The Pope: Secularism is Essential

Dark pages that seem to have been torn from some postmodernist catalogue of verities are nowadays thick in the political wind, as threatening as Hitchcock’s birds. But this leaf‡ from the Bishop of Rome is distinguished by its authenticity. Un pape pour tous? If so, his distance from the pre-November convictions — now unceremoniously dumped — of the French gauchiste state,  must be thin indeed.

To be wilfully blind, even now, to the risks of attempted vivre-ensemble on which the pope is cheerfully insisting, would require the sort of political hubris of which only Frau Merkel is capable to be maintained indefinitely and throughout Europe. This clearly cannot happen. Europe will never again be able to relax as it did in the decades of its stable prosperity.

One is left with the distinct impression that the pontiff has aligned himself politically with Frau Merkel and the Archduke of Brussels, M. Jean-Claude Juncker. Mere mortals perhaps ought not to guess at the pope’s personal frame of reference: nevertheless, some of the furniture is clearly recognisable — South America and the Vatican. Neither of these bearings is particularly useful in making policy for Europe.

Has the Bishop of Rome joined the Coalition of the Blind, whose individual instincts are first and foremost self-referential? But let the pope opine: freedom of speech belongs to him too, even though in stopping little short of a public endorsement of the Merkel-Juncker line on immigration, he himself menaces that very same freedom.

The article, translated from the catholic daily, La Croix, is an extract from the Pope’s interview of 16th May.

For Pope Francis, religious regimes end in tears

La Croix | Guillaume Goubert and Sébastien Maillard | 16th May 2016
Pope Francis to La Croix: ❝ A state ought to be laïque

La Croix: The importance of Islam today in France, as of the country’s historic Christian moorings, raises recurrent questions on the place of religion in the public arena. What, in your opinion, is a ‘good laïcité‘?

Pope Francis: A state ought to be secular, laïque. Religious régimes end badly. It goes against history. I believe that a secularism accompanied by a sound law guaranteeing religious liberty provides a framework for moving forward. We are all equal as sons of God or in our personal dignity. But everyone must have the freedom to express his own faith. If a muslim woman wishes to wear the veil, she should be able to do so. Similarly, if a catholic wants to wear a cross. One should be able to profess one’s faith, not on the margins, but in the heart of the culture.

The small criticism that I address to France in this regard is that she exaggerates secularism. This derives from a way of considering religions as sub-cultures and not as fully-fledged cultures in their own right. I’m afraid that this approach, understood as inherited from the Enlightenment, is no longer relevant.

France should take a step forward on this subject, and accept that the opening to transcendence is a right for all.

La Croix: In the framework of secularism, how should catholics defend their pre-occupation with social questions, such as euthanasia or marriage between persons of the same sex?

Pope Francis: It’s in Parliament that one should discuss, contest, explain and reason. This is how a society grows. Once a law is put to the vote, the state must respect all consciences. In every legal structure, conscienscious objection should be allowed for, because it is a human right. Including for civil servants, who are also human persons. The state should also respect its critics.

This would be a true secularism. One cannot sweep aside the arguments of catholics by telling them, “You’re talking like a priest”. No, they rely on Christian thought, which France has developed to a remarkable degree.

La Croix: What does France represent for you?

Pope Francis: The eldest daughter of the Church…. but not the most faithful! [Laughter] In the 1950s, we used to say, “France, mission country”. In this sense, it is a periphery to be evangelised. But one must be fair to France. The Church there possesses a creative capacity. France is also a land of great saints, great thinkers: Jean Guitton, Maurice Blondel, Emmanuel Levinas — who wasn’t catholic —, Jacques Maritain. I think also of the depth of the literature.

I appreciate also how French culture has impregnated the Jesuit spirituality, by contrast with the more ascetic Spanish influence. The French influence, which began with Pierre Favre, while emphasising always the judgement of the spirit, imparts another flavour. […] Altogether, this is what fascinates me about France. On the one hand, this exaggerated secularism, the heritage of the French Revolution, and on the other, so many great saints. […].

We must integrate the migrants

La Croix: In your speeches on Europe, you evoke the “roots” of the continent without however qualifying them as Christian. Rather, you define “the European identity” as “dynamic and multicultural”. In your opinion, is the expression “Christian roots” inappropriate for Europe?

Pope Francis: We have to speak of roots in the plural sense, because there are many of them. In this context, when I hear people speak of Europe’s Christian roots, I sometimes dread the tone of it, which can be triumphalist or vengeful. That then smacks of colonialism. John-Paul II spoke of it in a quiet tone. Europe, yes, has Christian roots. Christianity has a duty to water them, but in the spirit of service, as in the washing of feet. Christianity’s duty to Europe is one of service. Erich Przywara, great teacher of Romano Guardini and Hans Urs von Balthasar, instructs us thus: the contribution of Christianity to a culture is that of Christ with the washing of feet, that is to say, service and the gift of life. It ought not to be a colonialist contribution.

La Croix: You made a strong gesture in bringing refugees from Lesbos to Rome on 16th April last. But can Europe receive so many migrants?

Pope Francis: It’s a perfectly just and responsible question, because one cannot open wide the doors in an irrational way. But the real question is why there are so many migrants today. When I went to Lampedusa three years ago, this phenomenon was already well under way.

The first problem is the wars in the Middle East and Africa, and the under-development of the African continent, which promotes hunger. If there are wars, it is because there are arms manufacturers — those who justify themselves in the name of defence — and above all, arms dealers. If there is so much unemployment, it is because of a lack of job-producing investment, of which Africa stands in such need.

That raises more broadly the question of a global economic system that has become ruled by the worship of money. More than 80% of humanity’s wealth is in the hands of about 16% of the population. A completely free market cannot function. The market in itself is a good thing, but for support it requires a third party, the State, to control and stabilise it. What one calls the social economy of the market.

Let us return to the migrants. The worst reception would be to ghettoise them, when on the contrary they need to be integrated. In Brussels, the terroriosts were Belgian, children of migrants, but they came from a ghetto. In London, the new mayor [Sadiq Khan, son of Pakistani immigrants, muslim] preached a sermon in a cathedral and will be without doubt received by the queen. That shows Europe the importance of rediscovering its capacity for integration. I think of Gregory the Great [pope from 590 to 604], who negotiated with the so-called barbarians, who later became integrated.

This integration is all the more important today, when Europe is experiencing a serious decline in birth-rate as a result of its search for the good life. A demographic void is emerging. In France, however, thanks to family policy, this tendency is attenuated.

La Croix: The fear of receiving migrants is fed in part by a fear of Islam. In your opinion, is the fear aroused in Europe by this religion justified?

Pope Francis: I do not believe that there is today a fear of Islam, as such, but of Daech and its war of conquest, which in part draws on Islam. The idea of conquest is inherent in the soul of Islam, it’s true. But applying the same idea of conquest, one could similarly interpret the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus sends his disciples out to all the nations.

Regarding the current wave of islamist terrorism, one would question the way in which a too-western democratic model was exported to a country with a strong central power, as in Iraq. Or in Libya, with its tribal structure. One cannot advance without taking account of this culture. As the Libyans often say, “formerly, we had Khadhafi, now we have fifty!”

In matters of substance, coexistence between Christians and muslims is possible. I come from a country where they live together in happy familiarity. The muslims venerate the Virgin Mary and St. George. In one African country, it has been reported to me that  for the Jubilee of the Misericord, muslims formed long queues at the cathedral in order to pass through the holy door and pray to the Blessed Virgin. In Central Africa, before the war, Christians and muslims lived together, and should learn again how to do this. The Lebanon also shows that this is possible. §

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