What if the Cardinal Secretary of State, on visit to your country, voiced an opinion about a controversial draft law proposed by the president and on its way through the legislature? What if the draft law dealt with extremely difficult issues like where to draw the line between religious liberty and public duty, and risked upsetting a delicate balance, painstakingly struck over more than a century, over the role of religion in public life?
For French citizens, it’s not a hypothetical. Over the weekend, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, did just that. It might not quite be what the English call “not the done thing,” but it isn’t a thing that is done frequently or lightly. The Holy See is a sovereign actor — one that guards its own internal affairs jealously — and while popes are not always reluctant to use their position as a global bully pulpit, it isn’t every day that the Vatican’s senior diplomat weighs in on a major legislative question while it is a live issue.
In a broad-ranging interview exquisitely conducted by veteran journalist Philippine de Saint-Pierre for France’s KTO Catholic Television, Cardinal Parolin answered a question regarding France’s controversial draft law on combatting religious “separatism” – a piece of legislation proposed by French president Emanuel Macron — which is currently the subject of discussion and debate in parliament and among the broad public.
The draft law is provisionally titled “Reinforcing Republican Principles” and makes no specific mention of Islam. Proponents insist it is not aimed at Islam specifically, but President Macron and others say it is designed to combat Islamic radicalism.
The proposed law would criminalize pressuring civil and public servants to deviate from French secular values in favor of religious extremism. It would outlaw “certificates of virginity” sought by some Muslim families ahead of marriages – and would make doctors who grant them liable to fine and imprisonment. It would require couples to interview – separately – with a public official, if doubt regarding free consent had been raised, and give French officials power to prohibit marriages about which doubt should persist.
If passed in its present form, the bill would also make schooling mandatory from age 3 and severely restrict home-schooling exemptions. It would encourage mosques to register civilly as houses of worship rather than as cultural associations, and require that they declare any foreign financial support above €10,000.
While it is tempting to get into the weeds on the particulars, suffice it to say the bill is sweeping in scope: designed to facilitate oversight and strengthen protection of French laïcité.
In October of last year, Macron cited Islamic radicalism among the chief reasons for the new measures, saying Islamist currents in France have demonstrated “willingness to contravene the laws of the republic,” as well as promoting, “other values,” i.e. values antithetical to those he sees as foundational to the French republic, and even, “to organize another society.”
Islamic terrorists have conducted several deadly attacks in France in recent years, some of which — like the 2015 Charlie Hebdo murders — were carried out by attackers born and raised in France.
“I ask myself if it is necessary to go so far as [to make] a law,” said Cardinal Parolin in response to a direct question from his interviewer.
Cardinal Parolin prefaced his answer with significant caveats: “I think it is difficult to give a judgment on the law of a country,” he said. “It is always delicate,” he went on to say, “I probably do not have to hand all the elements that would permit me to express a general judgment.”
Then, he spoke of “French friends and interlocutors,” from whom he has heard, “who have stressed the complexity of this step – and I ask myself whether it is necessary to go so far as [to make] a law.”
“Certainly,” Cardinal Parolin continued, “there is the problem of radical Islam, there is the problem of what response to make [to radical Islam].” He wondered, however, “whether it is necessary to respond by means of a law?” Especially one, said Cardinal Parolin, “which – from what I understand – risks putting into discussion equilibria that have been created over the course of a century, practically since 1905 and the law on separation [of Church and State, i.e. the introduction of French Laïcité].”
Cardinal Parolin also said the draft law “risks touching all the religions,” and wondered again whether there might not be “other means (It. maniere, literally “manners”), public ordinances for example, [within] the existing legal framework,” to address the issue. “I imagine there exists a legal framework already – to face this,” he said, “which is a real problem, but without creating consequences or effects that could be, at the very least, problematic.”
“However,” Cardinal Parolin went on to say, “I do know that the French bishops are in contact with government authorities, that there have already been hearings, that amendments have been proposed.”
“Let’s hope that these are taken into account, and that something is done that is useful in the sense for which it is done, but does not create, at the same time, ulterior problems.”
Whatever else that is, and however circumscribed and circumspect, that is a judgment.
Cardinal Parolin has weighed in on other controversial measures in the past, though usually he’s waited for the legislative process to be over. In 2015, he made no bones about his feelings regarding Ireland’s decision to introduce same-sex marriage.
“I believe that we are talking here not just about a defeat for Christian principles,” Cardinal Parolin said in 2015, “but also about a defeat for humanity.” He made his remark after the business was done, and to reporters on the sidelines of a Vatican conference.
In the interview that aired Friday on KTO, Cardinal Parolin discussed several other hot-button issues, including curial reform, the Vatican’s deal with China, and the Pope’s scheduled visit to Iraq.
Parolin said Pope Francis is “very interested” in the trip – we knew that – but stopped short of saying whether it is still on, given the persistent coronavirus emergency and the precarious security situation in-country. He said he “deeply respects” critics of the China deal, and recognizes that it is a “difficult situation” and “much patience is needed.”
À propos of China, Parolin also said the Vatican has “decided to take small steps to improve the situation of the Church” in the country, and “cannot pretend this is the final word on the matter.”
On curial reform: “I think noteworthy steps forward have been taken, and the reform – de facto – has already been accomplished (It. realizzata, literally “realized”).” On the scandals — particularly the financial scandals including the recent conviction of two former IOR (“Vatican Bank”) officials and the “spectacular destitution” of Cardinal Becciu: “To speak of crisis in the Vatican is somewhat excessive, in my view.”
Whatever else one may say about Cardinal Parolin’s other responses – that he hedged on whether the Pope is going to make it to Iraq, or that he toed the increasingly frustrating company line on curial reform, or glossed the Vatican’s increasingly improbable China policy, or took an unlikely view of current curial circumstances – let no one say he didn’t answer KTO’s question about France’s “separatism” draft law.
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