On April 9, 2018, the President of the French Republic honored the invitation of the Bishops’ Conference of France to speak an evening event at the College des Bernardins before an audience of 400 guests.
Emmanuel Macron came to pacify the relations between the Church and an executive branch that, ever since the “Manif pour tous” (Protest for All), seems to have lost the support of most of the Catholic electorate. In his recent book, La grande peur des catholiques de France (The Great Fear of French Catholics) (Grasset editions), former religious journalist for the Monde, Henri Tincq, lamenting the downfall of the progressivist myth, said it only too well: “the increasing strength of the right wing…in French Catholicism is a cruel disappointment.”
With this in mind, the Head of State came to the Bernardins and observed “how the path that the State and the Church have so long shared has today come to be strewn with so much reciprocal misunderstanding and distrust.”
In a speech that lasted over an hour, Emmanuel Macron answered Archbishop Georges Pontier, archbishop of Marseille and president of the Bishops’ Conference of France. He called on Catholics to offer “three gifts” to society: their wisdom, their commitment, and their freedom.
These are more than three gifts; they are three carefully chosen words with which the president meant to send a clear, strong message to French Catholics.
The rhetorical use of the “gift of wisdom” was the Head of State’s way of recalling that for the executive power, the “voice of the Church” is by no means “injunctive”. In other words, she is not called to weigh in on the public debate. Exeunt, therefore the Manif pour tous and all its successors. For Emmanuel Macron, the role of the Church is restricted to the appropriate portion that he calls “the humility of questioning.”
With the word “commitment,” the President of the Republic explained what he expects of Catholics in politics: a commitment essentially in keeping with the European perspective, which implies an urgent need to distance themselves clearly from all “Euro-skeptical” political forces at a time when this question is a source of debates even within the episcopal conference.
Using the term “gift of freedom,” Emmanuel Macron asked the institutions of the Church of France to commit to remaining faithful to religious pluralism and the spirit of secularism “without seeking to please or seduce.” The president used this last part of his speech to take a clear stance in the face of any contestations from French Catholics: “My role is to ensure that [each citizen] has absolute freedom to believe or not to believe, but I ask each citizen in the same way and always to respect all the laws of the Republic absolutely and without any compromise.” The “iron law” is “secularism,” that requires “absolute freedom of conscience”. The message is clear: as a true son of the Enlightenment, the French president defends the primacy of the individual conscience over the divine rule, of opinion over the Faith, of the law over the Creed.
Emmanuel Macron “seemed to be preparing Catholics to see some of their hopes disappointed”: this remark from the newspaper La Croix in its April 9, 2018 issue sums up this “unprecedented evening” at the Bernardins in a gentle euphemism. In fact, concludes Laurent Neumann, a political editorialist, “Macron is making a political move….He is doing so because he plans to head on towards the law on MAP (medically assisted procreation) and he does not want to relive what happened with gay marriage.”