Could it be that the president of secular France is more open than the prime minister of Canada to the contribution of faith to our common life?
It was a full week in Ottawa for the faith in our common life. On Tuesday the National Prayer Breakfast brought together the usual large crowd, including the Prime Minister and leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. They heard Dr. Os Guinness argue that societies that do not have room for faith will lose their capacity for freedom.
Later that day, our colleague the Father Deacon Andrew Bennett presided over the launch of our new Cardus Religious Freedom Institute (CRFI) and the first meeting of its advisory council.
On Wednesday, Fr. Dcn. Andrew gave the inaugural lecture of the CRFI, followed by a discussion with some of Canada’s leading experts in religious freedom, including Dr. Janet Epp Buckingham, who has literally written the book on such matters. Also present was Cardus friend Don Hutchinson, who also has written a book on the state of religious liberty in Canada. Just in its first days, the CRFI has proved itself to be – at the very least – a centre where the leading experts on religious freedom in Canada will convene.
On Thursday the annual March for Life – the largest annual demonstration in Ottawa – took to the streets, the first march under the government of Ontario’s new law that limits free speech on abortion.
This confluence of events and the presence of the prime minister at the prayer breakfast got me thinking about an important intervention about faith in common life earlier this year. The prime minister faithfully attends the prayer breakfast each year – a far better record than his predecessor, Stephen Harper – even though the majority of those gathered are not friendly to his policies on religious freedom, especially this year in light of the summer jobs fiasco. He deserves credit for that.
Last month, Justin Trudeau became the first Canadian prime minister to address the French National Assembly, celebrating Canada and France’s historic friendship and the shared priorities of both national governments to promote gender equality, environmental protection, and “progressive trade.”
Perhaps while in France, Trudeau had occasion to talk with French President Emmanuel Macron about the place of faith in our common life.
Macron gave a landmark address in April to over 400 French Catholic leaders. Macron and Trudeau are friends with similar priorities and styles, but in Macron’s speech the French president shows himself to have a far better understanding of how citizens’ religious and metaphysical beliefs impact their contributions to society.
Macron and Trudeau draw intuitive comparisons. Young, energetic, and liberal, they contrast themselves with both the lack of glamour of Britain’s Theresa May and Germany’s Angela Merkel, as well as the rise of a populist right from Washington to Warsaw. They combine progressive rhetoric on climate change and gender equality with technocratic embrace of free trade – the very stances Trudeau affirmed in his Paris address. They are photogenic, passionate, and have international star appeal. In the age of Trump, the two have been held up by centre-left commentators as their last, best hope.
Until recently, that is, in Trudeau’s case. The Prime Minister’s recent own goals have caused The Globe & Mail editorial board to wistfully suggest that “Emmanuel Macron is becoming the Trudeau we wanted.”
The Globe was harsh, noting that in contrast to the “lightweight” Trudeau, Macron “has earned a reputation for gravitas.” While Trudeau “burned through too much political capital on petty fights, like the summer job attestation…the French President seems to expend his more purposefully.”
On faith in our common life – not the Globe’s concern – that is an easy case to make.
At the Collège des Bernardins, a former Cistercian monastery, Macron invited French Catholics to bring their faith’s “wisdom,” “engagement,” and “free speech” into a public square which has officially rejected religious perspectives since 1905.
His speech included references to Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, Blaise Pascal and St. Gregory Nazianzus. It horrified French progressives for upsetting the French “consensus” that religion has no place on the lips of a French leader, and no place in France’s public life.
Consider the following arguments made by Macron:
- “We intuitively share the feeling that the bond between the Church and State has been damaged, and that both you and I need to repair it.”
- “A Church feigning indifference to temporal questions would not fulfil its vocation.”
- “A President of the Republic who claimed to be uninterested in the Church and Catholics would fail in his duty.”
- “I consider that secularism certainly does not have the function of denying the spiritual in the name of the temporal, nor of uprooting from our societies the sacred part that nourishes so many of our fellow citizens.”
- “Our contemporaries need, whether they believe or do not believe, to hear from another perspective on man than the material perspective. They need to quench another thirst, which is a thirst for absolute. It is not a question here of conversion, but of a voice which, with others, still dares to speak of man as a living spirit.”
Macron called for a “dialogue of truth” between Church and State on two of France’s hottest issues: migrants and bioethics.
Macron acknowledged the Church’s contribution to the best of French heritage, mentioning the builders of cathedrals and the heroism of Joan of Arc. He spoke of recent times as well, mentioning the pioneers of French trade unionism, the fathers of the European project, and the dignified deaths of recent martyrs Fr. Jacques Hamel and Col. Arnaud Beltrame.
Is it even imaginable that Trudeau might ever touch on such themes? In the Canadian context it would not be about the Republic and the Catholic Church, but necessarily include a wider context. As our materials for the CRFI put it, quoting Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, “Faith is the golden thread which binds all of us together.”
Macron has not signaled that he would actually change any of his policies that conflict with the public positions of the Catholic Church in France. Perhaps it was just a speech, a rhetorical gambit.
But rhetoric is rarely just rhetoric in public life. It shapes what arguments can be made and what arguments are actually heard. Macron’s respect for the role of faithful citizens stands in stark contrast to that of Trudeau, as I have had occasion to argue recently more than I would like.
I don’t think that France has a national prayer breakfast. But perhaps President Macron might entertain an invitation to address Ottawa’s next year.
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