France may be traditionally dubbed the “eldest daughter of the church,” but it’s no secret that relations between parent and child have been frayed for a long time. Of late, the long-simmering tensions between church and state have been at a high boil.
The French media has been full of reports about the nomination of Laurent Stefanini as the country’s next ambassador to the Vatican being blocked in Rome because he’s gay. Stefanini, said to be a practicing Catholic, is currently the government’s head of protocol and is described as a highly capable official.
On background, Vatican diplomats say it’s considered a courtesy for governments not to name Catholic envoys whose personal lives conflict with Church teaching, because the Vatican sees it as tantamount to interference in the Church’s internal life. Thus the choice of an openly gay Catholic by Socialist President François Hollande strikes them as a deliberate provocation.
For a wide stretch of French opinion, however, the veto has come off as petty and intolerant.
Meanwhile, many Catholics in France were outraged on Monday to learn that a judge has ordered the town of Ploermel in Brittany to remove a statue of St. John Paul II from its main square, on the grounds that it violates a 1905 law decreeing the separation of church and state.
The statue was a gift to the city by Russo-Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, and was intended as a symbol of friendship between Russia and other countries with a Christian heritage. It’s also a tourist draw for Ploermel, a small town of 9,000 where the only other major attraction is an annual carnival.
It’s not the first time something of the sort has happened. Earlier, a statue of Mary was ordered to be removed from a public park in the city of Publier overlooking Lake Geneva.
That ruling came over the opposition of Publier’s mayor, a self-described leftist and “free thinker” who, together with a local priest, took out a private lease on the small plot of land where the statue sat, an arrangement designed to protect it from the 1905 law. Mayor Gaston Lacroix said the statue is a local landmark, and that even the town’s Muslims were supportive.
Believers see the crackdown on popular religious symbols as every bit as mean-spirited and bigoted as gay rights supporters perceive the snub to Stefanini.
Those moves came alongside a controversial decision by subway authorities in Paris, later rescinded, to ban an advertisement for a concert by a popular musical group featuring Catholic priests, with proceeds to go to support persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
For sure, France’s strict interpretation of church/state separation doesn’t affect just Catholics. Recently, a 15-year-old Muslim girl has been sent home twice from a school in Charleville-Mézières for wearing a long skirt that the principal judged to be an “ostentatious” display of her faith.
The fact that other creeds also feel the sting, however, doesn’t make many French Catholics any less unhappy.
The good news is that church/state relations have not passed the point of no return. For instance, French authorities recently announced that soldiers and police will protect Catholic sites after the arrest of a Moroccan Muslim radical who planned to attack church services.
Still, the recent spats hint at the possibility of a new cycle of conflict between French secularists and believers.
Much is at stake because, for better or worse, the French Church remains a critically important force in Catholicism. French prelates traditionally have been among the Church’s intellectual leaders, and much new theological energy has bubbled up first in France.
France also has a key leadership role in the developing world, where two-thirds of the 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet today are found.
Overall, the Catholic population of 40 nations where French is a principal language, most in Africa, will be roughly 280 million by the year 2050, representing one-fifth of all Catholics on earth. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone will have almost 100 million Catholics by mid-century, and many will still be heavily influenced by whatever’s happening in France.
In the abstract, Francis seems the right pope to help the French Church carve out a new relationship with the country’s secular majority.
Outreach to non-believers is a hallmark of his papacy, and his social justice agenda plays well with French public opinion. In January 2014, Hollande made a point of meeting the pope in the Vatican, something he’d not done on previous trips to Rome, in part because Francis’ standing in French opinion polls is far higher than his own.
Even if his French is a bit spotty, this pope arguably can speak France’s language.
When Francis made a day trip to Strasbourg in November to address the European Parliament, he didn’t make any other stops because he said that would constitute an official visit to France and he wanted to wait to do such a visit right.
Current events suggest that Francis might want to think about scheduling the outing as soon as possible, because otherwise putting the church/state relationship back on track might prove daunting even for him.