How Catholic Is France?

You Might Be Surprised

The four-day papal journey to France in September came off seamlessly. Benedict XVI arrived at Orly on Friday, September 12, and was received at the Elysée by President Nicolas Sarkozy. Later, he gave a much-anticipated talk to 640 French intellectuals in the great hall of the newly inaugurated Collège des Bernardins. At the end of the full day, he preached a homily and sang vespers at Notre-Dame.

On Saturday, September 13, Benedict spoke briefly to another group of French érudits, including the members of the Institut de Sciences morales et politiques, to which he himself had been elected in 1991. He then celebrated Mass on the esplanade of the Invalides before 260,000 people. On September 14, he journeyed to Lourdes as a simple pilgrim, but on the following day, he resumed the mantle of Supreme Pontiff to deliver a no-nonsense address to the assembled French episcopacy. That evening, he returned to Rome.

In 2005, if the hundred-odd bishops of France had been entrusted with the election of a new pope, Joseph Ratzinger would not have garnered many votes (notwithstanding the enthusiastic support of the late archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, for his German “brother”). But times have changed, and today he would do significantly better; indeed, he might almost win. And if this is so, it is mostly attributable to a noteworthy external development: the unprecedented détente between church and state in France, occasioned by French President Sarkozy and his idea of “positive laïcité.”

Elected in May 2007, Sarkozy is a moderate conservative who has long believed that standard-issue French republican animus against Catholicism, dating from the Revolution, is anachronistic, and that, on the contrary, religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular not only pose no threat to the Republic but are a foundational element of French culture. As such, they deserve to play a public role in society. Last December, at St. John Lateran in Rome, Sarkozy asserted that the sacrifices of the underpaid village curé, who served his flock in an ambient atmosphere of semi-official anticlericalism, were greater than the sacrifices of the local instituteur (public school teacher), who was not only slightly better paid but also far more appreciated. Further, Sarkozy offered the general view that a citizen who has religious faith is probably “stronger” than one who does not. Such a statement would be unexceptional in the United States, but it amounts to secular heresy in post-Revolutionary France. Coming from the president of the Republic, it was seen by many (including, oddly, no small number of Catholics) as a shocking departure from—if not indeed a formal disavowal of—the classic French way of laïcité.

The original plan had been for the pope to go only to Lourdes, for the 150th anniversary of St. Bernadette’s visions. Benedict later decided to extend his trip over the Alps to make appearances in Paris, where he was formally the guest of its archbishop, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois. This change of plans was in large measure an act of gratitude to Sarkozy for those Lateran remarks. And it was in order to continue the dialogue about “positive laïcité” and perhaps increase the chances of improving the role of the church in French public life.

The pope was not disappointed. In his welcome to the Vicar of Christ at the Elysée Palace, Sarkozy stoutly stuck by his recognition of the importance of “the religious fact,” observing that “it is legitimate for a democracy and is respectful of laïcité for the dialogue to continue with the religions, and notably with the Christian religion, with which we have shared such a long history. Not to do so would be folly, would be a sin [faute] against culture and thought.” For many French Catholics, this sort of statement goes some way—albeit not as far as you might think—toward pardoning the twice-divorced Sarkozy’s questionable private life.

This attitude of détente has been greeted with a shrug or a yawn by a pluralist society in France, gifted (or afflicted) with rather less historical consciousness than it used to have, and distracted by a good deal of other current business and anxiety. But it has evoked guarded interest in political circles; for example, it predictably upset the small handful of remaining “priest-eaters,” as certain elements of the Socialist opposition still consider themselves. “We are proud of our laïcité,” wrote one senator in Le Monde (September 6), adding gleefully that neither the concept nor the word “find their equivalent in [other] countries.” Still, he agreed that new times call for new responses, among which should figure sincere attempts to close religious cleavages, though he was probably thinking more of Islamo-Western than Catholic-secular ones.

Another commentator, a professor at the University of Paris X–Nanterre, came to the same conclusion, but argued from a Muslim perspective. The Republic’s new “pedagogical vocation,” wrote Abdelwahab Meddeb, must lead the French to surmount their Islamophobia, as it has previously led them to overcome anti-Semitism and (more recently) anti-Catholicism.

