Some speeches are important not because they offer original ideas, but simply because they expand the realm of what can be said in public. Whether or not Sarkozy spoke sincerely yesterday in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome, his words definitely expanded the realm of what can be said publicly in Europe.
The French president Nicolas Sarkozy was in Rome to receive the honorary title of ‚Äúcanon‚Äù of the Basilica of St. John Lateran ‚Äì original given to French kings (after 1604) and, in modern times, to presidents of the republic.
His words shed light on the current situation of Europe ‚Äì especially coming, as they do, from a Frenchman who is not known for his religiosity. (The back-story of his visit to Rome was his affair, on the heels of the demise of his second marriage, with the German-Italian model-actress-singer Carla Bruni.)
Much of what he had to say dealt with what in Italian is called ‚Äúlaicita‚Äù ‚Äì a word that is difficult to translate simply into English, because ‚Äúlayness‚Äù or ‚Äúlaicity‚Äù in English does not have the polemical political overtones that it has in Continental European countries with their history of clerical involvement in secular politics. In Europe, the word refers to the ideal of a ‚Äúsecular,‚Äù non-confessional state, strongly informed by the principal of the separation of Church and State. Properly understood, it is something positive, but in practice it is often a rallying cry for anti-Catholic groups. The positive sense would be something like ‚Äúsecularity‚Äù; the negative sense would be closer to an ideological ‚Äúsecularism‚Äù.
What Sarkozy offered was his vision of a positive ‚Äúlaicity,‚Äù one that ‚Äúsees religion not as a danger, but rather as an advantage.‚Äù He was seeking to separate himself from what he sees as an earlier, immature form of ‚Äúlaicity‚Äù that was merely anti-religious or anti-clerical. This (in part) is what he said:
‚ÄúLaicity cannot be a negation of the past. It does not have the power to cut France off from her Christian roots‚Ä¶. To cut those roots means to lose meaning. It means weakening the foundation of the national identity and withering still further our social relations, which have so much need for the symbols of memory‚Ä¶. So we must hold together the two ends of the chain: holding on to France‚Äôs Christian roots, and treasuring them, and at the same time defending a more mature form of laicity‚Ä¶. Thus, along with Benedict XVI, it is my belief that a nation that ignores the ethical, spiritual, and religious heritage of its own history commits a crime against its own culture, against its entire history, its patrimony, made of art and popular traditions, that impregnates in a profound way its very way of living and thinking‚Ä¶. France needs convinced Catholics who are not afraid to affirm what they are and what they believe. We are longing for spirituality, values and hope‚Ä¶ [France needs] joyous Catholics‚Ä¶ who, sustained by a greater hope, set out each day to construct a better world.‚Äù
I would be dishonoring the cultural patrimony of France if I didn‚Äôt take all of this with a grain of sceptical salt, but all the same ‚Ä¶ Vive la France.
What matters is not the sincerity with which the words were said but rather the fact that such words could be said by the President of France and honory canon of the oldest basilica in Christendom in the Year of Our Lord 2007.
It is far too soon to give up on the ‚Äúold‚Äù continent. We are living in interesting times.
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