Pope Addresses Secularism in France
PARIS — In his first visit to France as pope on Friday, Benedict XVI touched on central themes of his papacy — the tensions between faith and reason and church and state, as well as his efforts to reach out to Muslims and Jews — and urged an increasingly irreligious Europe to look back to its intellectual roots in Christian monastic culture.
“What gave Europe’s culture its foundation — the search for God and the readiness to listen to him — remains today the basis of any genuine culture,” he said.
Benedict spoke before 700 academics, cultural figures and Muslim leaders at the Collège des Bernardins, a new cultural center in a 13th-century monastery, a location he called “emblematic” for his remarks.
“Amid the great cultural upheaval resulting from migrations of peoples and the emerging new political configurations, the monasteries were the places where the treasures of ancient culture survived,” he said.
“It is through the search for God that the secular sciences take on their importance.”
His message went counter to a deep vein of anticlericalism in France, which has long drawn sharp distinctions between issues of faith and matters of temporal power.
“At this moment in history, when cultures continue to cross paths more frequently, I am firmly convinced that a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of secularism is now necessary,” the pope said at a ceremony earlier Friday with President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace. He used the word “laïcité,” which denotes the separation of church and state.
But the pope proposed a “distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the state toward them.” He distinguished the state’s legislative and social duties from religion’s role “for the formation of conscience” and the “creation of a basic ethical consensus in society.”
After his speeches, the pope said a Mass for young people at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame.
The pope’s four-day stay in France had been planned to commemorate the 150th anniversary of what the Vatican recognizes as the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to a 14-year-old peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, at Lourdes in 1858. He broadened his journey at the invitation of Mr. Sarkozy, who spoke during a visit to Rome and the Vatican last year of a “positive secularism,” saying religion “should not be considered a danger but an asset.”
Roman Catholics make up about 60 percent of the French population of 65 million. But fewer than 10 percent of French Catholics say they attend Mass regularly. France also has a growing Muslim minority of six million and smaller groups of other faiths.
The pope is visiting France almost exactly two years after he made a speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he angered many Muslims by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying that the Prophet Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
“That’s the past,” said Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of France’s Representative Muslim Council, who sat in the front row during the speech on Friday. The presence of Mr. Moussaoui and other Muslim leaders was seen as a positive response to the pope.
Meeting privately with French Jews on Friday, the pope spoke vehemently about the church’s opposition to “every form of anti-Semitism, which can never be theologically justified,” according to a transcript of his remarks. In reaching out to the community he also discussed the Holocaust, saying, “God does not forget.”
When the pope’s plane landed at Orly Airport near Paris, he was met by Mr. Sarkozy and his wife, Carla. The visit to France is Benedict’s 10th foreign trip since he became pope in 2005.
In an interview in fluent French with reporters traveling with him on an Alitalia airplane from Rome, the pope was asked what his message was. He replied that it “seems evident to me that secularism in itself is not in contradiction with faith.”
Religion and politics, he said, “should be open to each other.”
Speaking before the pope at the Élysée Palace, Mr. Sarkozy renewed his appeal for a “positive secularism,” saying it was “legitimate for democracy and respectful of secularism to have a dialogue with religions.” The opposition Socialist Party later put out a statement urging Mr. Sarkozy to uphold France’s “secular principles,” The Associated Press reported.