The pontiff, for his part, grasped the president’s extended hand and reached out with his other one. In a profound and layered address at the Collège des Bernardins, Benedict proposed that the monastic spirit that once animated the medieval halls of the Collège was not perhaps so far away and long ago as we might think. On the contrary, he said, the quaerere Deum (quest for God) is as urgent and, in its way, as alive in our pluralist society of infinite idols and “answers” as it ever was in Pauline Athens or Thomistic Paris. The quest for meaning haunts our world, whether the sophisticates care to admit it or not. But insofar as we refuse this quest, we have slipped into a very modern, unknowing sort of irrationality, however technologically refined and “scientific” it may be. He quietly proposed that if and when Western men and women choose to face up to the real challenges arising in their daily lives—the existential anxiety stemming from their imperative but unmet need for meaning and truth—they might find succor in the church’s combination of reason and revelation.

For the thoughtful—and you had to have your wits about you to make heads or tails of this dense and refined talk—it was quite simply a stunning performance.

At Lourdes, Benedict expressed contentment that “the ancient mistrust or even hostility” between church and state in France “is little by little disappearing.” He called for “a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of laïcité”—a reflection that would usher in “new ways of interpreting and living daily life,” and would even lead to a reconsideration of the “fundamental values on which the [French] nation’s identity is constructed.” Toward this end, he was pleased, he said, to direct the papal nuncio to France to participate in the future dialogue to be set up in the Matignon Palace for representatives of the Republic, the church, and the “social partners” of civil society.

In post-1789 France, for a Roman pontiff—speaking in France, in French, to a French public—to call for a recalibration of French “national identity” that would conceivably be assisted by the participation of a papal ambassador is nothing short of shocking. In the bad old days of just a decade ago, there would have been a huge hullaballoo raised over these confident words. But in the present climate of distraction, the battles between fervent Catholics and fervent laïcistes are largely over, abandoned for want of combatants on either side.

In sum, the church of Rome has gently lobbed back the ball, and is calmly waiting for it to be returned by the Republic. There is no reason to think that President Sarkozy and his government, twelve of whose ministers attended one or another of the papal Masses in Paris or Lourdes, will not continue the match, with new initiatives in the development of this fertile (because open-ended and vague) concept of “positive laïcité.”

But what of the church itself in France? Here our plot thickens with paradox, surprise, and even—some would say—miracle. The France of young Joseph Ratzinger’s affection and admiration—the home of Paul Claudel, Jacques Maritain, Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac, Henri de Lubac, et al.—is gone with the wind, and has reputedly not been replaced by anything of similar quality or unity of language and purpose. Au contraire, at first and second glance, French Catholicism appears to be a dinosaur, and not a large one. There are highly placed sources in Rome and Paris who write off the French church with what looks like good reason. Le Monde, for one, has French Catholicism falling into a “statistical coma.” Out comes the familiar threnody: there are only 15,440 diocesan priests, and their average age is well above sixty-five; there are dioceses that barely field one working priest per ten thousand Catholics; 101 men were ordained in 2007—a number that does not come close to replacing the priests who retired, resigned, or died in that year. A researcher recently estimated that the church of France will, by 2030, have to make do with 6,500 priests to man all of its approximately 36,000 parishes. On the other hand, with the number of regular Mass-goers continuing to fall (currently below 5 percent of the population), there may simply be no parishioners left to minister to. And so on.

True, one notes that Lourdes collects 20 million euros a year from the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who trek there from all over the world. (“Lourdes without the ill would be a Catholic Disneyland,” its bishop, Jacques Perrier, has said.) And Catholic schools in France boast 2 million students, with waiting lists of thirty thousand each year. Indeed, fifteen of the top twenty high schools in the country are nominally Catholic. Still, only 12 percent of their boys and girls are enrolled for religious reasons, the religious curriculum is not required, and, finally, many of the students are Muslim. Their parents find the public schools uncongenial. As the International Herald Tribune nicely put it in a recent headline: “Many students mark Ramadan near a crucifix.” The foregoing facts lead some to wonder if the whole dialogue about “positive laïcité” isn’t moot—a speculation among the terminally ill about the prospects for cuticle growth on a corpse.

