Francois Hollande never took up the traditional honour. But his successor has surprisingly strong Catholic sympathies
President Emmanuel Macron’s papal audience, which touched on several current issues, was primarily significant for the religious symbolism of the day. The Vatican said the “private” discussion covered “protection of the environment, migration, and multilateral commitment to conflict prevention and resolution, especially in relation to disarmament,” as well as prospects for resolving conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and the future of Europe. Macron said they had also touched on abortion rights and same-sex marriage, and “the place of Catholicism” in France.
The symbolism of the day was one of relationship, and there was a great deal of it. The pope presented Macron with a bronze medal of Saint Martin, a fourth-century symbol of generosity, saying it is the “vocation of those in government to protect the poorest. We are all poor.” Macron presented the pope with a copy of The Diary of a Country Priest, by Georges Bernanos, the 1936 novel of a young French priest who learns humility tending to the faithful. “I’ve already read it. Many times” the pope said, “it did me well to read it.” In parting, the two exchanged a two-cheek kiss.
The American media highlighted that Macron met the Pope for longer than President Obama, and for twice as long as President Trump, but Macron noted “we didn’t look at our watches, which may explain why it lasted so long, that’s what it’s like when you have an intense discussion.” This led to the lateness of the main symbolic act of the day. The Papal Archbasilica of St John Lateran, cathedral church of the Diocese of Rome and the official ecclesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, installed Macron as ex officio the “first and only honorary canon” of the basilica.
The title is offered to every President of the French Republic and predates the modern presidency, originally going back to 1482 and King Louis XI. The tradition was renewed in 1604 when King Henry IV, having renounced Protestantism, donated the Benedictine Abbey in Clairac along with its income to the basilica. The title was created as a token of gratitude. Each December 13, Henry IV’s birthday, the honour is marked by a Mass celebrated at the basilica for the “happiness and prosperity of France.” The honorary title gave the French president the right to give the apostolic nuncio in Paris his biretta when he is made a cardinal, though this tradition was discontinued when the Pope began conferring the honour himself.
French Heads of State generally visit the Holy See shortly after taking office, to take possession of their stall as first and only honorary canon. However, not all presidents have acknowledged the title. Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande first visited the Holy See on 24 January 2014 and was received by the Pope during a private audience in August 2016, but in neither visit did he officially accept the title. Relations between the Vatican and Hollande, a self-described atheist, remained somewhat fraught throughout his tenure. Georges Pompidou and François Mitterrand also declined. Those who travelled to Rome to accept the honour include Charles de Gaulle, receiving it in 1967, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1978, Jacques Chirac in 1996 and Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.
The symbolism of Macron’s acceptance is that it builds on his notable April speech at the Collège des Bernadins in Paris, which was significant in its tenor of rapprochement in state and church relations. In the speech, Macron set out his view: “As Head of State, I am the guarantor of the freedom to believe and not believe, but I am neither the inventor nor the promoter of a State religion which substitutes divine transcendence with a Republican creed.” He also said that for biographical, personal and intellectual reasons he was “getting a higher idea of Catholics,” and encouraged dialogue and cooperation. He talked of sharing, explaining the state and the church relationship has been “strewn with mutual misunderstandings and mistrust.”
Though raised in a non-religious family, Macron was baptised a Catholic at his own request when he was 12, and was partly educated by Jesuits. His thought is highly influenced by theologian-philosopher Paul Ricoeur, and he clearly has an interest in theology as an intellectual discipline. Along with referencing Ricoeur, he quoted Jean-Luc Marion: “Should a Church that is triumphant among mankind not be concerned about having compromised its election by compromising with the world?” In other words, in social media parlance, the relationship is “complicated.”
Richard Nixon’s biographer Jonathan Aitken once joked to me that Nixon had a complicated relationship with everyone, including God. Macron also seems, for different reasons, to have a complicated relationship with everyone – his wife, his electorate and his Church. Perhaps now is a good time for a French president to be complicated, the title being once again embraced by a French president is a sign of more good to come. The French state can stay secular, but that doesn’t mean its citizens and president have to jettison the faith. Macron won popular support because he offers a new way forward for France, and Church and state relations are part of this hope.
As Macron reminded his Collège des Bernadins audience, “France has indeed been strengthened by the commitment of Catholics,” and they have an important role to play in fulfilling the hopes that brought him to power. Yesterday’s humble ceremony was one of respect, but not too much pomp or ceremony. Macron briefly took his seat of honour in the basilica’s elaborately carved wooden choir stall to the applause of those in attendance, including members of the local French expatriate community. It is a good time for the president to go to Rome and symbolically accept the title of honorary canon. Perhaps prayers for the “happiness and prosperity of France” will be answered.