Andreas R. Batlogg SJ
How much la´cité does the state need? How much of it can it stand? Such questions could be asked by those who call to mind the recent statements which in an almost inflationary way brought in the term "la´cité", accompanied by all kinds of adjectives. In a variety of contexts the speech was of "positive", "open", "meaningful" and "sound" la´cité.
In their declaration "Don't you know how to interpret the signs of the times?" published in April 2007 the Belgian bishops answered the stubborn prejudice that the Catholic Church was against the separation of church and state. It showed that when it spoke in public debates. The church was a guarantee of a meaningful la´cité of the State: "There is an open la´cité and another one, which is closed. The latter has not only rid itself of everything that has to do with religion but often thinks it had to fight religion. ... Everything that is inspired by faith therefore belongs to privacy." Contrary to such an - ideologically determined - view the bishops emphasize: " An open la´cité however supports what promotes man and contributes to the humanization of society ... This open la´cité is the authentic implementation of the principle of separation of church and State" (No. 57-58).
Nobody seriously wants to shake this separation - it would be against all reason. It is true though the voices are increasing that warn against doing without faith and religion: "There is a lack of intellectual Christians, of great voices pushing ahead the social debates and showing that life is not a consumer good like any other(s). You need not be afraid of the religions; the great religious movements are witnesses of hope. I do not see why hope should contradict the Republican ideal." The surprising thing about this diagnosis is that it comes from the French President, the highest representative of just that state in which - since 1905 - so strict a separation between church and state has existed as nowhere else in Europe.
Admittedly, Nicolas Sarkozy had already in 2004 in his book "La République, les religions, l'espérance" ("The Republic, Religions, the Hope") launched the idea of a "positive la´cité", which was not limited to Catholicism but attributed to religions in general a positive effect on people. But this time the context is different: The former interior minister is now the head of the Elysée Palace. As such he has the title of an "honorary-canon" of the papal Lateran basilica in Rome:
a title that was awarded to the French King Henri IV, who in 1604 had converted from Protestantism and transferred the revenues of the Abbey of Clairac to the Patriarchal basilica San Giovanni in Laterano and thus funded the clergy there for two centuries. After the end of the monarchy the title was transferred to the supreme representative of the Republic.
Unlike some of his predecessors Sarkozy did not let anything stop him from receiving the title on 20 December 2007 in a ceremony. On that occasion he made his inaugural visit with Pope Benedict XVI. In an exclusive interview with Vatican Radio and the Osservatore Romano as well as in his address in the Lateran he stressed that it was "the interest of the Republic" that "there are many men and women who hope". But it is rather unlikely that he wants to change the law which has been in force since 1905. Today the French laicism is essentially seen as an expression of personal religious freedom. In a statement on occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Act in 2005 the French bishops had spoken of a "sufficient balance in the relationship between the State and religious organizations". They do not want to question this balance developed over the years. But "adjustments", said Sarkozy, were inevitable.
His declaration for the religious roots of France happened in view of the situation of a "paradox" world between material progress and the intensive search for meaning and identity. France needed "convinced Catholics who do not hesitate to profess what they are and what they believe." In this context the word of the "positive la´cité" fell that regards religions not as a threat but as enrichment. While leftist secular circles protested loudly and reproached Sarkozy with exceeding his authority, others saw in it the attempt to look for the dialogue with the great religions and to say goodbye to the mentality of a rigorous anti-clerical laicism. The Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois recognized Sarkozy as representative of a new political generation that saw the relationship between Church and State less burdened by conflicts. At the traditional New Year's reception in mid-January 2008 Sarkozy let distribute a statement with a declaration for the principle of laicity, which meant the respect of all religious convictions and not the fight against religions.
No matter how you assess Sarkozy's remarks - the political 'half-life' of which remains controversial -, one thing becomes apparent: Even lay societies find it important to "hear the voice of those who are motivated by a spiritual commitment". A better integration of religions in public life does the State good. In ethical discourses, on many political and social fields their voice is in great demand - in the sense of a "positive" or "open" laicity. In Germany this has, inter alia recently become apparent in the debate about stem cell research, in which the struggle also within the churches was about a reasonable position.