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The Holy See and France Mark 100 Years of a Complicated Relationship

“Men are led with trifles,” Napoleon once declared to Berthier, who considered the creation of the Order of the Legion of Honor incompatible with the idea of ​​a virtuous republic, based on the  equality of all.

The Vatican “number two” may have remembered this trait of imperial irony when he received, from the hands of the French Prime Minister, the insignia of Commander of the Legion of Honor on October 18, 2021 at the Villa Bonaparte, seat of the French Embassy to the Holy See.

A ceremony took place a century after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between France and the Church, and was the occasion for an exchange during which Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Jean Castex were able to evoke the points of convergence and divergence existing between the two States, summarized by the two men in technical terms of “cordiality” and “esteem.”

In his address to the head of the French government, the Secretary of State of the Holy See wanted to underline what he considers to be the “fruits” of relations between France and the smallest state in the world: a real catch-all ranging from “respect for human rights,” and the “protection of religious minorities,” to “interreligious dialogue,” including the environment, with the COP21 held in Paris in 2015.

Cardinal Parolin took the opportunity to outline his vision of secularism. It must allow “God and Caesar to be distinct but not opposed,” but it should also allow an “openness to transcendence” which must be organized in such a way that a believer can be “free to freely offer his faith in society.”

We are far from the encyclicals of St. Pius X or Pius XI who saw secularism “à la française” as an “injustice” and an “attack” on the laws of God and His Church.

The cardinal, with his usual linguistic precautions, warned his interlocutor against the dangers of “a certain secularism which closes the doors to others and to God” and which thus “does not respect the human person either”: a way of expressing the fears of the Holy See in relation to the French bill on “religious separatism.”

“It is not a question of a conflict of transcendence, but simply of giving back to the Republic what belongs to the Republic and to God what belongs to God,” replied Jean Castex.

The French Prime Minister made the assurance that: “the law consolidating the principles of the Republic in no way constitutes a paradigm shift of republican secularism, but on the contrary comes to consecrate it by adapting it to the present time.” Words that are meant to be soothing but which will, in fact, be rather unconvincing.

It is in fact on the purely political theater of the Middle East that the collaboration between the Vatican and French diplomacy seems to be carried out in an efficacious way, with the declared will on both sides, to “contribute to peace and stability.”

Evoking the question of the secret of confession, recently discussed in the French press, Jean Castex said that the separation between Church and State “does not in any way mean the separation of the Church from the law.”

Already, at the end of his visit to Pope Francis at the Vatican earlier in the morning, the French Prime Minister had declared not without ambiguity: “this is not a scoop: the Church will not go back on her dogma on the secrecy of confession. But we must at all costs find ways and means to reconcile this with criminal law.”

Divergences and convergences were on the menu of discussions between the Secretary of State of the Holy See and the head of the French government on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two states.


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