Secularism Must Not Be Confused With Laicism, Pope Cautions

Says the Former Shouldn’t Ignore Spiritual Dimension of People

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VATICAN CITY, FEB. 27, 2004 ( An erroneous conception of secularism that would violate the right to religious freedom has become one of John Paul II’s main concerns.

Debates on the recognition of the Christian roots of Europe, and the French law to prohibit religious symbols in public schools, have prompted the Pope to address the question on repeated occasions.

He did so again today when he met with French bishops of the ecclesiastical province of Besançon and the Archdiocese of Strasbourg, who were ending their five-yearly visit to Rome.

The Holy Father referred to his Jan. 12 address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See and said «a well-understood secularism must not be confused with laicism.»

On that occasion, he said that secularism is the «respect for all beliefs on the part of the state, which ensures the free exercise of worship and of spiritual, cultural and charitable activities of the communities of believers.»

Laicism, he explained, is when the state pretends to ignore this dimension, either at the personal or communal level.

Today, the Pope emphasized in his address to the French bishops that an authentic view of secularism «cannot erase personal and communal beliefs.»

«To try to remove from the social field this important [religious] dimension in the lives of persons and peoples, as well as the signs that manifest them, would go against a well-understood freedom,» he said.

«Freedom of worship cannot be conceived without the freedom to practice individually and collectively one’s religion, or without the freedom of the Church,» the Pope added. «Religion cannot be reduced only to the private sphere.»

John Paul II has addressed his concern about erroneous concepts of secularism on several occasions recently. On Feb. 24 he addressed the argument with the new ambassador of Mexico to the Holy See, and on Feb. 21 with the new envoy of Turkey.

«Every Christian or member of a religion has the right, in the measure that this does not threaten the security and legitimate authority of the state, to be respected in his convictions and practices, in the name of religious freedom, which is one of the fundamental aspects of freedom of conscience,» the Pope said in his address today.

Addressing the question of religion in the schools, the Holy Father said that «it is necessary that young people be able to understand the importance of religious life in personal existence and social life, that they know the religious traditions that they encounter, and that they be able to look upon religious symbols with benevolence and recognize the Christian roots of European cultures and history.»

«This leads to respectful recognition of the other and his beliefs, to a positive dialogue,» the Pontiff said.

He encouraged interreligious dialogue with the growing Muslim community in France.

«This dialogue,» the Pope said, «must revive in Christians the awareness of their faith and their attachment to the Church, as every form of relativism seriously damages relations between religions.»

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