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Pink Fish, the Pope, and laïcité

Beyond the miserable spectacle of partisan bickering, there is a sober side to Parliamentary affairs, which, mostly unnoticed, last week has continued to work on much more useful matters. One such matter concerns the proposed changes in the Civil Code vis-à-vis the vilification of religion.

Elsewhere in the Maltese media, I have already written about this issue last September. There I argued that while the State cannot moralise, a liberal democracy based on pluralism must cultivate a robust and open ground on which society protects individual liberty through social responsibility, and the equity of rights and opportunity through mutual respect and social justice. 

Here I’d like to make a related point. This is prompted by something that Pope Francis said in a meeting he had last March with a group of Catholics affiliated to the French Socialist Party. This group calls itself Les Poissons Roses (yes … Pink Fishes!). In their Manifesto they state that their core belief is in “the citizens’ ability to create the conditions of their happiness”. To achieve this they aim at a society that is connected through solidarity. “Confident that we share with others this faith in mankind,” they say, “we want to contribute to debates in the Socialist Party to put the person back at the heart of political debates and action.”

Though it did not make the headlines, what the Pope had to say to his socialist guests could sound controversial to those who regard secularism as inherently opposed to Church teaching. Francis told them that France must become more secular by embracing a “healthy secularism.” The Pope’s exact words cited by l’Avvenire were: “una laicità sana.”

A secular state is not an atheist one.A secular state is not an atheist one.

As someone who considers the secular State as the only guarantee for freedom of expression, speech and creed, I find the idea of a Pope discussing laïcité (or laicità) as short of a blessing from Heaven.

Is Pope Francis advocating laïcité? In many ways I would say he is. However the Pope’s approach is specific in that he states that a “healthy laïcité is open to all forms of transcendence, according to all the different religious and philosophical traditions.” As he has done before, the Pope also recognizes an atheist’s sense of interiority, which I would read as a spiritual approach to the world (intending spirit to emerge from the human ability to be free and intelligent). But more crucially, Francis makes a historical argument: “A criticism I have towards France is that its laïcité is too reliant on the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which regarded religions as a sub-culture [sub-cultura]. France hasn’t yet managed to supersede this heritage.”

The notion of a healthy secularism portioned out to France, which, since 1789, has seen itself as the mother of all secular states, is far from just a subject reserved to political nerds like me

The notion of a healthy secularism portioned out to France, which, since 1789, has seen itself as the mother of all secular states, is far from just a subject reserved to political nerds like me. Rather, it has a lot to do with all of us, particularly in the light of those theocratic ideologies favoured by terror groups like Daesh, who directly threaten liberal democracy and its laic foundations.

“Your laïcité is incomplete,” Francis tells his guests. “France must become a country that is more laic.” Rather than a form of “civil religion,” a healthy laïcité is inclusive as it gives a place to the spiritual sense by which many express their existential convictions.

The Pope couldn't put it better. Unlike those who seem to think that a secular state is an atheist state, a laic State is neither established on an ideology nor does it follow a religion. The Soviet Union was not a secular state. It was as confessional as is today’s Iran or yesteryear’s Medieval Europe.

In their Manifesto, Les Poissons Roses offer an approach that encapsulate the objectives of a laic state: “The founding intuition of our movement comes from this experience: we become truly human only in connection with other people, by acknowledging that we are responsible for each other. As Martin Buber’s expression goes, «At the beginning was relationship».”

Having lived in secular states like Britain and the United States, I can relate to Buber’s notion of relationship. When the Law and Constitution profess a clear distinction between Church and State, creeds, ideas and lifestyles tend to exist in relationship with and not apart from each other.

Pope Francis hits the nail on the head by his notion of an inclusive laïcité. The core of laïcité is not the rejection of creeds or ideas, but the provision of a political space where religions, ideologies and lifestyles coexist on one unmovable pretext: that they work in relationship with each other without obstructing each other. The State is not there to privilege one over the other, but to make sure that everyone is valued equally.

While agreeing with the French Socialist Party on the importance of the Market, Les Poissons Roses flatly reject a system “which establishes a systematic ascendancy of economic interests on human interests by making profitability and performance the essential criteria for any decision, which reduces the value of people to market value.”

To me, laïcité is a political space of diversity and togetherness. We need more of it because without it there will be no place for relationships, and even less room for democracy.  

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