When many think about France and religion today, the images that usually come to mind are those of a highly secular society with a growing Islamic presence: a combination of widespread indifferentism, epicurean Voltairans, persistent anti-Semitism, increasingly radicalized Muslims, and now jihadist-inspired and organized terrorism. But now even some secular French journalists have started writing about a phenomenon that’s become difficult to ignore: an increasingly self-confident Catholicism that combines what might be called a dynamic orthodoxy with a determination to shape French society in ways that contest the status quo—both inside and outside the Church.
On October 30, readers of France’s main center-right newspaper, Le Figaro, woke up to the headline “La révolution silencieuse des catholiques de France.” What followed was a description of how those whom Le Figaro calls France’s néocatholiques have come to the forefront of the nation’s political, cultural, and economic debates. Significantly, the new Catholics’ idea of dialogue isn’t about listening to secular intellectuals and responding by nodding sagely and not saying anything that might offend others. Instead, younger observant Catholics have moved beyond—way, way beyond—what was called the “Catholicism of openness” that dominated post-Vatican II French Catholic life. While the néocatholiques are happy to listen, they also want to debate and even critique reigning secular orthodoxies. For them, discussion isn’t a one-way street. This is a generation of French Catholics who are, as Le Figaro put it, “afraid of nothing.”
A visible—and challenging—presence
Perhaps the most evident sign of this sea-change in French Catholicism is what’s called La Manif pour tous. This movement of hundreds of thousands of French citizens emerged in 2012 to contest changes to France’s marriage laws. La Manif’s membership traverses France’s deep left-right fracture. It also includes secular-minded people, many Jews, some Muslims, and even a good number of self-described gays. Yet La Manif’s base and leadership primarily consist of lay Catholics. Though the French legislature passed la loi Taubira legalizing same-sex marriage in 2013, the Socialist government has subsequently trod somewhat more carefully in the realm of social policy. After all, when a movement can put a million-plus people on the streets to protest on a regular basis, French politicians have historical reasons to get nervous.
Since 2012, La Manif has continued shaping public debate. This ranges from challenging attempts to impose gender theory through the educational system to disputing proposed changes to adoption and IVF laws. In doing so, it has been visibly supported by many bishops and even-more-visibly by many more young priests. Some of the latter are heavily active on Twitter and widely-read social media such as Padreblog. In certain cases, some names of the rising generation of French clergy—such as Abbé Pierre-Hervé Grosjean, Abbé Pierre Amar, Abbé Guillaume Seguin, and Abbé Antoine Roland-Gosselin—are better known than many French bishops.
This virtual presence has been matched by the increasingly regular appearance of Catholic commentators in the secular media. Whether young or old, people like Rémi Brague, Madeleine de Jessey, Pierre Manent, Ludovine de La Rochère, Jean-Luc Marion, Fabrice Hadjajd, and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry are perfectly at ease talking in very secular settings about topics ranging from metaphysics to economics. But they are equally skilled at bringing the insights of Catholic orthodoxy to bear in fresh and powerful ways. Certainly, la bien-pensance (political correctness) continues to suffocate French cultural life. That culture also remains dominated by a left that tends to label its critics as “un reactionaire” or anything to which the word “phobic” can serve as a suffix. The point, however, is that Catholics in the public eye are increasingly unintimidated by this. That’s a mindset which French secular thinkers are simply unused to encountering.
The accomodationist failure
All this makes a remarkable change from the situation of French Catholicism following Vatican II. Leaving aside the fact that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s followers were and remain strong in France, there was a turn to the left among some French Catholics, especially clergy. This resulted, for instance, in an emphasis upon Catholic-Marxist dialogue and weakened resistance to changes in France’s abortion laws. Such trends were matched by some of the worst progressivist experimentation within the universal Church, whether in terms of liturgy, pastoral practice, or how one approached the modern world. Many men left the active priesthood, while others, including the Jesuit editor of the prominent journal Études, exited the Church altogether.
These developments didn’t go uncontested. They were vigorously disputed by some of Vatican II’s most influential French theologians—most notably, Cardinal Jean Daniélou, SJ, Cardinal Henri de Lubac, SJ, and Louis Bouyer—and a stable of authors who coalesced around the French language edition of Communio. For defending Vatican II’s actual (rather than imaginary) teachings, some paid a considerable price. It’s no secret that de Lubac and Daniélou, for example, were essentially marginalized by many members of their own order.
By the late 1970s, things had degenerated to the point whereby the well-known Jesuit philosopher Gaston Fessard, who had been prominent in the French Resistance and written influential texts in the 1940s warning France against Nazism, Communism, and anti-Semitism, decided to speak out. In a posthumously-published book entitled Église de France, prends garde de perdre la foi! (1979), Fessard politely but systematically demolished social statements issued by the French episcopate in the 1970s. These documents, he illustrated, reflected considerable naïveté about the French left’s ideological program and wider tendencies to distort the faith into socialist, even Marxist ideology. The book’s effect, and the fact that it had been written by someone of Fessard’s stature, was to highlight just how much French Catholicism had collapsed in the direction of acquiescence in the zeitgeist.
