The Pope in Paris yesterday gave a speech which will be remembered as one of his most significant, not just because of its content – which has recast the current European thinking about freedom and faith – but because of its historic context. It was made just a few hours after a twice-divorced, lapsed Catholic president came together with a pope to tell the French people that the mindset behind the 1905 laws disestablishing religion and banning it from schools is, well, passé; and that secularism should stop shouting at religion and start listening to it.
This “positive laïcité”, as Sarkozy calls it, was spelled out at Orly airport where he went to receive the Pope with a red carpet and a martial band. "Rejecting a dialogue with religion would be a cultural and intellectual error", he said, and called for a "positive secularism that debates, respects and includes, not a secularism that rejects".
Diehard socialists and secularists were horrified but it’s a clever move by Sarkozy, because the rigid dogmas of laïcité – which settled the long dispute between Church and State in 1905 by expelling the former from education and public life – look oddly anachronistic in today’s post-ideological, “whatever” European culture; and Sarkozy is made to look modern, thoughtful and tolerant.
But there is a wider issue at stake in France – the question of whether Christianity can be said to be intrinsic or inimical to the best of European culture. The question dogged the early, failed drafts of the European constitution, which left a gaping hole in its preamble where God, the Church and the Middle Ages should have been.
The secularist mindset sees history as leaping from the Greeks to the Enlightenment – the path of unfettered scientific reasoning on which eternal truths and good things gradually develop: things like popular revolutions, democracy, freedom of speech. You can be a conservative secularist, lauding the emancipation of human industry and capital from the fetters of church and later state control; or a left-wing secularist, praising the emancipation of the people from their hereditary masters and the rise of the welfare state. But what you have in common is a view that the Catholic bit of your history and culture -- the bit that involves churches and monasteries and popes and not a few centuries – is in opposition to the path of reason and emancipation.
It is this mindset that the Pope took on at the Collège de Bernardins and gently exposed as mythical – not by attacking and parodying it but by gently showing how the foundation of European culture was the search for God, and how the attempt to exclude God as unscientific was tantamount to the renouncing reason itself.
It is beautifully and expertly done. The Pope begins by referencing the former monastery where they are gathered and looking at the intention behind it: not to preserve a culture or found one, but to seek God – “to go from the inessential to the essential”. He then shows how this search, made through contemplation of the Word, requires a “culture of the word”, which leads to a library and a school. But just as importantly, it leads to a common life, a culture – “the pilgrim fellowship of faith” in Benedict XVI’s nice phrase – in which reading becomes a corporate as well as individual activity. The search for God also leads to music, to a common worship; such that the “culture of singing is also the culture of being”. “This intrinsic requirement of speaking with God and singing of him with words he has given”, says the Pope, “is what gave rise to the great tradition of Western music.”
The structure of the Bible, he points out, requires interpretation because “the word of God can never be simply equated with the letter of the text”, so that the Bible by its nature excludes fundamentalism. He also highlights the tension between obligation and freedom in scriptural exegesis which “has also determined the thinking and acting of monasticism and has deeply marked western culture”. This polar tension, says Benedict, presents itself anew today as “the poles of subjective arbitrariness and fundamentalist fanaticism”. He warns of the disaster that follows from conceiving freedom only as absence of obligation, for this plays into the hands of fanaticism and arbitrariness. “Absence of obligation and arbitrariness do not signify freedom, but its destruction”.
The Pope goes on to talk about the monastic culture of work, which is understood as the sharing of the work of the Creator. Where it is not seen as that – when man arrogates to himself the status of creator – destruction of the world follows, he says: a neat, unspoken indictment of global warming brought on by corporate greed.
Benedict XVI ends by likening today’s society – as preachers so often do -- to the Aeropagus in Athens where St Paul proclaimed that God was known.
“Our cities are no longer filled with altars and with images of multiple deities. God has truly become for many the great unknown. But just as in the past, when behind the many images of God the question concerning the unknown God was hidden and present, so too the present absence of God is silently besieged by the question concerning him. Quaerere Deum – to seek God and to let oneself be found by Him, that is today no less necessary than in former times.”
But this, the Pope implies, is why it is so wrong for the state to ban religion from culture in the name of freedom. For it is the search itself, intrinsic to western culture, that is being excluded.
This, it should be obvious, is a triumphant recasting of the current European debate over religion. Faith is a search; to exclude or oppose faith is to “close off” options – to be narrow-minded and bigoted, which is what European culture rejects above all.
As he says in the final paragraph:
“A purely positivistic culture [ie France’s] which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences. 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.”