In April, Emmanuel Macron told a gathering of French bishops that he wants to repair the links between the Church and the State, a sensitive topic in France, where religion in politics has been banned for more than a century.
Despite the ban, the Church is free to express itself on public issues, and many French Catholics involved in public life see the papal visit in light of Macron’s wishes for better ties.
“In this context, the meeting with the Pope was also a warm meeting,” says Matthieu Rougé, incoming bishop of the city of Nanterre west of Paris.
“Everyone saw that the relation between the Pope and the President was very pleasant and cordial, so it’s a good signal. But what’s important is not only the images, but also what has been said and how it will change acts and realities.”
Relations went sour under Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande, whose Socialist government legalised same-sex marriage in 2013.
Catholics disapproved of the law, but also of what they saw as a hostile attitude from Hollande’s administration.
“If you want to repair the links, it means the church, especially the Catholic Church, is allowed to speak and say many things in the political area, not only in the church or sacristy,” says Samuel Pruvot, editor of weekly magazine Famille Chretienne (Christian Family).
“All Catholics are different, so there is not one point of view, but most of them understand that Emmanuel Macron is not like Francois Hollande.”
The way Macron’s pledge plays out will be tested at home on debates over social issues and abroad over the handling of migration to the European Union.
“It’s legitimate that the French state wants to regulate migration, but we have to be faithful to humanity and respect and also generosity to populations obliged to leave their countries. We are also in a time of preparations of a new law on bioethics, and
“We think as Catholics in France that it is important that debate is real, that there is not an agenda, some sort of liberal programme on all sorts of topics,” says Matthieu Rougé.
“We have the desire that the state understands what is to be respected in human dignity.”
Macron did not take the opportunity on his Vatican visit to meet any Italian officials, though the two countries’ mutual criticisms on the topic of undocumented migration are expected to come up in this week’s summit of EU leaders.
In the background of those issues, Pope Frances urged nations last week to welcome all the refugees they can properly integrate into society.