The Third Republic had encroached on the life of the Roman Catholic Church for decades before formally codifying laïcité in the 1905 law “concernant la séparation des Églises et de l'État.” Pope Pius X wrote that the change, which transferred ownership of religious buildings to the government, “tramples under foot the rights of property of the Church … which belongs to her by titles as numerous as they are sacred.” At various times, faithful Catholics were denied promotions in the military, and the Church was perpetually admonished to reserve comment on affairs of state.
“Laïcité has become the first religion of the Republic,” wrote French political scientist Dominique Moïsi. Last year, when presidential candidate François Fillon said, “I am a Christian,” National Front candidate Marine Le Pen deemed the sentiment “contrary to the principle of laïcité.”
Militant secularism has not diminished mankind’s longing to punish heretics. This is verified by the comment in Macron’s speech the public has found most offensive: “The link between Church and state has deteriorated, and that it is important for us, and for me, to repair it.”
The backlash came swiftly. “Mr. President, the link with the churches has not been damaged! It was broken in 1905!” tweeted Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-Left La France Insoumise. Premeditated dialogue with bishops is “irresponsible” and holds the potential to “unmake the Republic.” The Socialist Party’s 2017 presidential candidate, Benoît Hamon, called Macron’s speech “an unprecedented violation of laïcité.” Olivier Faure, first secretary of the Socialist Party, replied that “laïcité is our jewel.”
And as if to fulfill Moïsi’s words, the former socialist prime minister and Macron supporter Manuel Valls wrote, “Laïcité is France.”
Macron, anticipating this furore, told the bishops that “laïcité certainly does not” have to “require denying the spiritual in the name of the temporal, nor uprooting from our societies the sacred.” Furthermore, “a church claiming to be indifferent to temporal questions would not fulfill its vocation,” and a president “claiming to be uninterested in the Church and Catholics would fail in his duty.”
This is in part because Christianity has motivated so many of his nation’s heroes:
If Catholics … agreed to die, it is not only in the name of humanist ideals. It is not in the name only of a secularized, Judeo-Christian morality. It is because they were driven by their faith in God and by their religious practice.
Macron, having cast the faith in an unfamiliar role as a positive influence, said France needs Christian insights to impart a meaning to life and work. The nation suffers not just from “the economic crisis,” but from “relativism” and “even nihilism,” which “suggests that [effort] is not worth it – no need to learn, no need to work.” While French economic policy denies people the full exercise of their gifts by not “remunerating work” and by “discouraging initiative,” a renewed emphasis on Catholic social teaching can “restore the first dignity, that of living from his own work.”