Church, State, and the Future of Laicite by Anne Guillard

May 16, 2018

Invited by the Council of Bishops of France in early April, President Emmanuel Macron delivered a rare speech addressed to French Catholics. In it, he presented his purpose as “repairing the damaged relationship between Church and State.” This was a marked divergence from his predecessors, who had kept their distance from the church and it provoked hysteria on the left. A large number of radical leftist politicians expressed fears that the long-cherished tradition of French secularism – laïcité – was under threat.

In contrast to the liberal tradition that understands state neutrality as indifference to religious matters, President Macron seemed to present himself as a shepherd caring for all his sheep, including Catholics. By doing so, he embraced a classical pastoral understanding of political power which is directly founded on a Christian theological pattern.

In fact, the general tone of his speech was quite unfamiliar to French citizens, especially Catholics, who are accustomed to being reduced to a block constituency whose function is to guard good morals in a liberal society without boundaries. Instead of such generalizing statements, he recognized the diversity within the Catholic community and, like a priest from his pulpit, he urged members to get involved in politics. “A Church pretending to be disinterested in temporal questions would not fulfill its vocation, whereas a President of the Republic pretending to be disinterested in the Church would fail in his duty,” he said.

What kind of engagement did he mean? What can we do in a world where we witness the disintegration of social ties, growing economic inequality, and massive environmental degradation? How can we become more involved in a political future shaped by the fear of decline relayed by so many intellectuals, and among them plenty of Christians?

It is disheartening to hear so many of them holding counter-cultural discourses that criticize modernity, appeal to the past, and deny their mission, as Christians, to improve their society. In fact, after decades of passive withdrawal from public life, some Catholic movements in France have been remobilized and broadcast their suspicion towards the secular world. In 2013 for example, conservatives organized demonstrations to protest against the legalization of same-sex marriage. This movement sparked a conservative resurgence, and it has grown since then.

Their narratives of distrust have expanded in the Church, where many believers and some of the clergy keep their distance from Pope Francis. His encyclical Amoris Laetitia (2016) has not been warmly welcomed, nor have his prophetic calls for caring about refugees generated much enthusiasm. However, while these conservatives are increasingly vocal, they remain a minority.

Religious sociologist Jacques Lagroye characterizes the Church as split into two regimes of truth. We see a fracture line between what he calls the “regime of certainty,” which appeals to an authoritarian statement of incontestable affirmations concerning God’s design, his revelation and the role of the Church.  The second, the “regime of testimony,” focuses on the witness of a person who presented himself as the Son of God, and proposes hope and the possibility of renewal for everyone.

This split can be seen in the very practices of the faith, in the understanding of morality and in the attitude towards the Church’s hierarchy. But it also manifests in the political preferences of believers. The proponents of a faith shaped by certainty are more likely to prefer conservative programs where they believe that their patrimonial values – the defense of a certain conception of work, and a deep attachment to property, Christian culture and heritage – and their cultural identity as Christians are best defended. Whereas the followers of a testimonial faith would rather concern themselves with such issues as racism, economic inequality, or ecological catastrophe.

The Church celebrates the diversity within it and yet at the same time fears the threat of disintegration. With contradictory injunctions, the “unity in diversity” proclaimed quickly turns into a barren uniformization. The church subscribes to pluralism in its principle, but there is no real translation into action. It means that those who subscribe to the regime of certainty, a majority of believers, will almost certainly vote for conservative parties.

But political engagement is not limited to elections. Official texts of the Episcopate urge the Catholics to take part, as citizens and as Christians, in political and union fights, regarding pluralism and the secularization of society. Such exhortation is embedded in the idea of a consubstantiality between spiritual experience and engagement in social and political activities.

The last encyclical Gaudate&Exultate (2018) underlines the deep joy that activists experience and the holiness of their engagement for others. Nevertheless, many Christians prefer charitable work over political involvement. As though this kind of engagement would be more legitimate and more adequate to their faith, as though it would be easier or more proper to incarnate a Christian identity in the framework of political-free associations.

It is no bad thing if President Macron seeks to rebuild the relationship between church and state, not if it re-engages Christians in politics in a real and meaningful way and prompts believers to explore their faith more deeply and more coherently.

Anne Guillard is a doctoral candidate in Political Theory and Theology at Sciences Po and the University of Geneva.