Jean-Luc Marion: The dilemmas of Catholic voters in France and beyond

A girl holds France's flag as Pope Francis leads his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican April 12. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

On Sunday, May 7, French voters will return to the polls for the second and final round of voting in the country’s presidential election. The run-off pits populist Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front against the centrist Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker and government minister who created his own political movement (“En Marche!”) for this election cycle.

This week, I spoke with noted philosopher and theologian Jean-Luc Marion about Sunday’s election and about the current intersection of Catholicism and French political society. A co-founder of the journal Communio, Marion succeeded Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger in 2008 as a member of the AcademieFrançaise. Currently he isthe Greeley professor of Catholic studies and professor of the philosophy of religions and theology at theUniversity of Chicago Divinity School. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

As France prepares for the second round of the presidential election, how do you view the options facing voters?

There are two levels to the answer: voters in general, and Catholic voters. In general, I think that the situation is rather clear. It is reasonable to support Macron against Le Pen, for obvious reasons. These include the tradition of the National Front (NF), coming from the far right, which is very deeply involved with a dark past in France. And secondly, the NF has no realistic position on the economy and general government. So, as a citizen, for me there is no hesitation.

But there is this new concern for Catholic voters. If you consider, as we say in France, Macron’s “societal reforms”—concerning public and private moral standards—and also if you consider the moral consequences of unleashed globalization, you can have strong reservations about voting for Macron, because on these questions he is not close to a Christian and Catholic view.

And to that extent, I think that the French situation is quite close to the last American election. There, Catholic voters were divided—not only between right and left—but disagreeing with the general tone of the populist campaign of Trump, and disagreeing with the moral and social orientation of Hillary Clinton.

Given that you teach in the United States, what other parallels do you see between the current political situations in the two countries?

There are many things in common. There are the kinds of characters involved, and how the discussions about political agendas melted into gossip and “fake news,” into true or fake scandals. And of course the populism everywhere.

Among the voters, many of them, perhaps the majority, do not have the impression that they can be fairly represented by one of the candidates.

There is also the fact that the primaries proved to be a very questionable method on both sides, and not a fair way to select candidates. But what these two elections share in common most, and what is more disturbing for me is the common feeling that the voters—first, many did not vote—but among the voters, many of them, perhaps the majority, do not have the impression that they can be fairly represented by one of the candidates. And so there is a crisis of representative democracy on both sides of the ocean. And this is really a concern, because I don’t see how we can quickly pull that situation together.

In a recent article, you presented the choice in Sunday’s election as between “unrestrained globalization” and “constrained autarky”; as between “decadence” and “powerlessness.” Do these grim options require a “blank vote” (a ballot cast, but for neither candidate) or outright abstention?

Yes, it’s a fact that there will be a higher rate of “blank votes” this time, higher than in previous presidential elections. No question. I decided on those two grim terms (“unrestrained globalization” and “constrained autarky”) because they are the possible outcomes seen by many voters around me. Many people have the impression that on one side the NF will close the borders and their minds without any view for the future, and that Macron will do the exact opposite—we know that this is a very questionable policy by its results.

About the question of decadence, I want to be precise. I think that we are in decadence when we have no crises. In politics—and in private life as well—it is possible to enter into a crisis, that is, to be in a situation where you can make a choice and this choice can make a difference. This, then, is the “regular” situation, so to speak.

What is very alarming, to my view, is that in Europe in general (and possibly not only in Europe), since perhaps the beginning of globalization, the Reagan years, we are in a situation where the political leaders in charge have less and less real power. They have fewer and fewer choices, and no one can modify the situation.

It is very strange that for instance the financial “crises”—there have been two of them at least recently—we were unable to intervene and stop the process. We have this impression that things are going on and on and on, and that no one can do anything. This is the absence of crisis, that leads to what I call decadence. I want to make a strong difference between the two terms.

Like you, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon has suggested that this election takes place in a climate of “decadence.” But he has also said that it may signal “the twilight of [France’s] existing political system.” Do you share his view that current forms of government may be passing away? Are we on the eve of the Sixth Republic?

Perhaps not of the Sixth Republic, but rather of another system for constructing a majority. That is, for the first time, it may be possible that after the general election for the parliament in June, all classical organized parties may make an alliance like in Germany. A great alliance between a part of the former Socialist Party and a part of the former Republican Party; a deal for passing legislation. And this may be a possible solution. It would be the system of the great coalition like in Germany.

In France it can be done by keeping the same constitution, so it is not necessarily the end of the Fifth Republic. The question is, my concern, is [whether] the political class in France is wise and fair enough to start this kind of government. It would be the best thing, dropping out the two extremes (which cannot govern and have no real vision). It may be the beginning of reorganization, not necessarily of the constitution but of the system of government. This would be good news.

Certainscholars andorganizations in France have said that the teaching of the Gospel and of the Catholic Church prohibit voting for the National Front, even by abstention. How would you respond to such a position?

Yes. I think that Catholics in generally do not vote for the NF, and when some of them do it is just because of questions of social law, such as gay marriage, perhaps immigration. I think that the Catholics in France are prevented, and so to speak prohibited, from voting directly and positively for the National Front. It’s very clear, there is a long tradition about that.

You have enumerated some of the problems with Emmanuel Macron and his positions vis-à-vis Catholic teaching. What do you make of the argument that he, though imperfect, is a kind of “lesser of two evils”?

