President Emmanuel Macron chose the nave of the College des Bernardins, a Gothic masterpiece, as the location for his April 9 speech addressing the Catholics of France. Referring to a range of French Catholic writers - Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, Emmanuel Mounier - he deplored the fact that the link between the church and the state had "collapsed," and he invited Catholics to participate fully in French political life:
This dialogue is indispensable, and if I had to sum up my point of view I would say that a church professing a lack of interest in temporal questions would not be pursuing all aspects of its vocation, and a president of the Republic professing a lack of interest in the church and in Catholics would not be fulfilling his duty.
For the last week, some have criticized Macron's high-toned speech while others have praised it. But beyond this normal political discussion, the speech serves as a demonstration that, even in a secular state, religions--and especially the religion that for centuries has contributed to making France what it is--continue to play a large role in the public square.
It is even tempting to say the Macron's speech is a response to all the unjustified indictments of laicite, the French form of secularism, in the English-speaking world. In just a few words, Macron answered the detractors of laicite, and there are many, who maintain that it excludes religions from the public square. Only someone who had never stepped onto the parvis of Notre-Dame de Paris could utter such an egregious misrepresentation. From Catholic groups to a wide variety of Islamic congregations to the strong presence of the Jewish community, religions are no less free in France than elsewhere. Au contraire!
These opponents make it seem that laicite applies beyond the state and schools, which it does not. It is because of their specific purpose that these institutions are required to be secular. Given that society as a whole is not secular, excluding religions from the state and schools is the best way to guarantee freedom of conscience for everybody. Do you want to think about police officers wearing kippot trying to keep order in France's banlieues, with their heavy Arab populations? Or a teacher wearing a hijab explaining the Yom Kippur war to a Jewish student? Would a woman want to request an abortion from a doctor who wears a visible sign of his religious convictions?
In addition to being a recipe for civil strife, this supposed...