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from issue no. 06 - 2005

ANNIVERSARIES. A hundred years after the law sanctioning the separation of Church and State

In praise of «healthy secularism»


French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran reviews the history of relations between State and Church in France from 1905 to the present: the promulgation of the anticlerical and secularist law that caused quarrels and clashes and its more reasonable application that has allowed the Church to live in peace. Interview


by Gianni Cardinale


Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, Archivist and Librarian of Holy Roman Church

Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, Archivist and Librarian of Holy Roman Church

Among the more important anniversaries occurring in 2005, a particular place is certainly occupied by the centenary of the law that sanctioned the separation between State and Church in France in 1905. So much so that one of the last documents of John Paul II’s pontificate was a letter he sent on the matter last 13 February to the president and all the bishops of the French episcopate.
To remind us of the events of a hundred years ago and their repercussions on the France of today 30Days interviewed Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, Archivist and Librarian of Holy Roman Church. Tauran is French and before receiving the purple he was head of the Holy See’s diplomacy for thirteen years. We met him in his office in the Vatican Library, just back from a trip to France that has spiritually refreshed him: «I met a large group of really splendid seminarians from the south of France: they live their vocation with joy and have a simple and deep Eucharistic piety. I then went to Le Puy as papal envoy and led the Corpus Christi procession through the streets of the town: it hadn’t happened for forty years…». Taking his trip home as starting point, it was inevitable that part of the interview should hinge on the French referendum at the end of May that rejected the so-called European Constitution.
Before coming to the subject of the interview the cardinal recalled John Paul II in heartfelt fashion: «He was a Pope who recognized the great influence of French Catholicism on the whole of the Catholic Church. He personally read many theological, philosophical and literary works in French. And I further remember that he spoke to me several times of his great friendship with Cardinal Gabriel-Marie Garrone, who was archbishop of Toulouse and then Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education: he always spoke of him with admiration».
John Paul II wrote a letter to the French bishops on the hundredth anniversary of the law of 1905, describing it as «a painful and traumatizing event». In what sense?
JEAN-LOUIS TAURAN: The law was perceived as an attack on the Catholic Church in that it stripped the Church of all its property and tried to organize it on political democratic lines, demanding the creation of the so-called “Cultual Associations” composed of lay people to which even the bishops were to be subordinate. It was a very grievous provision that was, however, part of a history that had begun during the Revolution, with the civil constitution of the clergy in 1790, and that had continued in the last decades of the nineteenth century with considerable anticlerical legislation: abolition of the Sunday rest, suppression of Catholic schools, suppression of the religious orders. Not only that. Émile Combes – who was a former seminarian and was particularly bitter toward the Church – wanted to nominate the bishops himself, without the pope! When then the socialist Jean Jaurès asked Jules Ferry, the chief architect of the secularization of the French school system, what his program was, the answer was illuminating: to organize mankind without God. Ferry also spoke of the great diocese of freethinking. Secularity became an alternative ideology. Ferry again said: we have promised religious neutrality, but we have not promised philosophical or political neutrality. It was secularity and not the healthy secularism, as Pius XII defined it, that the Church can only support.
But what precipitated the situation?
TAURAN: President Émile François Loubet came to Rome in April 1904 on an official visit and went to the Quirinal to meet the king, and so the Pope - since the Roman Question was still unresolved – refused to receive him in Vatican. Then when the Holy See summoned to Rome two French bishops who had problems in their dioceses and who were suspected of being too pro-government, Paris decided to break off diplomatic relations. That was on 30 July 1904. The following November the Combes government proposed a very restrictive bill on separation that was to be passed, in a more acceptable form proposed by Aristide Briand, on 9 December 1905 by the government led by Émile Rouvier.
The law of 1905 also provoked violent clashes between police and believers…
TAURAN: Yes, above all when state officials wanted to enter the churches to inventory the property to be confiscated. There were clashes, people wounded and even one death. At that point, luckily, the State understood – in the words of Georges Clemenceau, who was more disposed to dialogue - that a candlestick is not worth a human life...
A Le Monde headline suggested that John Paul II praised the law of 1905…
TAURAN: There was no praise, nor could there be. But there was the recognition that this law did enable the Church to live in peace in so far as, however, it was never applied to the letter: from 1906 the courts gave a very wide interpretation of it. And John Paul II’s positive judgment concerned that aspect, certainly not the law in itself...
What were the more important points of the law?
TAURAN: The law of the 1905 entailed the unilateral abolition of the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801. It established that the Republic did not recognize and did not finance any religion, considering religion only in its cult and not in its social dimension. It also established that Church property was to be taken over by the State, while religious buildings were to be entrusted free of charge to cult Associations democratically elected by the faithful. And it was especially against this last point that the Pope reacted: the Catholic Church is not a democratic society, and the bishop cannot be expelled de facto from the leadership of the local Church. That is why Saint Pius X, in the encyclical Vehementer nos of February 1906, spoke about the secularity, that is a real religious apartheid, as “the plague” of our time. And the Catholics considered it a monstrous injustice.
Did the clear separation of State and Church also have some positive aspects, in the sense that it purged the French Church in some way, ridding it of temptations of a worldly nature?
TAURAN: Yes, paradoxically the law made the Church more evangelical, because poorer and closer to ordinary people. Not only that, being no longer financed by the State also gave her greater freedom of speech. The Catholic faithful then closed ranks around their Church and were particularly generous. And that had already happened with the anticlerical laws issued formerly. So much so that in 1903 the extremely secular Ferdinand Buisson, general inspector of the primary teaching, said: we have taken from the Church everything that made its strength: titles, privileges, riches, honors, monopolies, but it enjoys greater popularity than before. There was still a Christian people that reacted and came together with affection in defense of their Church.
The French cockade and flags on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris

