It is not in the dictionaries, even French ones (yet …). But if we can get away, in our language, with “lèse-majesté”, accents and all – without even italics because it has become an English expression – why not a neologism (I don’t mean to boast …) about His Holiness, Sa Sainteté.
France, formerly the Eldest Daughter of the Church, has long been furiously, ferociously anti-clerical. A century after 1789, on March 29, 1880, Jules Ferry, Minister of Public Instruction, expelled the teaching religious, monks and nuns, from the country. And during the century which followed, the Church was frequently the subject of attack and ridicule. Today all is more or less quiet on the anti-clerical Front, but in the years between the Wars, priest-baiting and anti-religious jokes were common. The clergy in their clerical cassocks, still worn in public at the time, bore the brunt of jibes about their wearing women’s dresses. Catholic schools were a thorn in the side of the Republic, dedicated to its secular, God-forsaken public schools, and cheap jokes were common in the press and in every village’s Café de Commerce. A popular one went like this : “What is the difference between Sunday Mass, the toilet and cemeteries ?” The answer was : “None : you have to go to all of them.”
Such tasteless broadsides would no longer raise a smile, especially as only 12% of nominal French Catholics go to Mass, and this as little as once a month; so much for the “Sunday obligation”. The Church today is often the subject of severe criticism for its stances on issues like abortion, stem-cell research and homosexual marriages, although “artificial contraception” is now commonly practised by Catholics and even approved by some Bishops as the only viable safeguard against Aids.
But the Pope is as popular as his predecessor, John Paul 2, who will be canonized on April 27, 2014, by Frank 1. He is increasingly respected even outside the Church for his sincere efforts to bring the papacy down to earth, to rid it of pomposity and the trappings of the luxurious life-style of a Sovereign rather than that of the Pontiff, the bridge-builder, the Pope is supposed to be. Pope Francis has recently been photographed horsing around with a clown’s red nose in the middle of his papal face. (Can you imagine Pius XII in clown makeup and costume ? “Ridi, pagliaccio !”). Francis is breaking new ground, and the Church will be the better for it.
Unfortunately we are witnessing changes only in style, not in substance. No one expects radical self-questioning about Catholic dogma. Lèse-Sainteté is no longer fashionable. The Pope has become persona grata, but religion remains as ridiculous as it has always been.