It was into this atmosphere of “low-energy Catholicism” that a man whose nickname was le bulldozer was appointed first bishop of Orléans and then archbishop of Paris in 1981. Called by one biographer le cardinal prophète, the late Jean-Marie Lustiger was anything but typical. The son of two secular Jews—one of whom was murdered in Auschwitz—Lustiger converted to Catholicism as a teenager during World War II and entered the seminary after the war. As chaplain at the Sorbonne’s Centre Richelieu and then parish priest at a suburban Paris church, Lustiger led particularly dynamic ministries that attracted the attention of people in the bishop-making business. These included Saint John Paul II. He would have noted Lustiger’s ancestral roots in Polish Judaism. More generally, John Paul was looking for men who could shift French Catholicism out of the accomodationist rut into which he believed it had fallen—a point the Pope made clear during his first visit to France in 1980 when he pointedly asked: “France, Fille aînée de l’Eglise, es-tu fidèle aux promesses de ton baptême?” (France, eldest daughter of the Church, are you faithful to the promises of your baptism?).
Upon becoming archbishop, Lustiger didn’t stop upending things in Paris. Whether it was opening his own seminary and new schools, starting Catholic radio and television stations, or creating venues and opportunities for himself and other Catholics to engage and argue with secular thinkers, Cardinal Lustiger presented a different way for Catholics to interact with French society. A critic of progressivism and Lefebvrism (which he saw as two sides of the same problem), Lustiger’s agenda was that of John Paul II and Benedict XVI: one that recognized there was no going-back to a pre-Vatican II, non-existent golden age, but that was also clear-eyed about just how dysfunctional much of modernity was turning out to be.
Perhaps most importantly, Lustiger attracted many vocations. Often called La génération Lustiger, many of these priests have assumed leadership in significant dioceses and subsequently adopted a distinctly Lustigerian-style. This breaks decisively with the diffident, ever-so-anxious-not-to-give-offense mentality that once prevailed among the French episcopate, which gave the impression of having read too much Karl Rahner in the 1970s and not much else since.
On one level, the Lustigerian approach involves an ability to match—and outdo—the secular academy in terms of credentials and sheer power of argument. Alongside being unafraid to let faithful lay Catholics take the initiative, it’s also unconcerned about bypassing the type of church bureaucracies that have helped suck the life out of, for instance, the wealthy but empty shell that constitutes most of contemporary German Catholicism.
Unsurprisingly, Lustiger’s strategies didn’t make him them popular with some of his brother-bishops, especially those anxious not to make waves or who imagined that conforming to secular expectations would somehow bring people back to life in Christ. Yet it’s hard to deny the Lustigerian alternative’s results: more vocations, active parishes, dynamic lay communities, and above all, Catholicism’s visible witness in a republic that takes pride (sometimes obsessively) in its secularity. In those dioceses where Lustiger’s model prevails, no-one can mistake the Church as just another NGO or as resembling the moribund state of Swiss, German, and Belgian Catholicism.
New bishops, new laity, new life
So who are the post-Lustiger bishops shaking up French Catholicism? First, there is Cardinal André Vingt-Trois of Paris. Viewed as Lustiger’s spiritual son, he is carrying out his predecessor’s program, certainly in a less bulldozer-esque manner, but in ways that continue to make the Archdiocese of Paris an active presence in the capital. The Latin tag fortiter in re, suaviter in modo (“resolute in action, gentle in manner”) aptly describes Vingt-Trois’s pastoral style.
More bulldozer-like is Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyons. He has the distinction of being not only a Sorbonne graduate, but also a marathon-runner who spent several years as a missionary in Madagascar. Whether it’s his homilies, regular television appearances, or Middle East trips to highlight Christian persecution, Barbarin is a veritable force of nature. Another of the new breed of bishops is Bishop Dominque Rey of Fréjus-Toulon. Possessing a doctorate in economics, Rey worked in France’s finance ministry—where France’s most talented civil servants are traditionally sent to begin their careers—before entering the seminary. Not only has Rey attracted plenty of vocations. Numerous lay movements also flourish in his diocese. Similarly, the summer university associated with the Observatoire sociopolitique de Fréjus-Toulon, a think-tank created by Rey in 2005, has become the must-go place for many French students.
