Secularization taxes France’s church-state relations

When Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois of Paris spent an evening debating with France’s interior minister last month, the event was marked by pledges of dialogue and cooperation. Yet the politeness belied tensions that have marred church-state relations in the traditionally Catholic country since the Socialists won power 18 months ago. 

“Of course, bishops and ministers must show they can work together,” said Antoine Renard, president of France’s National Federation of Catholic Family Associations. “But it doesn’t change the reality that things are getting worse here. The government is pressing on with an aggressive secularist agenda clearly directed against the Catholic Church.”

Secularist agenda

When Francois Hollande was elected France’s Socialist president in May 2012, his platform included policies to boost the flagging economy, but also featured liberalizing measures — from same-sex marriage to embryo research. Above all, Hollande promised steps to reaffirm the country’s guiding principle of laicite, excluding religion from the public sphere, which many Socialists believed had been eroded under his center-right predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Although aimed primarily at curbing fundamentalism among Muslims, who make up 10 percent of France’s 60 million inhabitants, the initiative was viewed cautiously by Christian communities, too. Controlling well over half the 577-seat Assemblée Nationale, the Socialist government has followed through on its election pledges — at a heavy cost to social peace. When the same-sex marriage bill, dubbed “Marriage For All,” was enacted in May, angry mass demonstrations erupted in French cities. Although the first gay wedding took place in Montpellier in May, opponents have vowed to resist the law with constitutional appeals — while fighting other Socialist plans for education and family life.

Catholics traditionally make up two-thirds of the French population, although fewer than one in 10 attends Sunday Mass and 40 percent of the population denies any faith. Same-sex marriage was bitterly opposed by France’s Catholic bishops, some of whom took part in the demonstrations and arranged for parish groups to be bused in. 

Expressing opposition

In a June report, the Church’s Family and Society Council said the law had caused “radicalization” among Catholics, with some supporting and others opposing it. However, the bishops’ Permanent Council also commended Catholics for giving “public expression to their concern,” and urged them to go on “deploying it in other domains where vigilance is required.”

These have been mounting. In July, when the Assemblée overturned a 2011 ban on embryo research, Church leaders protested the measure had been voted through with barely any parliamentary debate. An “Observatory of Laicite,” set up by President Hollande and Premier Jean-Marc Ayrault, has recommended measures to defend laicite, as defined in France’s famous 1905 “Separation Law.”

In September, a “Charter of Laicite” was sent to all state schools, describing France as an “indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic,” assuring “respect for all beliefs,” but also imposing a “duty of strict neutrality” on teachers and barring any display of “political or religious convictions.”

The 17-point charter, promoted by Education Minister Vincent Peillon, reaffirms a controversial 2004 French law banning “ostentatious religious symbols” from schools, and is to be followed by a new course in 2015 on “secular morality.” However, its practical implications are ill-defined. 

Hindering religions

Christian critics have warned the charter fails to guard against classroom interference by militant secularists and may prevent children from understanding religion. 

“If we don’t cultivate a true knowledge of religions, young people won’t be able to respect others in a fair way,” French bishops’ conference spokesman Msgr. Bernard Podvin told the Catholic La Croix weekly. “We understand the need to recall the principle of secularism and regulate the public sphere and educational establishments — but this secularism mustn’t be hollow or limited to negating and hindering religions.” 

Some observers wonder how effectively the Church can resist the Socialist onslaught. Priestly vocations have fallen sharply in France, leaving many of the Church’s 36,000 parishes without resident priests and fuelling fears that a fifth of its 15,000 listed churches could face closure by local councils.

Hopes for future

Yet Renard, the Catholic family association president, remains upbeat. “Our bishops’ capacity to talk and act is restricted by official considerations — but Catholic organizations like ours have no such limitations,” Renard told OSV.

During their debate at the College des Bernardins in Paris, both Cardinal Vingt-Trois and Interior Minister Manuel Valls agreed the reaffirmation of laicite shouldn’t be seen as undermining religions. Yet further conflict looks inevitable. 

Catholic campaigners have scored some successes. France’s appeal court has rejected attempts to bar religion from state kindergartens, while a judgment requiring parishes to erase the names of apostasizing Catholics from their baptismal registers was overturned in September. And France’s main police union has regretted the violent suppression of last spring’s demonstrations against same-sex marriage.

Addressing French parliamentarians in early October at Saint-Clothilde Basilica in Paris, Cardinal Vingt-Trois urged against fatalist views that Christians should “abandon responsibility for care of the world to those who ignore God.”

Catholics like Renard fully concur. In a recent report, La Croix said France was seeing a “multiplication of initiatives” against Socialist government plans, with one organization, “Actors for the Future,” formed by a priest from the Versailles diocese, and another, “Founding Tomorrow,” set up by young professionals to promote “long-term Christian engagement in politics.” They say they’ve received pledges of solidarity not just from France, but from around Europe too, and will step up their campaign before municipal and European Parliament elections in early 2014.

“Secular principles must be respected, but not if this means you’re not even allowed to talk about religion,” Renard said. “We’re accustomed to Catholics being treated as the enemy here. But it’s tragic and shocking that many people can no longer even imagine we believe in God, and just assume the Church is some old-fashioned organization that hasn’t understood how the world works. We now need to prove them wrong by appealing to consciences and mobilizing support.” 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.