On the other hand (and to switch metaphors), nobody has informed this particular bumblebee that the principles of aeronautics determine it cannot fly. Thus, Cardinal Vingt-Trois—Lustiger’s choice as his own successor, forced down the more-or-less willing throat of Rome at the end of the last pope’s reign—got off a good line to a journalist: “Just because Christianity is two thousand doesn’t mean it’s old.” He added, “Becoming Christian means adhering to Someone who is not a cultural object. Christ has certainly been carried by the culture called Christian, but it’s not about that, it’s about the person of Jesus. It’s not about cultural renewal.”

This kind of statement isn’t altogether new; Lustiger said as much, often. Yet we must keep in mind how strange such words sound in so intensely self-focused and insecure a realm as France—where every party, every leader, every representative constantly and breathlessly strains to revive this or that “failing institution.” To read a declaration that is not about cultural renewal or political strategy is unheard of. Vingt-Trois uses irony less ham-fistedly than did his predecessor. He wryly asks a journalist, “Well, if we’re so washed up, why is every journalist in town calling me to get the church’s position on this or that?” Above all, he thoroughly understands the potential authority hidden under his pallium. Again, to a journalist: “You and I both know perfectly well that my word [ma parole] or that of my successor, in the right set of historical circumstances, would echo far beyond the ranks of regular churchgoers.” Other bishops know this, too, but only Lustiger’s anointed successor says it.

Cardinal Vingt-Trois’s initiatives generally take the high Roman road of a strong, if not invasive, spiritual public presence, as well as long-term intellectual development. The church in Paris has invested a great deal of money and effort in the life of the mind—in research and scholarship. (And by the way, it sets the tone for the whole of the Hexagon, because Vingt-Trois, unlike his predecessor, is a networker who dutifully accepted election as president of the French bishops’ conference—a task Lustiger scorned as too modern and “national” for a bishop of the church universal.) Building on Lustiger’s heritage of the Cathedral School for training lay church workers, and the new seminary for training priests, Vingt-Trois has brought to completion the late cardinal’s most beloved project: the restoration of the Collège des Bernardins. Having received the pope, it now houses the Catholic faculty of various learned institutions; its departments train doctoral students at a high level of rigor; and its faculty includes some of the top secular scholars in Paris.

Nevertheless, a few, even within the church, feel there is something faintly ridiculous about the imposing “empty shell” that is the Collège, for at the moment, French Catholicism seems to boast no “great” intellectuals who can match accomplishments with the likes of Maritain, Maurice Blondel, Yves Congar, et al. But it does have a few who can match wits with them. One of these is Jean-Luc Marion, a scholar who holds chairs at both the Sorbonne and the University of Chicago. His many books, which include classics such as God Without Being (1991), Prologomena to Charity (2002), and Descartes’ White Theology (translation in process), have established him as one of the world’s foremost Catholic philosophers. Marion’s polemical work deserves a look because his style and ideas represent both the strengths and the drawbacks of the current French Catholic revival. On the eve of the papal visit, he wrote a long and controversial piece in Le Monde. Its peremptory tone sometimes verged on conceit. He averred, in passing, that Joseph Ratzinger was “never a cardinal of interdictions”! (That would certainly be news to Charles Curran, among other eminent theologians of the 1980s and ’90s.) But the gravamen of Marion’s message was considerably more interesting, and hard to refute:

The most profound crisis of our era is the one least talked about: the dilution, the evanescence, perhaps even the disappearance of a rationality able to clarify questions that go beyond the mere management and production of objects—questions that decide how we should live and die. Rarely has philosophy or “science” had less to say about the human condition—about what we are, what we can know, what we must do, and what we are allowed to hope for. This dry desert of rationalism is called nihilism. This is not an opinion that I toss off; it is a fact. And it is our tragedy.

