Despite a decline in the number of individuals attending Mass, Catholicism in France is becoming more self-confident and, surprisingly, more orthodox. Writing for the Catholic World Report, Samuel Gregg discusses the Catholic Church in France. He says that France’s néocatholiques are leading change in the European nation:
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 is all in sharp contrast to 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.
Gregg points out that despite this positive news, there’s still a ways 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.