I was somewhat surprised to see this article relaying French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s conciliatory encounter with Pope Benedict XVI in yesterday’s edition of the Christian Science monitor — not that heads of state meeting with his holiness are uncommon.
What is striking is the lengths to which Sarkozy has pursued this encounter as more than a photo opportunity and his desire to make real change on religion’s role in French public life. Contrast that to the recent Papal visit to the United States whith its vague mission to “give, and to receive, a witness to the power of hope and faith.”
Sarkozy, it seems, is trying to revive the role of religion in public life, going against what has been taboo in French politics for over 100 years, codified into law, and referred to as laïcité, or secularism. Religion, for the French, is not a matter of state. The Republic is the Republic and the Church is the Church. Affairs of the state are public, affairs of the Church, private. The “sacred cow” here, ironically, is secularism. That noble thought, separation of church and state, certainly appreciated here in the States, is part and parcel of French public life. But Sarkozy would, perhaps, undo that.
When Sarkozy’s says, “[It is] legitimate for democracy and respectful of secularism to have a dialogue with religions.” One may rightfully reply, “Sure, why not?” People in all states are (and for the foreseeable future will be) religious — it is valuable for the state to dialog with entities important to the people it governs and there is no shortage of secularists ready and willing to have such dialog.
But this worm turns when the Pope decrees: “It is fundamental to become more aware of the irreplaceable role of religion for the formation of consciences and the contribution which it can bring.” This is where my skin crawls, where I begin to think — Nope, no further dialog is needed, the secularists had this right all along.
The promise of a free (and, one hopes, rational) dialog comes crashing into the high and mighty declarations of the Church. The dialog has — before it even started — become a lecture. Perhaps a dialog is not impossible when one side deems itself “irreplaceable” at the outset, but it seems impossible here. Before so much as a sentence has been uttered in this supposed exchange, one side is already awarding itself the lion’s share of the spoils.
Presumably it would be “fundamental” to share with the Pope how replaceable religion in fact has been in the formation of conscience. Or to discuss the legacy of rape, torture, mutilation, needless death and neglect that those in the throes of his church’s fundamental values have wrought. Plenty of conscience can, and has, come from sources other than religion, and quite naturally in the light of free inquiry and reason. Where religion has struck right and could “contribute” in this regard, it has no resort save its appeal to authority and revealed dogma.
Sarkozy adds “a person who believes is a person who hopes, and it’s in the interests of the Republic that there be many women and men who nourish hope.” Hope may be a fine sentiment. But for statecraft, let us hope that the ranks of La Republique remain staffed with those who nourish reason, inquiry, science and the real improvement of man, not his chaining to rusted dogma. Hope for hope’s sake, on the basis of religion, in a state where religion has been successfully retired from public life, having had its chance, cannot give us any real hope for change.