat. How could he do it? (Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 2 Feb 2009/Alessandro Bianchi)

The Vatican and Catholic bishops around the world have been defending the pope, saying the lifting of the excommunications for the controversial Bishop Richard Williamson and three other bishops was an internal Church issue unrelated to his political views. They say repeatedly that this is not a rehabilitation, but simply a readmission to allow discussions on rehabilitation to start. After botching the initial announcement, the Vatican has had a tough time trying to convince public opinion in other countries. In Germany, where many understandably think Holocaust deniers deserve no sympathy whatsoever, this task is proving to be doubly difficult.

From Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Foreign Minister to leading Catholic thinkers, Jewish groups and editorial writers in top-selling newspapers — they’re all criticising the pope’s controversial decision to welcome Williamson back. Here is our news story from Berlin wrapping up the reaction. In Rome, another German, Cardinal Walter Kasper, bluntly told Vatican Radio: “There wasn’t enough talking with each other in the Vatican and there are no longer checks to see where problems could arise.”