Politics, and the threat of the far right taking power, has been a serious anxiety in recent months in many countries, not least in France. Recently, the French bishops produced an important document  helping Catholics to reflect on their political responsibilities.
A few weeks back, the Jesuit theology centre in Paris, the Centre Sèvres , held an interesting discussion on the issues. The main speaker was Philippe Portie r, a professor at the Sorbonne, a noted commentator on Catholic affairs, and an expert on the history of French secularism.
Professor Portier began by taking us back to Leo XIII and Pius XI, the first popes to show a real interest in modern political life. But it took Vatican II for the official Church to move beyond a paternalistic stance, telling everyone what to do, and to become more dialogical. Now we take this for granted. Inside the Church, Catholics follow their own best sense of what to do in choosing whom they support. And in the public forum, Catholics no longer think it their role to impose divine law on civil society. Rather, Catholics are quite happy to seek the common good by taking their part in the different kinds of reflection going on in society at large.
The temptation for some Catholics is to think this means we have sold out to relativism. Professor Portier helped us to look at the matter differently. What has happened is that we have become aware of our own consciences, our subjective powers of choice. And that new awareness involves also recognising that others, too, have these gifts. To become aware of the personal is also to become aware of the interpersonal: of the fact that we live together, in society. All this leads to different ways of thinking about religion and politics, beyond the tired contrasts between theocracy and militant secularism.
Moreover, religion can enrich political discussions. Jürgen Habermas once wrote of how religion can bring into public discussion an awareness of those who are left out. This is an important contribution to political discussion, particularly when it comes to questions of value and meaning.
It was in this light that Professor Portier was encouraging us to read what the French bishops were saying. Of course the French Constitution, with its strict marginalization of religious authority, must be respected. But that point of political principle is in no way undermined if we nevertheless insist on two important matters of prudent political policy. Firstly, there must, in a pluralist society, be ways in which the citizens can always be in dialogue so as not to be shut up in subcultures of the like-minded. Secondly, we need to be very careful about those who get left behind in the move towards globalization—otherwise there is a danger that our society will simply fall apart. The bishops are seriously worried on these scores. The main thing they are suggesting is that we need to make new efforts to keep good lines of communication open. This might sound rather high-minded and woolly, as if we have abandoned any overall vision of human society and of what gives life meaning. It will certainly annoy Catholics who have a nostalgia for the good old days of clear Catholic teaching and the boundaries it set. But it is not, Professor Portier stressed, that the bishops are abandoning a Catholic social vision. They remain committed to a vision of society resting on the common good. But the most obvious step now towards bringing that about involves working harder, and in new ways, at establishing good communication between all concerned.