PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the importance of a Catholic voice in the country’s political debates, particularly on bioethical issues, in an address to the French bishops April 9.

“What I want to call you tonight is to engage politically in our national debate and in our European debate because your faith is part of the commitment that this debate needs,” Macron told French bishops in a rare public meeting between Church and government leaders in France.

While France was once referred to as the “eldest daughter of the Church,” the country’s legal secularism has required strict neutrality of the state in religious matters since 1905.

Emmanuel Macron, a baptized Catholic, was elected president of France in May 2017. Upon his election, Pope Francis sent Macron a telegram urging him to strengthen France’s Christian roots and “respect for life.” Macron is the youngest president to ever be elected in France.

In his speech Monday, however, Macron spoke of the important philosophical need for the Church’s voice.

“What strikes our country ... is not only the economic crisis, it is relativism; it is even nihilism,” said Macron.

“Our contemporaries need, whether they believe or do not believe, to hear from another perspective on man than the material perspective,” he continued, “They need to quench another thirst, which is a thirst for absolute. It is not a question here of conversion, but of a voice which, with others, still dares to speak of man as a living spirit.”

Father Joseph Koczera, an American priest based in Paris, told CNA that in some ways, Macron’s speech “was quite remarkable.”

“This is a clear challenge to a particular style of French secularism that suggests that, [since] the state must remain neutral, perspectives informed by religion should not be invoked in political debates,” Koczera said.

Macron stressed that “Secularism does not have the function of uprooting from our societies the spirituality that nourishes so many of our fellow citizens.”

“To deliberately blind myself to the spiritual dimension that Catholics invest in their moral, intellectual, family, professional, social life would be to condemn me to having only a partial view of France; it would be to ignore the country, its history, its citizens; and affecting indifference, I would derogate from my mission,” he said.

Macron’s speech comes as bioethical debates continue in France, with parliament preparing to reform its bioethics laws.

“The new law will probably try to authorize two main things, against which most of French Catholics are fighting: euthanasia and IVF for single women and lesbian couples,” Guillaume de Thieulloy, editor of the French Catholic blog Le Salon Beige, told CNA.

Thieulloy pointed out that Macron has not spoken publicly about his views on euthanasia, but he supported the expanding of France’s in vitro fertilization law — which currently limit IVF to infertile heterosexual couples — during his 2017 presidential campaign.

In his speech, Macron praised the Church’s contribution to society, particularly its service to “the sick, the isolated, the decommissioned vulnerable, abandoned, disabled, prisoners, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.”

The French president also remarked on Catholic leaders’ coherence in seeing the human dimension of both bioethical and migrant issues.

“You consider that our duty is to protect life, especially when this life is defenseless. Between the life of the unborn child, that of being on the threshold of death, or that of the refugee who has lost everything, you see this common trait of deprivation, nakedness and absolute vulnerability,” said Macron. “I believe in a political commitment that serves the dignity of man,” he said.

“The link between Church and State has deteriorated, and that it is important for us and for me to repair it,” he told French Catholic leadership.

Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, president of the French bishops conference, offered remarks to Macron in a separate speech. He highlighted euthanasia in his comments, quoting a long passage from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

“A particularly crucial battleground in today's cultural struggle between the supremacy of technology and human moral responsibility is the field of bioethics, where the very possibility of integral human development is radically called into question. … Faced with these dramatic questions, reason and faith can come to each other's assistance. Only together will they save man. Entranced by an exclusive reliance on technology, reason without faith is doomed to flounder in an illusion of its own omnipotence.”

The archbishop questioned the president, “Can one describe as ‘care’ the act of giving death?” and emphasized that “society must offer opportunities for life, friendship, tenderness, compassion, solidarity.”

Only time will tell the effects of Macron’s speech, Father Koczera told CNA.

“The relationship between the Catholic Church and the French state is a very complex one,” he explained.

“Though many French Catholics have welcomed the President’s words, it remains to be seen what practical effect the speech will have. Particularly since last year’s presidential election, when many politically-engaged Catholics supported the unsuccessful campaign of François Fillon, the role of Catholics in public debates has seemed uncertain,” Koczera explained.

“On a practical level, it also makes a difference that a majority of French citizens are still baptized Catholics — even though the number who practice their faith is much smaller, the Church still plays a role in what some call the roman national, the historical narrative that provides a cohesive sense of national identity.”