Pope addresses secular France, says society needs inspiration of Gospel
PARIS (CNS) – Arriving in France for a four-day visit, Pope Benedict XVI called for a new chapter of church-state cooperation, saying modern society greatly needs the inspiration of the Gospel.
The Pope appealed in particular on behalf of struggling youths, the suffering poor and the polluted planet.
In all three areas, the Pope said on September 12, the Church can bring hope and help create an “ethical consensus” in a society that sometimes lacks values and direction. “This hope is all the more necessary in today’s world, which offers few spiritual aspirations and few material certainties,” the Pope said at an official welcoming ceremony at Elysee Palace.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy warmly welcomed the Pope and applauded his words. In the president’s own speech, he said religion did not represent a danger for any democracy and that Christian values constituted a “living patrimony” for the whole society. Earlier, Sarkozy broke protocol to greet the Pope personally at Orly Airport, accompanied by his wife, Carla Bruni.
It was Pope Benedict’s first visit to France as Pope, and the trip represented a test for one of the primary goals of his pontificate: to reinvigorate the Christian roots of Europe.
Speaking to reporters aboard his chartered plane en route to Paris, the Pope made it clear that he came as a friend of France and an admirer of its contributions in art, architecture, philosophy and theology – a rich culture, he noted, that was largely formed by Christians.
He picked up on the same theme at the ornate Elysee Palace, where he spoke to Sarkozy and several hundred other dignitaries in a hall filled with chandeliers.
Describing himself as a “sower of charity and hope,” the Pope quickly zeroed in on a perennial and crucial issue in France: the proper role of the church in a secular society. On one hand, he said, it was right to “insist on the distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the state toward them.”
At the same time, he said, society must become more aware of “the irreplaceable role of religion” in forming consciences and instilling values.
The Pope then turned to several specific issues where the Church’s influence is needed today. His greatest concern, he said, is for young people. “Some of them are struggling to find the right direction or are suffering from a loss of connection to family life,” he said.
Other young people are left on the margins, spiritually seeking but vulnerable, and they need sound educational direction, he said. The Church has a specific role in this regard, he said.
The Pope said he was also worried about the widening gap between rich and poor, especially in the Western world. Beyond immediate assistance, he said, long-term solutions are necessary in order to “protect the weak and promote their dignity.”
On a broader issue, the Pope said he was concerned about “the state of our planet.”
“With great generosity, God has entrusted to us the world that he created. We must learn to respect and protect it more. It seems to me that the time has come for more constructive proposals so as to guarantee the good of future generations,” he said.
The Pope noted that France currently holds the presidency of the European Union, and he called on the country to promote the defence of “the inalienable rights of the human person from conception to natural death.”
He urged French leaders to help build peace within European borders, warning that the continent faced the danger of a “resurgence of old suspicions, tensions and conflicts among nations.”
While the Pope was not specific, he appeared to be referring to the recent conflict between Georgia and Russia and the resulting damage to US-Russian relations.
Although there have been serious pastoral problems in France, including a drastic drop in sacramental practice among Catholics, the Pope’s first major address in the country was almost entirely positive. He cited the long list of contributions made by French Catholic communities and said the French people should know that their country is “often at the heart of the Pope’s prayers.”
In Church-State relations, he said, past suspicions have been transformed into “a serene and positive dialogue.” In making the point that “the roots of France – like those of Europe – are Christian,” he cited Sarkozy’s own statement to that effect last year.
Sarkozy, who was born and raised a Catholic, is twice divorced and describes his religious practice today as “sporadic.” However, he has strongly affirmed the Catholic Church’s cultural imprint in France and defended the right of the church to a voice in public affairs.
After meeting with the Pope late in 2007, Sarkozy said in a speech at Rome’s Basilica of St. John Lateran that France’s roots were “essentially Christian” and that to ignore that would represent a “crime against (French) culture.” In the eyes of Vatican officials, that made him somewhat of a philosophical ally of the German pontiff, who has repeatedly pressed European leaders to acknowledge that Christianity has largely shaped the continent’s civilisation and values. Sarkozy has taken a decidedly less-rigid view of France’s traditional “laicite,” or secularism, which was codified in a 1905 law that relegated religion to the private sphere. The French president has spoken of a “positive secularism” and has even encouraged leading Catholics to be courageous in their public interventions.
While leading Catholics have been intrigued and impressed with Sarkozy’s verbal willingness to move beyond ancient church-state antagonisms in France, one Vatican official recently offered some mild criticism.
French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, who coordinates interreligious dialogue at the Vatican, told the Italian newspaper Avvenire that Sarkozy’s words “have not been followed by concrete action” such as legal recognition of degrees issued by Church universities and faculties.
In his speech, the Pope gently echoed that point, telling Sarkozy that despite improved relations between Church and State, some areas remain unsettled and will have to be resolved “step by step with determination and patience.”
The Pope was on the first leg of a four-day visit designed primarily to mark the 150th anniversary of the apparitions of Mary to a peasant girl, St Bernadette Soubirous, in the southern French town of Lourdes.