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.