Yes, indeed—but Macron is not evil. That is not the point. And Marine Le Pen, as a person, is not evil. She is on the evil direction, and that’s different. But as a citizen I have no doubt that I shall vote in favor of Macron, there’s no question about that.

My point is that the Catholics in France have to realize that no candidate can match the real expectations of Catholic voters.

My point is that the Catholics in France have to realize that no candidate can match the real expectations of Catholic voters. This is a situation that is normal. We have kept, after the death of De Gaulle, the dream open that in each election there should be an obvious Catholic vote possible. It’s not the case. We have to realize that. A large part of the social impact of the Catholic Church in French society does not depend on the ruling political leaders. It depends on the action, self-sustained, of the church and of Christian organizations. It is not at the political level that Catholics have the greatest influence on the social situation in France.

In a similar vein, some Christians in the United States—finding no candidates that they can really support—have argued for Christians to adopt theso-called “Benedict Option” (named for St. Benedict). That is, a retreat from public life to focus on building small communities of disciplined Christian practice. Is this along the lines of what you think might be necessary?

I think it is too far, and not well conceived. We have no need of a Catholic Tea Party or the Catholic Freemen of Montana or anything like that. I think that the Catholics, at least in France, with their system of hospitals and schools and universities and of social care and many other things can play a social, public role without retreating to the margins of society, out of the world, so to speak. They can remain deeply rooted in the society without being directly connected to this or that political party or political organization.

Today, a large part of the life of society involves weaker states, weaker government, smaller government—and this has already made this possible. What I am advocating is social action, social presence—but not confined by the boxes, slots and parking places created by reigning political powers.

This sounds like what you mean in saying that Catholics cannot and must not become indifferent to the common good, but rather they must practiceit while at the same time short-circuiting the “game of power.”

Yes, because if the organization of the state officially supports the common good, if they take care of the common good—great. But if not, then there is no reason to say that there is no hope. There is the possibility just to do the job ourselves, even if the political conditions do not support—yet, or anymore—your work.

In light of today’s political climate, how do you assess the current state of French laïcité? That’s an idea that’s not entirely the same as in the United States.

That’s a difficult question to answer quickly. In two weeks I am publishing a book devoted to that question (Brève Apologie pour un Moment Catholique, to be released May 24 by Grasset). There I take a much deeper look at laïcité.

Laïcité is a French invention. It is not a political concept, it is not even written in our law. It is in fact a theological concept: that God is apart from political power, and vice versa. What I think now is that laïcité at best means that the state should remain neutral, like the American practice, precisely because the society itself is not neutral religiously speaking. And the difference between the United States and France is that we share the neutrality of the state, but in France the neutrality of the state was connected to the crazy ambition to make the whole of society religiously neutral. It was to be a society that would be, in the end, without believers. And the United States has a neutral state with a non-neutral society. It’s a good system, and I’d like it if France would be more oriented towards that principle.

There are different religions, there are different publics. And the relation between those religions is their business, and their job to work out—not the job of the state.

Several years ago, Marine Le Pen said famously that “priests should stay in their sacristies” (“les curés devraient rester dans leur sacristie”) and not get involved in political debates. In your view, what role can and should the Catholic Church play in French politics today?

I think that Catholics need to reach out in most of the directions of the political landscape, without establishing a “Catholic party.” It would be about asking questions, raising issues and debating everywhere. That is the first Catholic role. Our society has to know that Christian thought is very powerful. Second, that it never yields to any intellectual fashion or something like that. Third, that precisely because Christianity is true, it cannot be realized immediately on Earth. So we should not be surprised or shocked because there is no perfect Christian political society, or even a Christian political project. This is normal.

Precisely because Christianity is true, it cannot be realized immediately on Earth. So we should not be surprised or shocked because there is no perfect Christian political society, or even a Christian political project. This is normal.

And lastly, this situation of being “in between”—what we used to call being in via, being “on the way”—there is room here for deep transformation of society according to Christian convictions. On questions like poverty, peace, climate change and ecology—all of these are our concerns, and they are central issues for the rest of the world. So we can do a lot, and in general Christians doa lot.

But I am not convinced, and I am convinced less than ever, that the level of society where political battles are fought is very fundamental. It is, rather, superficial and today becoming thinner and thinner. But in the depths of society, there is room for Christian social action.

Immigration has been a major issue in this election, as it has been elsewhere in Europe recently. Independent of the outcome this Sunday, what do you think the current political climate says for future prospects of a multicultural France and a multicultural Europe? Are those ideas in peril?

I do not think that multicultural Europe or multicultural France is a reality so far. Or that it is a good solution. The tradition in France is that it is an open country, but it is not multicultural. And if we can do that again, we shall make immigration a good thing. If we cannot enforce a kind of assimilation, we shall suffer not only a lack of identity but we shall be in trouble.

The question of migration in Europe today is very strange because there always was migration. Even in France, migration started in the 18th and 19th century. It is an old story. The question is whether you can admit people in a society, and different people, only if you know yourself who you are. And so the more you are certain of what you are, what you should be, what you want to be in the future—the more you are able and you armed, ready, to accept newcomers.

The problem of immigration is not only a problem of how many people come. But in what state of mind, what cultural state, is the society that will welcome the migrants? Today, we are not strong enough to host many people. I would prefer if we were stronger, able to be home to more people. It’s not the case, and it’s a shame.

It is not simply a moral issue, as people say, but it is a question of how strong France is now and whether we are strong enough and confident enough in ourselves to host newcomers in good faith—and, sincerely, I doubt that now.

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