Laïcité in Rome

S. Nicolas des Lorrains

This week, CLR Forum is in Rome, where we’re co-hosting our third international conference, “International Religious Freedom and the Global Clash of Values,” on June 20-21. For people interested in law and religion, Rome is an endlessly fascinating place. On practically every corner, you stumble upon evidence of the long relationship–sometimes cooperative, sometimes antagonistic–between church and state.

Here’s an example. The photo above shows the façade of the Church of San Nicola dei Lorensi, behind Piazza Navona. San Nicola one of a handful of historic French “national” churches in Rome–churches that historically have served as homes for pilgrims from France. The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, on the other side of the piazza–the one with the famous Caravaggios–is a more well-known example. As the name suggests, San Nicola was the church for pilgrims from the region of Lorraine. It was built in the 17th Century, but must have fallen into grave disrepair over the centuries, because it was completely restored in the last decade.

Note the placard above the doorway in the photograph: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” This, of course, is the motto of the French Republic–the laïc French Republic. The motto is meant to capture the secular nature of the Republic and the separation of church and state. It’s not an insult, necessarily, but it definitely connotes a rejection of the Catholicism of the old regime. So what is the motto doing over the doorway of an old Catholic church in the heart of Rome?

The answer is, as far as I can tell, is this. San Nicola is owned by a French governmental organization called “Les Pieux Etablissements de la France à Rome et à Lorette,” administered by the French ambassador to the Holy See. According to its website (in French), the organization exists to maintain the historic French national churches, welcome French-speaking pilgrims, and organize cultural events that promote France in Rome.

This isn’t as strange as it may first appear. As readers of our 2010 symposium on laïcité know, the French government owns many church buildings in France, all that existed as of 1905, the date of the Law on the Separation of Churches and the State. Notwithstanding the commitment to laïcité, the 1905 law gives the French government title to church property; the government allows religious bodies to use the property at its discretion. At the time of enactment, the Third Republic required churches to affix signs with the republican motto on their doorways–to demonstrate, I imagine, that there was a new sheriff in town. Most of these signs have now disappeared, though you can still occasionally find them. I remember seeing one on the Church of Saint Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris a few years ago.

It isn’t strange, then, that the French government owns and maintains San Nicola today. According to the website of the French ambassador, San Nicola was restored in 2005 partly with funds from the Regional Council of Lorraine–that is, with public money. During the work, someone–a secularist council member? an embassy staffer?–must have decided it would be a good idea to restore the republican motto as well. So there it is today, a witness, to those who know the story, of the profoundly complicated relationship between religion and the state in France–and in Rome, too.

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