The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, spoke to the French bishops the other day and said a few things that would not create the slightest ripple in, let us say, the United Kingdom, about Church and State co-operation and dialogue. But in France the outrage was immediate, as you can read here. It is of interest to note that none of the angry secularists managed to express any reason for their disapproval or make any substantive charges against what the President said. It seems that it is simply enough to Macron to speak to anyone in a cassock to be called “ a little priest” (which, in French, is quite insulting.) One can read (in French) what Jean-Luc Mélenchon said here. It seems Macron has, in his opinion, crossed a red line: but how exactly?
What does this tell us?
The first thing it tells us is that relations between Church and State are still very much a live issue in France today, despite a tortured history of legislation that goes back to the Revolution of 1789. French anti-clericalists have surely been given everything they wanted, which included the confiscation of Church property, the dissolution and banning of religious orders and the judicial murder of large swathes of the clergy. But it never is enough, for the anti-clerical appetite is never satisfied. Not even by the legislation introduced by Émile Combes back in 1905, which signified a complete defeat for the Church and its expulsion from public life, and which, incidentally Jean-Luc Mélenchon, accuses Macron of trying to roll back, with no evidence whatever.
So, one is left asking, what more could the French anti-clericals want that they have not already been given? Could it perhaps be the death of religion? Is their rage really fuelled by the sneaking suspicion that Voltaire, after all, was wrong? After all, religion has persisted, despite hopes and many practical steps to the contrary.
The other thing that we need to grasp, a secret which the anti-clericalists have let out of the bag in their collective hissy-fit, is that the French Republic’s self-declared secularism, or laïcité, involves much more that what one would normally assume by secularism. Laïcité means banishing religion from the public sphere, and making it hard for a Church or another religious grouping to function, by denying it any status in law. This goes far beyond the State being neutral in religious matters: it means, in effect, that the State in hostile to religion.
No one should object to the State having a neutral approach to faith groups; in fact, that would be a great improvement, from the point of view of us Catholics, to the hostility we suffer in so many countries (including, let us remember, this one.) The reactions of the various standard bearers of laïcité to President Macron’s speech show that they are not neutral but hostile towards Catholicism.
Moreover, the idea that the State treats all religious groups alike is also a myth. Because the French Left, and elements of the French Right, are still fighting the battles of the 19th Century, they cannot reason properly when they think of Catholicism. Things like the Dreyfus case figure greatly in their imaginations and actively inform their present attitude. But the Muslims, who have never been politically powerful in France, do not have this disadvantage of being seen through the lens of a difficult history.
Of course, history is important, but just as not all Muslims should be blamed for 9/11, similarly not all French Catholic should be blamed for the Dreyfus case. Indeed, given that the Dreyfus case took place over a hundred years ago, I am not sure any Catholics should be blamed for it today.
M. Macron’s laudable desire to establish good relations with the Church has exposed those who do not want to have good relations, indeed would rather have no relations at all. The State may well be secular, but the people in it may be religious. It is time to wake up to that fact, not just in France, but everywhere.