The French cockade and flags on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris

Your Eminence, you mentioned earlier the fact that the 1905 law was never in reality strictly applied …
TAURAN: In effect what came after is a legislative jungle of additions and of interpretations. That is why there is the fear that putting the law in question again means reopening Pandora’s box. Many say that it is better to keep the present law, without giving it a fundamentalist reading, but interpreting it in the light of the dispositions that have shaped its application for a century.
The law was not applied to the whole country…
TAURAN: France does nothing like other countries! It’s a peculiar country. In the territories of the Republic there are at least four legislative regimes that regulate religions. Republican secularitsm according to the law of 1905 applies in fact to the whole of French territory with three exceptions. In Alsace and in Moselle – in 1905 part of the German Reich and re-annexed by France after the First World War – the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801 applies, on the basis of which it is the president of a secular Republic, still as heir of the emperor, who appoints the bishops of Strasbourg and Metz. In the departmente of Guyana Catholicism is the official religion, according to a royal ordinance of 1828. As for the overseas possessions in the Atlantic and Pacific, we have a statute of public law according to what was established by the decrees of 1939. Added to this is the fact that since 2002 a government-Church commission has existed, presided over by the prime minister and the apostolic nuncio, to resolve the problems of the Church in France. As you see, the situation is very much sui generis. As I have said on previous occasions, maybe the Church should be separated from the State, but never will the Church be separated from society. According to me, then, it would be better to speak not so much of separation as of distinction between Church and State.
In the ’twenties, however, conciliation between Holy See and France became possible. Who yielded, Rome or Paris?
TAURAN: Neither of the two. It was a compromise. Made possible also by something important that happened in the First World War: the fraternization that took place in the trenches among soldiers, priests and the seminarians, also called up to the front. Young Frenchmen, who had been taught in the lay schools of the State to consider priests as profiteers, discovered that the reality was different from the secularist propaganda. Among those killed at the front there were 1,800 priests, 1,500 religious and 1,300 seminarians. To that was added the awareness of the government that the Church was living, so to speak, in a State of non-law. So, after negotiations lasting from 1921 to 1924, the so-called Briand-Cerretti agreement was arrived at, on the basis of which religious buildings were no longer entrusted to Associations of democratically elected laypeople but to diocesan Associations presided over by the bishop. To make sure that France respected this type of agreement Pope Pius XI asked for a law on freedom of worship, but the French State didn’t accept. And so a series of documents of differing legal value was opted for.
So what was the nature of the agreement signed by the then premier Briand and Archbishop Bonaventura Cerretti, special envoy of the Holy See?
TAURAN: We have a memo of the re-establishing of diplomatic relations in 1921, whereby Cerretti became nuncio in Paris. Again for 1921 we have another memo on the nomination of bishops and an exchange of letters between the foreign minister and the apostolic nuncio on the theological faculty of Strasbourg and on the diocesans associations. And then there is an oral agreement on the procedure for guaranteeing the legal value of these agreements. The Holy See manifested its ratification of the agreements with the Maximam gravissimamque encyclical of January 1924, while the French State produced an opinion of the Council of State.
The Briand-Cerretti agreements of 1924 were kept secret at the time. Why? Are they still and will they remain secret?
TAURAN: There is a plan to publish them but I don’t know at what point it stands. One has to keep in mind here the legal querelle that is the background to these agreements. There are those who maintain they are true international agreements and those instead who don’t retain them such. In France also there is a school of thought that retains they are international agreements and that therefore they must be published in the official collection of treaties.
The problem then is not so much that of publishing them or not. But of where…
TAURAN: In a certain sense, yes.
The centenary could be an occasion for doing so…
TAURAN: Certainly. The problem is whether France will agree to inserting the agreements in the official Collection of international treaties. On the part of the Holy See obviously there would be no problem in their publication.
France is the only European country that underlines its secualarism in its Constitution. Yet its current president, Jacques Chirac, came to Rome to take possession of the title of First Honorary Canon of the Lateran Chapter, a title that belonged to the kings of the ancien régime. Doesn’t it seem rather strange to you?
TAURAN: It’s a very strange business, but it mirrors the paradoxical character of relations between Church and State in France very well. Of a country with a deeply rooted Catholic tradition in which the ideas of the Revolution of 1789 have had a formidable impact.
Above top, the cover of Le Petit Journal of March 1906 devoted to the serious clashes between the inhabitants and the authorities in Haute Loire after the approval of the law of separation between State and Church; 
down, a vignette showing two members of the Rouvier government removing a crucifix

