ROME – As France tackles the same culture wars on immigration and bioethics pervasive across the West, the country’s young and charismatic leader told the country’s Catholic bishops Monday that while their wisdom is cherished, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will get the outcome they desire.

“We listen to [the voice of the Church] with interest, with respect, and we can even make our own many of its points. But this voice of the Church, we both know deep down cannot be ordering,” the French President Emmanuel Macron told bishops on Monday.

“It can therefore only be questioning,” Macron said.

The president’s remarks were made at an event organized by the French Bishops’ Conference (CEF) April 9 at the College des Bernardins in Paris, with the participation of several high-ranking French officials and about 400 guests.

Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, head of the CEF, spoke at the meeting presenting the main concerns of the French Church regarding bioethics, immigration and the growing religious tensions that are gripping the country and making global news headlines.

Not only is France attempting to resolve growing tensions surrounding immigration in the context of populist right-wing political parties, mainly the National Front led by Marine le Pen, but it’s also in the middle of a heated debate concerning a legal opening toward euthanasia and in-vitro fertilization for same-sex couples.

Pontier made an appeal “to overcome the fears that inhabit our French society and engage with determination and confidence in a better knowledge of each other, and in the openness to others of each of its components,” adding that the priority should be made to address the needs of “the most fragile, the poorest, the vulnerable, because that is how confidence in the nation is built and deepened.”

The event was the first time a French head of state had accepted an invitation by Catholic clergy to address such a topic, in a country that has historically prided itself for its firm separation of Church and State. Macron said the meeting defied “skeptics on both sides,” by attempting to repair a tie that has been inconsistent though the years.

“In this moment of great social fragility, when the very fabric of the nation is in danger of being torn apart, I consider my responsibility not to let the confidence of Catholics in politics and politicians deteriorate,” the president said. “And I cannot let this disappointment worsen.”

Bioethics: Where is the limit?

In January, Macron launched the “Etats généraux de la bioéthique” – the “Estates General of Bioethics” to engage in a six-moth debate concerning the intersection between society and technology. Among the most contested issues are the possibility of legalizing euthanasia, which is currently illegal, and allowing in-vitro fertilization for single women and lesbian couples.

In the spirit of promoting dialogue, France’s National Ethics Advisory Committee began a consultation with citizens, organizations and religious institutions in order to prepare a final document to be presented to the French parliament to aid in their deliberation.

In response, the French bishops published on their site a series of dossiers presenting the Catholic perspective, stressing the importance of children being brought up with fathers and the need to increase palliative care for patients.

Also, 118 French bishops signed a declaration titled “End of life: Yes to the urgency of Fraternity,” which was presented in Lourdes on March 22 during the course of their plenary assembly.

Speaking at the meeting Monday, Pontier questioned the commitment of the state to defend the weakest in the society, stressing once again that paternity is fundamental in the upbringing of children, and asked whether Macron considered a limit when it comes to euthanasia.

The president denied that the government has a “hidden agenda,” where the conclusions to be drawn had already been determined, dismissing suspicions that engaging Catholicism in the debate was a way to “dilute the word of the Church or take her hostage.”

Macron went on to say that the questions raised by the bioethics debate are not simple and can only be engaged by addressing deep moral, social and individual concerns of all aspects of society, including non-believers.

In this context, he emphasized that the role of the Church in engaging in the political debate is at its best when it’s “questioning” and not “ordering.”

Immigration between law and mercy

In line with Pope Francis’s new apostolic exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, which addresses the need to have an all-encompassing concern for life from the unborn to the refugee, Pontier told Macron in his speech that it’s essential to welcome the many immigrants and refugees pouring into the country.

Recently, the French president has promoted a controversial new law on immigration, which tries to apply more efficiency to asylum applications while at the same time enforcing stronger penalties for undocumented immigrants. The law has been cheered by many on the right in the country, while many on the left have seen it as a betrayal.

Not unlike in the French novel Les Miserables, Macron seemed to be appealing to the “law” and “mercy” axiom, where the need to welcome and cater to the individuals looking for a future in France must be met with the concrete realities of ensuring safety within the country.

“It’s the conciliation of law and humanity that we are attempting,” he told the bishops, adding that he drew inspiration from Francis’s call to apply prudence in this delicate balance. Macron described an “ethical tension” between the care of the refugee and protecting borders.

We must make a clear commitment to ensure that the Republican order is maintained and that this protection of the weak does not constitute lawlessness and a lack of discernment,” he said.

Rising religious tensions

Pontier also called out growing religious tensions fermenting in the country and instrumentalized by some populist parties in France. In late March, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, Mireille Knoll, was killed in her home in Paris, raising anew the alarm of anti-semitism in the country.

France has also been the scene of several terrorist attacks over the past decade, which has fueled anti-Muslim rhetoric. On March 24, a lieutenant and Catholic convert, Arnaud Jean-Georges Beltrame, exchanged places with a hostage of a terrorist attack in Trèbes, France, where he was shot and stabbed to death by his captors.

Beltrame “showed us what the human being is capable of when he is inhabited by the ideal of defending his country, and of being able to face the most unexpected situations that require a decisive choice. Giving one’s life and giving life are the greatest things in existence,” Pontier said. Macron said that religious pluralism is an essential component of our time and that the Church is essential in providing the platform for that dialogue.

“There is nothing more urgent today than increasing the mutual knowledge of peoples, cultures, religions; there is no other way for this than speaking face-to-face, but also through books, by sharing the work,” he added.

The Church, Macron said, is at its best when it offers a welcoming a and friendly voice in a world increasingly dominated by doubt, change and uncertainty.

“It is a Church from which I do not expect lessons, but rather this wisdom of humility,” he concluded, “because we can only have one common horizon and seek every day to do our best to accept the inescapable lack of tranquility that follows our actions.”