Thursday, January 10, 2008


Sarkozy's Controversial Vatican Speech

On the evening of December 20, 2007, French President Sarkozy made a speech which was largely ignored by the English-language press (judgement based on some simple searches of major organs on the web--see appendix at bottom) other than Catholic or Christian specialist media
  • Catholic News -- Global Sarkozy: Laicism Shouldn't Cut Christian Roots
    The president of France said laicism should not try to separate a nation from its Christian roots.
  • Christianity Today -- Sarkozy breaks French taboo on church and politics
    His trip to Rome, which included being inducted as honorary canon of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, provoked charges that he was trying to blur the separation of church and state and make religion a political issue as in the United States.
  • (A personal blog of Fr. John Wauck, a priest of the Opus Dei Prelature.) -- The Honorary Canon of St. John Lateran: Nicolas Sarkozy
    Some speeches are important not because they offer original ideas, but simply because they expand the realm of what can be said in public. Whether or not Sarkozy spoke sincerely yesterday in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, his words definitely expanded the realm of what can be said publicly in Europe.
One other I know little about (wingnuts? paranoids? Scientologists? Raelians?), but which claims to be "The Voice of Conservatism in Europe": Sarkozy on Religion. Whose Cause Does He Want to Advance?, which concludes:
My best guess is that Nicolas Sarkozy wants to reopen the debate on religion and "laïcité", not to help the Catholics of France, but only to smooth the way for the further Islamization. If such a debate really materializes it will be interesting to see if the Catholics can turn it somehow to their advantage

This speech may well have deserved much more main-stream attention, because it signals a very different attitude to French secularism and the relations between the state and religions.

The usually very sharp British journalist John Lichfield noted "The French left was incandescent and the President knew that it would be.", but it was not just the French left. Or is Bayrou less "extreme centre" than he claims: "François Bayrou dénonce le "retour, qu'on croyait impossible en France, du mélange des genres entre l'Etat et la religion.""(translation: François Bayrou denounces the "comeback", that everyone thought impossible in France, of the mixture of genres between the State and religions). Why, even Le Figaro [main right-of-center national daily] wrote that "Sarkozy's version of secularism turns its back on the traditional conception of secularism "à la française".

Last Thursday, Le Figaro published a "commentary" by Henri Pena-Ruiz, "philosopher, professor, writer, former member of the Stasi commission on the application of secularism in the Republic" : Laïcité : les cinq fautes du président de la République -- the President of the Republic's five errors concerning secularism (or should I write laïcism?). Two other commentaries have since added to the debate: Frédéric Lazorthes, historian et essayist, who asks whether Sarkozy wants to establish a new "partnership" between church and state, and
Jean-Miguel Garrigues, theologist and author, who calls the Lateran speech "a lesson in political magnanimity" and offers rebutal to Pena-Ruiz's critique.

It is not possible for this blog to provide a translation of the full essays, both for copyright and for other reasons. However, it seems fair to explain briefly what the five errors would be, so as to establish why this speech (and the attititude and intentions it reveals) should have received more attention.

  • A moral error: Passing judgement on atheists, implicitly denying atheist humanists can, and do, hope: by what right, for what reason? "Those who believe, hope. And it is in the interest of the Republic that there be many men and women who hope." Ergo, atheists are of less value as citizens. What about Positivists, and their descendents?
  • A political error: by not distinguishing between his personal convictions and what it is appropriate so say in the exercise of his elected functions, he commits a professional foul. If a bureaucrat or teacher, for instance, made a similar confusion, she would be reprimanded or suspended. Garrigues argues that the President, by virtue of his popular election, has an "exceptional" ability to speak for the nation; I agree that the president is not a civil servant like the others, and can negotiate treaties, even including promises to change the constitution (EU is a good and contemporary example) with other states -- but with a religion?
  • A legal error: in a state of law, those holding political power haven't the authority to rank spiritual options, and to award a privilege to a particular concept of spirituality. After centuries of conflict, education was finally wrested from the power of the church, and little minds could learn reading, writing and arithmetic. Now Sarkozy claims that "In the transmission of values and in learning the difference between right and wrong, the schoolteacher will never be able to replace the priest or the pastor." Is the difference between right and wrong so arbitrary that it is not universal, but depends on the doctrines of the faith of your choice? I certainly hope not.
  • An historical error : Pena-Ruiz gets a little nasty on this one, emphasizing the regrettable historical events in which the Church a major responsability. I'd prefer to note that there was a Gaul before Caesar wrote "De bello gallico", and archeologists continue to find evidence of its accomplishments (roads, towns, etc.), Christianity arrived centuries later. He points out that the Universal Rights of Man, in the constitution (and widely exported, if not to the Anglo-Saxon countries), were not copied from the Bible, but inspired by ancient philosophy, stoïcism in particular. We have lots of roots: cite them all, or at least modulate the statement to "we have Christian roots" instead of "our roots are Christian"...sportscasters do better than that: Henri didn't win, the team won and Henri scored.
  • A cultural error: more a risk than a true error? Taking sides or naming a favorite is likely to offend others, and to spawn conflictual situations. If Christendom says "my daddy can beat up your daddy" to some other religion, must France join in the fight? And how does this special consideration for our "religious roots" facilitate the realisation of "fraternité"?
Sarkozy has since moved on to his "politics of civilization", so we haven't seen the end of this.

This is a horizontal rule, but ScribeFire removes the space-slash so blogspot refuses it unless I do this


Search query : Sarkozy Lateran
  • LA Times -- no matches
  • NY Times -- Your search for Sarkozy Lateran in all fields returned 0 results.
  • CS Monitor -- Your search - Sarkozy Lateran - did not match any documents.
  • Independent UK -- Displaying 1 - 0 of 0
  • Guardian -- People (Thursday June 28, 2007)
    ... presidents in secular France are entitled to become honorary canons of the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome as well as of cathedrals at Embrun and St Jean de Maurienne nearer to home.
  • Wall Street Journal -- No content matches your search criteria. Please try again.
Search query : Sarkozy Vatican
  • LA Times -- World outraged, fearful over Bhutto assassination
  • NY Times -- Sarkozy in Rome: Affairs of State and the Heart
    In the evening, Mr. Sarkozy was named canon of the Basilica of St. John, the cathedral of Rome, an honor bestowed on French leaders since the 15th century. At the cathedral, Mr. Sarkozy, who has praised the role of spirituality in public life, spoke of the importance of the church as well as “other great religious and spiritual movements to enlighten our choices and build our future.”

    On a continent where public officials speak of religion far less openly than in America, he also said he agreed with Benedict that Europe could not ignore its Christian roots. To do so, he said, “commits a crime against its culture.” But he also underscored the importance of a secular state, which he described as “the freedom to believe or not, to practice a religion and change your faith.”
  • CS Monitor -- In a secular ocean, waves of spirituality | from the February 23, 2005 edition
  • Independent UK -- Sarkozy reinvents France for bling era, by John Lichfield:
    In a speech after accepting an honorary canonship, M. Sarkozy, who hardly ever attends mass, said: "In this world, obsessed with material comforts, France needs devout Catholics who are not afraid to say what they are and what they believe."

    He also insisted that France's roots were "essentially Christian".

    At one level, it was a thoughtful and brave speech, which argued that Christian and secular values need not conflict.

    On another level, M. Sarkozy shattered the convention that French presidents, as high representatives of a secular French republic, should not defend or promote one religion above others. The French left was incandescent and the President knew that it would be.
  • Guardian -- nothing more recent than Sunday August 19 2007.
  • Wall Street Journal -- No content matches your search criteria. Please try again.

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