Church-State Relations Warming in France

Meeting of Episcopal and Governmental Officials

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PARIS, FEB. 12, 2002 ( Top government and Catholic ecclesial officials have agreed to yearly meetings, a promising sign of a thaw in church-state relations.

That was the outcome of a meeting that concluded today between Church officials and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and his aides.

Members of the episcopate were accompanied by the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Fortunato Baldelli, when they met government officials including Interior Minister Daniel Vaillant.

At the meeting, officials decided to create working groups to analyze «problems of an administrative and juridical order that arise in the relations between the Catholic Church and the state in France,» a statement said.

Among other problems, both sides mentioned Catholic education, chaplaincies, the use of churches and cathedrals for cultural and other ends, the application of the labor law to lay collaborators of the Church, and certain fiscal issues.

Church leaders also mentioned respect for bishops´ and priests´ professional secrecy, challenged by some laws and a recent judicial sentence.

The new series of meetings between bishops and the government will be held within the framework of the 1905 law of church-state separation, and the agreements in force since 1923 on church-state relations.

Present at today´s meeting were Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris; and Archbishop Jean-Pierre Ricard and Bishop Georges Pontier, the president and vice president, respectively, of the French episcopal conference.

The government and the bishops clarified that the upcoming presidential electoral campaign has nothing to do with the improvement in church-state relations.

In fact, the meetings are encouraged both by Jospin (possible center-left candidate), as well as President Jacques Chirac (official center-right candidate). The first round of voting is April 21, the second May 5.

The government has held meetings with Muslim leaders to help organize their structure in the country. It also has had an annual dinner with the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France.

«Paradoxically, there was no coordination structure with the Catholic Church, the oldest and most numerous,» sources close to Jospin told Agence France-Presse. In recent years, «there was an impression that the Catholic Church was not being heard,» the same sources said.

Friction between the Church and the center-left government had risen over issues such as legal recognition of de facto unions, the extension of the legal period for abortions, and proposals to allow experimentation with human embryos.

The Jospin government played a key role in having an allusion to the «religious legacy» of Europe taken out of the first draft of the European Union´s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

But today the Prime Minister´s aides sounded a different note. «The whole world agrees in recognizing that the Church cannot be relegated to the private sphere, as it also intervenes in the social realm,» they emphasized.

Following the stormy start of the 20th century, and misunderstandings in the postwar era, today the atmosphere between the Church and state is one of restoration of «confidence,» Cardinal Lustiger said in statements to Agence France-Presse.

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