News Analysis

Vatican: A beautiful friendship

French connection (CNS)

Pope Francis and Emmanuel Macron are forming an unlikely alliance

The attention French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit last week received was somewhat out of the ordinary – at least, the attention it garnered might have seemed so, when measured against that which the average courtesy visit of the average head of state receives. Reporters made note of the length of the visit – at 57 minutes, it was reportedly Francis’s longest sit-down meeting with a head of state – and though Francis has appeared warmly engaged with other world leaders, the video of Macron’s leave-taking bises was a scene-stealer.

To be sure, the anodyne statement the Holy See’s Press Office released sent reporters in search of other things about which to write. Predictably, it was boilerplate: “During the cordial discussions, the good existing bilateral relations between the Holy See and France were highlighted, and the contribution of religions to the promotion of the common good of the country, with particular reference to the commitment of the Church, was noted.” Of course it was.

When drafting these statements, it is important to mention global issues of shared interest: the environment, migration, disarmament and conflict resolution – all boxes ticked in the press release. Then, make note of “views exchanged” on areas of strategic importance: eg the Middle East and Africa; when it is a European leader, make sure to say they discussed the present and future of Europe. Check, check, check. (On the news desk at Vatican Radio, while we waited for the statement from the Press Office we would bet on the precise issues and the order of their mention.)

It is also important to remember that, when it comes to relations with the Holy See, France is not the average country: she is fille aînée de l’église (“eldest daughter of the Church”). Her heads of state have been proto-canons of Rome’s cathedral basilica since the 16th century.

This practice was in some sense a standard one. In the Middle Ages, other crowned heads of Europe enjoyed similar honours (England at St Paul Outside the Walls), which they generally received by correspondence. The second half of the 20th century saw an increase in the practice of ceremonial possession or installation for French republican heads of state, though it has never been de rigueur. Macron’s immediate predecessor, François Hollande, chose to forego the ceremony.

When Macron elected to take possession of his title personally, observers saw it as a major sign that he is serious about his rapprochement with Rome and his desire to see the Church take her rightful place in French national discourse. “We share the feeling that the link between Church and state has been damaged,” Macron told French bishops gathered at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris in April, “that the time has come for us, both you and me, to mend it.” In a republic founded on the notion of laïcité, or strict separation between Church and state, Macron’s comments were bound to stir up a national debate.

Both the circumstances and the optics of a meeting between this Pope and this French president are therefore fascinating. On one side, you have a left-leaning secular politician with a deep and abiding sympathy for the Catholic Church (Macron grew up in a non-religious family, but asked for baptism and received it in early adolescence). On the other, a Latin American Pope whose wariness of the more thoroughly Marxist versions of liberation theology was well known when he was Jesuit provincial in his native Argentina, who nevertheless continues to be called a crypto-Marxist (not least because of his willingness to speak to socialist-inspired groups).

For what it’s worth, this long-serving Vatican watcher thinks his former boss, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, had Pope Francis’s measure when he told an audience at Fordham this past spring: “Francis does not feel himself at all to be a social-political revolutionary animated by a leftist ideology, but a catechist of the Church’s social teaching.” To Fr Lombardi, the Pope’s main concern appears to be that such activist groups hear the Gospel.

If Francis feels that left-leaning social activist movements somehow express certain truths of Catholic social teaching, then that is his business, but it is also an opinion and determination with which Catholics – especially those who tend to be wary of leftism – simply must reckon, at least as long as Francis reigns in Rome.

In short, the relationship is interesting because of all the things that make it unusual, if not downright unlikely: the secularist French president reaching out and finding the outstretched hand of a religious leader who, for all his willingness to wear his maverick hat, is literally the embodiment of an institution that exists to guarantee the liberty of the Church in the world.

In the currently prevailing climate of sharpened contours and hardened lines in politics and public discourse, we may, indeed, have witnessed the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The question of casting remains, however: in this version of Casablanca, who is Rick, and who is Louis? While we’re at it: who is Strasser?