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. (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.”