Above top, the cover of Le Petit Journal of March 1906 devoted to the serious clashes between the inhabitants and the authorities in Haute Loire after the approval of the law of separation between State and Church; down, a vignette showing two members of the Rouvier government removing a crucifix

Chirac’s precursor at the Elysée, François Mitterrand, never took possession of the Lateran title…
TAURAN: He never asked to make an official visit to the Vatican.
Yet he had a Catholic upbringing…
TAURAN: President Mitterrand was baptized and received a Christian upbringing from his family. In his youth he was a devout Catholic and was not ashamed to show it. Afterwards, his faith slackened. But he has always had a nostalgia and a passion for the deep questions of life. He was a friend of Jean Guitton and had many conversations with him on the death he felt approaching. When he made the arrangements for his funeral, they asked him whether he wanted it secular or in church. He answered: «One could conceive of a religious ceremony». «One could conceive of»...: A very Mitterrandian formula. I recall that at the solemn funeral in Notre Dame, where I represented the Holy See, in his homily Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger offered a collage of quotations from the president that demonstrated his Christian faith, even if often in implicit fashion. He was an unusual character. As also shown by an episode I didn’t know of – but that didn’t surprise me all that much – and that was reported by Vatican Radio.
Which was?
TAURAN: The news bulletin of 13 March last reported two episodes from before his death. First «a visit to the monastery of Saint Caterina on Sinai, where he was to confess having left the best of himself there». And then «an unexpected devotion to Saint Teresa of Lisieux: when the procession carrying her relics was passing through Paris and below his apartment, Mitterrand asked it to stop, went down with difficulty, stayed in silence in the car, with his hand on the urn». They are episodes, as Vatican Radio rightly said, that «say much of the complexity of the character».
Let’s go back to the 1905 law. Is it possible that it be revised, not least in the light of the increasing number of Muslim believers in France? Minister Nicolas Sarkozy thinks the possibility exists. And says so in his latest book La République, les religions, l’espérance.
TAURAN: I haven’t been living in France for many years, however it would seem to me strange that a hundred-year-old law might be so perfect as not to require alteration. However, both Sarkozy and the Catholic bishops have warned of the danger of reopening a debate on relations between State and Church that could give rise to a recrudescence of secularism and anticlericalism. So many say: leave the law as it is and complement it in the light of the jurisprudence of the past century. I believe that is the solution preferred by the majority of the bishops. What has to be avoided is a fundamentalist interpretation of the law, given that luckily it has never been that way.
A question about Sarkozy’s book, since Le Figaro has reported a visit he made to the Vatican to present it to Secretary of State Cardinal Sodano Angel, to Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo and to yourself…
TAURAN: Yes, the minister gave us a copy of his book. on the occasion. Mine had the written dedication: «Votre ami tout simplement». What I liked about the book is that it is written by a government minister who is not afraid of speaking of religion, stating that Christians must not be ashamed of their faith and must have no inferiority complex about it. Interesting then is the definition of secularism given in the book: «I believe in a positive secularism, in a secularism that guarantees the right to live according to one’s own religion as a fundamental right of the person. Secularism is not hostile to religions, on the contrary secularism is the guarantee for each of us to believe and live according to his own faith».
Such a definition of secularism could have practical repercussions, such as state financing for religious bodies…
TAURAN: On the question of the financing of churches, mosques and synagogues Sarkozy certainly expresses, let’s say, heterodox thinking compared to the large majority in the French political world. Going back to the book, I repeat that what I like is that Sarkozy had the courage to write a book on religion and state that he is a believer. Then, of course, the book contains some affirmations that need to be nuanced or gone into more.
Does this talk of religion come out of the massive Muslim presence?
TAURAN: It’s another French paradox that this discussion on religion is really due to Islam. The Muslims are the people who have forced rulers to ask themselves about the role of religion in the society of today, when for years the dominant philosophy was: you can do everything, including being Catholic, but never let it be seen. That is the answer that a French university student heard himself given by an agnostic fellow-student.
The debate exploded publicly last year, when a law was passed prohibiting the ostentatious demonstration of religious symbols, in practice, to forbid the wearing of the veil at school by Muslim girls…
TAURAN: It seems to me that the application of the law has been less troublesome than one might have thought. A bit like that of the 1905 law. I can understand that for people who don’t live in France it might seem a bit strange that a case of the kind requires legislation. But in France they do a lot of lawmaking...