Yet another bishop to watch is Olivier de Germay of Ajacco. A graduate of Saint-Cyr (France’s West Point) who served as an army officer in France’s elite paratroop regiments and did tours in Chad, Central Africa, and Iraq, Bishop de Germay has taken the lead in warning France’s politicians against the dangers involved in social engineering. Also worth highlighting is Bishop Éric de Beaufort-Moulin, an auxiliary in Paris with higher degrees in political science and economics. He has a formidable reputation as an educator and is the author of an excellent book on de Lubac’s thought.
Often is the public eye is Bishop Marc Aillet of Bayonne. He comes from a background in classics, studied medicine for a while, and has since emerged as a prominent moral theologian and liturgist. Equally prominent is France’s military bishop, Luc Revel. A graduate of the elite École polytechnique, Revel has injected a degree of moral seriousness into French discussion of topics like war and Islamic terrorism which contrasts with the wishful-thinking and crypto-pacifism that often characterizes Western European Catholic contributions to this subject.
Many bishops conferences would, I suspect, kill to have men of such talent and backgrounds among their number. By no means aggressive, they represent a type of bishop who is, as is often said in France, décomplexé. Broadly-speaking, this means they aren’t overawed by secular France (not least because they know it and its problems inside-out) and have moved past the post-Vatican II generation’s preoccupations. Free of the disease of clericalism, they happily empower lay people to spread the Gospel. Above all, these bishops are intensely focused on the Church’s central business: i.e., evangelizing and finding creative ways of doing so. It’s a model replicated by many young French priests. Not surprisingly, their parishes and ministries are the ones attracting people, converts, and vocations.
Then, of course, there are the movements. A standard joke among observant French Catholics is that while many of them are only loosely associated with parishes, everyone belongs to a movement. Groups such as the Communauté de l’Emmanuel, Communauté du Chemin Neuf, Foyers de Charité, La Famille St-Jean, and Communauté Saint-Martin originated and have flourished in the francophone world. Often with charismatic Catholic roots, the movements have produced many vocations to the priesthood and religious life. They also enable thousands of lay people to live “high-intensity Catholicism” in—rather than apart from—the world. Again, the contrast with the depressing state of affairs in Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium is remarkable.
A long way to go
Of course, this needs to be put into perspective. Consider the numbers: about 56 percent of France’s total population has been baptized Catholic. Weekly Mass-going Catholics are about 6 percent of the overall population; another 15 percent of France is considered occasional-practicing Catholics. Together, these two groups amount to 13 million out of 66 million French citizens. All these figures represent steep declines from even 30 years ago.
Many rural French churches are increasingly devoid of parishioners, a trend that began with the population’s steady exodus into urban areas after World War I. And while it’s true that, as one observer of French Catholicism writes, “we have witnessed the disappearance of Christians of the left” since the 1980s, many older clergy cling to accomodationist mindsets. France also has its share of theologians apparently anxious to empty the Catholic faith of any moral content beyond non-judgmentalism (except, of course, on environmental and economic issues). Like everywhere else in the West, those religious orders that opted for social and political activism are facing extinction.
In short, a considerable amount of what two sociologists have called “catholicisme zombie” exists in today’s France. On the other side of the ledger, there is the genuine risk that the néocatholiques could become preoccupied with politics. That’s a perennial temptation, and rarely ends well for the Church.
Nonetheless, as the Le Figaro journalists noted, the momentum in French Catholicism is with the néocatholiques, not least because of the alternative’s manifest failures. In many circles, it’s now très chic to be one of les cathos. If you attend Sunday Mass in Paris, for example, it’s hard not to notice the growth in numbers attending middle-class and working-class parishes, but also, as Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry points out, just how many Mass-goers are married couples with young children. Likewise, many at the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII in 2014 were, as Michael Matheson Miller reported, struck by the sheer number of French participants, waving flags and singing enthusiastically.
In recent years, we’re heard much about the Church as a field-hospital. It’s true that the French Church finds itself providing much help to the many people damaged by the culture of cynicism, economic statism, self-loathing, and hedonism bequeathed by France’s May 1968 generation. The new Catholics, however, also recognize that no-one is supposed to remain perpetually in a field-hospital. Nor are they interested in affirming mediocrity. Instead they have chosen to live out what Benedict XVI suggested would be Western European Catholics’ role for the foreseeable future: a creative minority—one that imaginatively engages culture from an orthodox Catholic standpoint in order to draw society closer to the truth, instead of meekly relegating Catholics to the role of bit-players in various secular-progressive agendas.
France, Charles de Gaulle once wrote, is a secular republic with a Catholic heart. That Catholic soul has a long, long way to go before it’s even close to being fully-beating. Nor can the obstacles associated with a society marked by an especially inward-looking secular-progressivism and bewildered by nihilistic-Islamist atrocities be underestimated. Thanks, however, to the new Catholics, the Church’s eldest daughter may well be off the operating table. And the only way to go from there is up.
Revolutions have started on much less.