Pope to find unlikely ally in Sarkosy’s France

Categories: Ecumenism,Papal Movements

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By Philip Pullella Wed Sep 10, 8:23 AM ET

Pope Benedict and French President Nicolas Sarkozy would appear to be unlikely allies in a battle to inject more Christian values back into Europe.

Yet when he welcomes Benedict to France for a four-day trip to Paris and Lourdes starting on Friday, Sarkozy, twice divorced and now married to ex-supermodel Carla Bruni, will likely have the German pope nodding in agreement more than once.

Sarkozy, who considers himself a “cultural Catholic” and attends Mass only occasionally, has been calling for a more active role for religion in public life and greater recognition of Europe’s Christian roots.

Only last Saturday in Sardinia, the pope said Italy needed a new generation of Catholic politicians committed to using their religious beliefs to shepherd the country’s future.

While no one expects the pope to go that far in France, where the split between Church and State is enshrined in the national identity, Benedict is expected to push for what he has called “a healthy secularism.”

“I know people accuse me of being much too interested in religion … I am not questioning the secular system,” Sarkozy said last January after making a string of positive comments on faith and repeatedly citing God in speeches abroad.

Since the introduction in 1905 of a law on “laicite” — the French concept of the separation of Church and State — bringing religion into public affairs has been a major taboo.

But Sarkozy has branded this a “negative laicite,” and wants a “positive laicite” that would value the hope faith brings and allow state subsidies for faith-based groups, Christian or not.

Benedict and Sarkozy might mention this in short speeches after their meeting at the president’s Elysee Palace on Friday. “Everybody is waiting to see what they say,” said Frederic Lenoir, editor of the French bimonthly Le Monde des Religions.


French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran told the Italian Catholic newspaper L’Avvenire he expects the pope to speak of “healthy secularism” at the Elysee Palace, his first stop after arrival.

But Catholicism in France, known as the “eldest daughter of the Church” due to its deep Christian roots, is anything but healthy.

Officially, some 75 percent of the French were baptized but far fewer identify themselves as Catholic and those who attend Mass on Sunday has fallen below 10 percent by most estimates.

“Undoubtedly, the level of religious practice is very low and the priest shortage is dramatic,” Tauran said.

At the same time, France’s committed Catholic minority has

a new self-confidence and speaks out more openly than in the past. Lenoir said Pope John Paul’s visit during the Paris World Youth Day in 1997 helped boost their Catholic identity.

One of the pope’s main speeches will be on Friday evening at his “meeting with the world of culture” — intellectuals, artists and scientists assembled in a renovated medieval hall.

He will make that speech on the second anniversary of his controversial lecture at Regensburg, Germany, which angered Muslims who saw it as implying that Islam was violent and irrational.

He also plans brief meetings with Jews and Muslims.

Benedict will spend most of his time in Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. This year is the 150th anniversary of when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a peasant girl, Bernadette Soubirous, 18 times in 1858.

In the past 150 years, the Church has recognized as “miracles” 67 medically inexplicable healings of sick pilgrims who visited Lourdes.

Some six million people a year, many of them sick or disabled, visit the city to drink or bathe in its spring waters.

(Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; editing by Keith Weir)

Original story may be viewed at: http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20080910/wl_nm/pope_france_dc

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