On the question of Islam, do you consider it a pressing problem for western society and for the Church?
TAURAN: First of all I don’t believe Islam should be spoken of as a single entity, be thought of as a monolithic bloc. The reality instead reveals a plural Islam: there are quite a lot of Islam. I, for example, performed my mission for many years in Lebanon where I met Muslims with whom I felt perfectly in tune, and others instead with whom relations were more problematic. Last year I was in Qatar at a meeting of Muslim-Christian dialogue organized by the Emir, who then proposed that the following meeting should be threefold, with spokesmen for Judaism participating; the reaction of his co-religionists was glacial. Different Islams exists. And that is also a difficulty for dialogue: finding a representative interlocutor with whom to speak. Certainly, Islam is a fact. We are condemned, as it were, to dialogue with the Muslim world. Because dialogue is the key to any lasting solution. Unfortunately in the West the equation: Islam equals terrorism, has had much success. But it’s not true. I believe that the majority of the Muslim world can’t wait to be rid of these terrorists fringes that betray the real message of Islam. But the road is still long.
In the media one often come across the comparison of a French model, adverse to the fact of religion, with a American model, more respectful of faith and ecclesiastical institutions. Do you share that impression?
TAURAN: That situation is the outcome of history. In the United States the religious fact is part of the landscape. Months ago I was astonished by a survey according to which 85% of Americans claim to consider daily prayer important. This religiousness is a positive fact on condition that it doesn’t turn into fundamentalism and proselytizm.
The American political landscape has been dominated in recent years by the phenomenon of the so-called neo-conservatives, the ‘neocons’, including some influential members of the American Church, so much so that there is also talk of ‘theocons’. Do you think that this cultural-political movement could be exported to Europe?
TAURAN: I don’t think so. Because of what I said earlier. What worries me, however, is the fact that in Europe there is a lack of coherent Catholics in governments and administrative structures. We lack Christians dedicated to the service of the res publica. That is the big gap on our continent. I would be curious to know how many politicians declare themselves and whether, for example, when they participate in meetings or gatherings on Sundays, feel the necessity to attend holy mass.
In a speech to the Pontifical French Seminar last November, you stated that handing on the faith today must have nothing to do with “propaganda or proselytizm”. What did you mean by that?
TAURAN: At times one becomes aware of the risk that the evangelizing mission of the Church is, or is considered, propaganda or proselytizm. We, like Jesus, must offer what we believe to be the only Good News for mankind of all times. The discretion and respect that we must have for those who don’t believe goes hand in hand with sharing and witness. People doesn’t want sermons or proclamations. But are interested instead in those Christians that testify their faith in their daily life.
Your Eminence, a question dictated by current events. At the end of May in a referendum the French people loudly rejected the project for a constitutional European Treaty undergoing ratification by twenty-five countries of the Union. What is your assessment of that?
TAURAN: I think the French hadn’t read the text of the Treaty and so were incapable of evaluating what was at stake. In fact very few would be able to give a definition of Europe. And so it’s a reflex action dictated by fear. But Europe goes on; we must remember that it is the people who make Europe, not the institutions. Even if, as someone pointed out to me, for some years Europe will be living in the framework of the Nice Agreement and Europe of the euro will be the only one in operation, and political Europe will remain, at least for the near future, only at the planning stage. But, again I say, the work for a more united Europe must continue, given that «Europe is a privileged space of human hope», as the Preamble of the Treaty declares.
A Preamble that doesn’t seem much to have pleased the Holy See…
TAURAN: Certainly for us Christians there are serious gaps in the text of the Treaty, such as the absence of reference to Christian roots. Then, the articles relating to life, to the rights of the family and to discrimination require different formulation. But we must not forget that with the Treaty the principal legal declaration of the European Union for the first time entails an institutional dialogue with the Churches. And that’s not little.
A last question. What might the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy mean for Europe?
TAURAN: In his book A new direction for Europe our Pope Benedict XVI shows that in no phase of its history has our continent lived without turning its eyes to the sacred. And thus, thanks to the co-habitation with God, Europe has more or less succeeded in teaching men to co-habit amongst themselves. It seems to me that the Church today, under the guidance of a deeply European Pope – he’s called Benedict! – can make its own contribution to the affirmation of a Europe where peoples and citizens can look to the future with faith, under the eyes of God.


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