About the church, Marion writes with the same assurance. Thanks to the legacy of Lustiger and John Paul II, and the present leadership of Vingt-Trois and Benedict XVI, he says, French Catholics finally understand that God “never promised the church a majority that Christ himself neither obtained nor sought.” Though now a minority, the church grasps that she is “a significant one, for she is lucid about her weaknesses but...convinced of the force of the Spirit.” French Catholics “know they are going to surmount the crisis of the twentieth century...that they will survive globalization, as they survived the old regime.”

Marion sums up the current situation as a historical coincidence: “At just the moment that French laïcité is exiting its sacristy”—republicans often hear themselves accused of having mounted a secular religion of laïcité for two centuries—“French Catholics are shedding their self-pity, their ‘poor-us’ crouch [misérabilisme].” His next sentence merits full citation: “In sum, if they have not overcome all their fear, [French] Catholics are no longer so afraid of being afraid, they worry less about themselves—and this because they take God’s irrevocable promises more to heart.” Historically speaking, the situation is, to Marion, as inexplicable as it is unanticipated. He calls it “a miracle,” and then adds with characteristic panache: “as always.”

If this academic’s self-assurance—his pure intelligence and taste for subtlety—have brilliantly drawn attention to post-Lustiger French Catholicism, his is not the only game in town. Far from it. Claude Dagens is the only French bishop to have graduated from the École Normale Supérieure—as secular and prestigious a school as the French Republic knows how to run (Marion is also a Normalien). Dagens is also the only episcopal member of that most exclusive literary club in the world, the French Academy (though Marion is standing for election this month and seems to be a shoo-in). A dozen years ago, Dagens was selected by his fellow bishops to author the Letter to the Catholics of France. This widely-praised tract, which is still selling, is a resolute call to live the faith, “not as some sort of pastoral strategy adapted to present-day needs but as a spiritual experience,” knowing that this is in any case the only way one can hope to fulfill the ancient Christian mission of evangelization.

Dagens’s most recent book, Meditation on the Catholic Church in France: Free and Present, simmers with its author’s annoyance at Catholics who share the common perception that the church is best judged by statistics, or for that matter “that the church is reduced to her façade, whether sumptuous or falling apart.” Should Catholics, he asks, feel any nostalgia for the age of Louis XIV, when “social conformism and political power were what constituted Christianity”? Citing the late Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, Dagens says, “If Jesus Christ is not its riches, the church is poor; she is sterile if his Spirit doesn’t blossom there.”

Dagens is bishop of Angoulême, as clerically starved a diocese as you’ll find. This shepherd has 75 active priests to minister to the spiritual needs of a flock of 339,628 Catholics. Yet to read his brief meditation is to see that the region where cognac is made is anything but spirit-starved. In the opinion of Dagens, the church’s humbled and straitened circumstances—and not merely in Angoulême—have provided it with a wonderfully prophetic set of challenges. “In biblical terms,” he writes, “we may see Catholics in France as historical exiles, separated more or less violently from their past, waiting for a liberation they cannot see. The worst of it is that this exclusion of God from the public place has come to pass amid a generalized spiritual torpor of widespread resignation, as if everyone has had to get used to the reign of nothing.”

Not for Claude Dagens any trace of “spiritual torpor.” He dredges up from the forgotten recent past the writings of Madeleine Delbrêl, a humble social worker in a poor Paris suburb in the 1950s and ’60s. Delbrêl waxed wonderfully indignant at Catholics who went about flailing their arms and gnashing their teeth, unnerved and overwhelmed by the flourishing in their midst of “atheistic Communism.” She wrote several head-clearing reproaches that in Dagens’s opinion merit reflection in our day, when faith is faced by less obvious, if no less difficult, challenges: Delbrêl asked fellow believers to grasp that “no era is resistant to faith, and faith is resistant to no era...and that when an era seems to be resistant, it is just we Christians who are resistant, because we carry with us the baggage of another era which is in contradiction to the era in which we are called to live and to serve.”

There is an important contrast in genre, tone, and attitude between the French church’s two Normaliens, Dagens and Marion. Meditation on the Catholic Church in France is highly effective, but it is not a brilliant performance of apologetics or scholarship. The bishop has nothing approaching Cardinal Lustiger’s sense of the tragic (then again, he didn’t lose half of his family in the Shoah, either). He smiles when he is accused of whistling past the cemetery, and he grants that his fervor may belie underlying anxiety. He answers with the words of Georges Bernanos: “La plus haute forme de l’esperance, c’est le désespoir surmonté” (The highest form of hope is despair overcome). Dagens’s humility and honesty leave their mark.

As different from Dagens as from Marion, but like them both in intelligence, is another French philosopher, Paul Valadier, SJ. An unflagging critic of both Cardinal Lustiger and John Paul II, both of whom he considered authoritarian and divisive, Valadier has long been seen as an incorrigible gadfly and held suspect in most Catholic circles. As a result, his many works have not received the attention they merit; he is one of the most unjustly overlooked moralists in Christendom. His latest work—like the others, short, lucid, and impeccably argued—is On the Spiritual in the Political. It amounts to a variation for our times on Jacques Maritain’s classic, The Things That Are Not Caesar’s, only instead of arguing for the primacy of the spiritual, Valadier deftly demonstrates the deep interlacing and complementarity of the spiritual and the political.

Because the public servant assumes responsibility for the community, politics is not a profession like others, Valadier argues. It is a delicate and difficult mandate, best accomplished if the practitioner understands that “the reality at hand does not fully reveal all of its tenor” except to one who can see beyond what is immediately apparent. Leaders must know how to “place themselves within the totality of all the meaning that is present.” This is where an awareness of the spiritual enters the public stage. By “spiritual” Valadier means not so much religious practice as a deepened awareness of “what’s there,” the good leader’s sense of modesty and responsibility before “the totality of reality,” his feeling that he needs to reach above himself if he is to wield authority over his fellow citizens. One is likely to fail at this task, Valadier argues, if one does not take time for solitude, reflection, and contemplation—if one does not maintain some distance between oneself and the maw of opinion, stimuli, and needs (false or real) of contemporary society.

In this view, the mark and challenge of our time is the complementarity of the spiritual and the political rather than, as in times past, the domination of one by the other. When society was “decoratively Christian,” the church’s personnel and doctrines undergirded public life, with—to say the least—mixed results. Today, when a believing and sincere Christian minority dominates nothing, it is called upon to play a profound and even urgent role by inflecting political life with its essential values and attitudes.

Notwithstanding the renewal that has been building in French Catholicism for at least a quarter of a century, it is still common in France to hear the church dismissed as a dwindling number of survivors on a boat in the middle of a dead Sargasso sea, telling themselves what they desperately want to hear. But then, of course, it is good to keep in mind that people, including Time magazine, are saying much the same thing about French culture, French history—writing, French politics, and the French economy. It is certainly true that French Catholicism faces serious demographic problems, but it is also true that the Catholic bark is not becalmed, like the bigger boats around it; its occupants have a motor and an apparently endless supply of Duracell batteries. It is not just the recent phenomenon of President Sarkozy’s “positive laïcité” and the positive papal response to it. The interest they have aroused is, at the end of the day, rather more active in Rome or in the international press than among French bishops, priests, and laity. What is mainly surprising here is the lack of antipathy from the anticlerical Left in France; so few, it would seem, care to fight that old battle anymore. But it would be a mistake for the church to count too much on sympathy replacing the old antipathy.

And that is the point: The church of France isn’t counting. It is not focused on concocting strategies of cultural renewal. This Catholic revival is interior. One gets the sense that the only thing that will ever spell doom for Catholicism on the banks of the Seine will come from within the church—from some unprecedented drying up of confidence in the gospel. It will not come from threats and rivals outside the church: not from nihilism or relativism or pluralism or laïcité (negative or positive)—and no, come to think of it, not even from those still-scared Catholics whose spines Dagens and Marion so fervently wish to stiffen (but the weakest of whom, it must be said, seem rather pluckier then their critics).

These days even old-line, hard-core secular critics of Catholicism have noticed the pulse of life beating in the church. Régis Debray and Marcel Gauchet, two famously secular philosophers—the latter’s Disenchantment of the World offers a dense case, over hundreds of pages, for the death of religion in the developed world—are giving discreet indications that maybe “the question of God” is neither gone nor going away any time soon. It is no longer “in” to cite François Mitterrand’s supposed saying (supposedly spoken with a knowing sigh), “Ah, don’t talk to me about Christianity; I know it through and through [j’en ai fait tout le tour].” For it is too well known that the former president died some years later haunted by the faith question, as Cardinal Lustiger—his friend and, at times perhaps, his virtual confessor—well understood.

True, monsieur le Président, there might be nothing new, strictly speaking, to say about the Christian revelation or even (more regrettably) about church doctrine and rules, but then again, as you yourself understood, there has been, for decades now, nothing new to say about Communism, Socialism, laïcité, environmentalism, or any other secular faith, even though all of them go on desperately trying to renew themselves. You cannot pick up a French magazine or newspaper these days without seeing some leading political figure try to pour old wine into new wineskins. Yet French Republican Socialism (we won’t even talk about Communism) has simply not been able to reach into its Phrygian bonnet of tricks and come up with any convincing renewal.

What we can expect, as the political scientist of religion Timothy A. Byrnes writes, is that “as migration and integration continue to expand the definitions of what it means to be European, an increasingly diverse ‘Europe’ is likely to see religion increasingly mixing with its politics. Why is this the case? Because that is what religion does. Religion mixes with politics. Everywhere.” Religion as a matter of fact, not possibility, has a heavy stake in the way human beings are governed. No matter how firm the tradition of laïcité it must confront, the church will always be directed toward how human beings act and interact. And while the church’s ideas may not be new, their effect on society may be.

What France’s Catholic renewal makes clear is that Christianity’s offer of meaning consists not only in a philosophical or intellectual challenge, and not only in a moral one, but also—and above all—in a personal and existential choice: the choice to live the old faith. What the French churchmen and Catholic philosophers are doing—besides going to Mass, I mean—is providing witness to “the spirit of truth,” as Leszek Kołakowski calls it. By this the great Polish philosopher means battling “the torpor of common sense,” critiquing the readily acquired public nostrums of our time. It means “always suspect[ing] that there might be ‘another side’ in what we take for granted.” It means “never allow[ing] ourselves to forget that there are questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science and are nonetheless crucially important to the survival of humanity as we know it” (Modernity on Endless Trial).

Such an approach is particularly appealing at a time when nonbelievers (for example, Debray and Gauchet) are themselves unsure, and in a country where public discourse and rational formulation matter, as they still do in France. Some of the best and most honest and searching of France’s secular philosophers have lately made encouraging noises toward Catholics. Not only have they conceded that Christians may make fine citizens; they have encouraged them to be fine citizens in a Christian way.

The church of France carries her millennium and a half far more lightly than other parties and doctrines carry their decades or centuries. If Christianity appears to be exhausted and staggering in the Hexagon, its rivals and critics are in far worse shape. The great difference is this: Unlike, say, the Communists or the Greens, Catholicism is not desperately looking for renewal from without; instead it is finding it within—not effortlessly and not always serenely, but surely and confidently. The Catholics here have no doubt that ressourcement is always at hand, as near as the parish church and the Sunday Mass, and so they aren’t blindly feeding like mako sharks on every idea that floats by, as others do. Augustine wrote that the City of God and the City of Man are closely interconnected—perplexus, in Latin. That word suggests something else to us today, of course. One might say that in today’s France, the city of man is “perplexed” while the civitas dei is increasingly regarded, even by its fiercest critics, as “perplexing.”



Read more: Letters, December 5, 2008

Related: More Like the Anglo-Saxons, by Steven Englund
Unlikely Prophets: How a Motley Crew of French Catholics
Inspired Vatican II
, by Jerry Ryan

Published in the 2008-11-07 issue: 

Steven Englund, a longtime Commonweal contributor, is the author of Napoleon: A Political Life (Harvard University Press), which won the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize. He is currently writing a comparative study of political anti-Semitism in Germany, Austria-Hungary, and France.

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