PARIS – The Catholic Church in France was once so powerful that it was considered a state within a state. In the world hierarchy of Roman Catholicism, France consolidated its position as early as the 5th century, when it became known as the “eldest daughter of the Church”.
While Catholicism has ebbed into the Western world, its continued decline in France is all the more striking given its past importance. Now, a devastating church-ordered report on clergy sexual abuse released this week, after a similar calculation elsewhere, was yet another degradation, further undermining what was once a mainstay of French culture and society.
The report, which confirmed stories of abuse that have emerged over the years, shocked the nation with details of its scale, involving more than 200,000 juveniles over the past seven decades. It reverberates noisily in a country already transformed, in recent generations, by the fall of Catholicism, and deepens the feeling of a French Church in acceleration of decline.
Reverend Laurent Stalla-Bourdillon, priest and theologian in Paris, said the Church was still grappling with “the extent of its progressive marginalization in French society.”
“Marginalization in numbers, due to declining observance rates, and marginalization in esteem in the political sphere for the Church as an institution,” said Father Stalla-Bourdillon, who was formerly chaplain of the French legislators.
Because it has failed to stop the sexual abuse within it, he said, the church “is not only marginalized but also discredited”.
Overall, the Catholic Church in France has been more weakened than its counterparts, especially in Germany and the United States. For some Catholics – who during their lifetimes experienced the rapid shrinkage of their faith in society and in their own families – the report added a sense of siege.
“It’s seen a bit like an attack,” said Roselyne Delcourt, 80, after Wednesday evening mass at Notre-Dame de Grâce in Passy, a parish in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, a wealthy conservative stronghold. “But I don’t think it’s going to hurt the church.”
But another parishioner, Dominique Dary, 66, said the report was a chance for change.
“I hope we can turn the page now and have a renewed church,” she said.
If some can seize the report as an opportunity for reform, they could be drowned by French Catholics who have become increasingly politically and culturally conservative, believes Raphaël Liogier, a French sociologist teaching at Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence and former director. of the Religious Observatory, research center.
Living in a society where Christian religiosity has diminished even as Islam has developed, conservative French Catholics are a powerful political force and vocal actors in the cultural wars that rock the country, he said.
“This report risks causing a backlash among those with a very strong Catholic identity that it has gone too far,” Liogier said. “They might see it as a plot by the progressives to weaken the Catholic Church and destroy what remains of French identity.”
For victims of sexual abuse by clergy, however, the report was a devastating account of their suffering and a long-awaited fix to decades of denial.
François Devaux, co-founder of an association of victims, asked if “the church, after all its betrayals, is capable of reforming itself”.
“Can we afford to trust them, once again, despite their opacity, to do whatever it takes to rehabilitate all these shattered lives?” he said.
The historic power of the church can be grasped immediately by visitors to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or any French village, where the local church is in the most important place. The Church continued to challenge the state long after the birth of the French Republic in a revolt against the Church and the monarchy.
But its influence has steadily declined over the past century and has accelerated since the early 1960s, when 96 percent of French people said they were baptized Catholics, according to this week’s report.
Studies using data from the European Values Study found that in 2018, only 32% of French people identified as Catholic, with less than 10% attending mass regularly.
Today, according to its own statistics, the church celebrates half as many baptisms than twenty years ago and 40% of marriages.
The number of priests in France has declined, but not the number of foreigners, who are often called from abroad to fill the ranks of a declining priesthood – in a reversal of the colonial era during which the country was the largest exporter of priests to Africa.
Successive governments limited the reach of the church by pushing it out of the school and other social functions it had traditionally performed. For decades, public schools have even been closed on Thursdays to allow students to study the Bible, according to this week’s report.
Céline Béraud, a sociologist at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, noted that according to the report, more than half of the abuses estimated by members of the clergy occurred from 1940 to 1969.
“It was the time when there were still tens of thousands of priests, when the younger generations were baptized, attended Bible school or were scouts,” said Ms. Béraud, who has written a book on scandals. of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church of France.
While middle-aged French people may no longer practice their faith, many have grown up attending church and understanding its rituals, Liogier said. Today, many young French people ignore basic facts about Catholicism, such as the meaning of Easter, and are unable to pass this knowledge on to the next generation, he said.
Claire-Marie Blanchard, 45, a mother of four who teaches Bible study, saw it with her own eyes.
“There are children who have never heard of Jesus, even children whose parents are Christians or Catholics,” said Ms. Blanchard at the Notre-Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse chapel in the seventh arrondissement of Paris. Her own son annoyed her when he didn’t baptize her newborn baby so that the child could decide later.
“Being Catholic in France is complicated,” she said. “But we are not giving up.”
Feeling under siege, some observant Catholics have become more and more conservative. In the 2017 presidential elections, far-right leader Marine Le Pen won the votes of 38% of practicing Catholics, against 34% of the total.
The decline of Catholicism and of a French identity centered on Catholicism – in contrast to the growing role in society of Muslim immigrants and in particular of their children born in France – is a major divisive problem that runs through French society. In politics, while it fuels Catholic support for right-wing candidates, it also manifests itself in unusual ways.
Eric Zemmour, the far-right writer and TV star rising in the polls ahead of next year’s presidential elections, has long attacked Islam and gained popularity on the right by presenting himself as a great supporter of the Catholic culture of France – even though he is Jewish and his parents settled in France from Algeria.
Isabelle de Gaulmyn, editor-in-chief of La Croix, France’s leading Catholic newspaper, said the decline of the church may have made her reluctant to tackle the problem of sexual abuse head-on for fear of ‘add to its existing challenges.
“The evolution has been very brutal,” she said of the church’s fall from power. “So there is a bit of a feeling that this is a fortress under siege.”
This feeling is also fueled by the feeling that the church is poor. Unlike its counterpart in Germany, which is funded by a government-collected tax, the French church receives no steady stream of grants and has to rely almost exclusively on donations from the faithful, although under complex French law on secularism, the state pays for the maintenance of almost all church buildings
The victims of sexual abuse, who are waiting for compensation from the church, do not hesitate to point out that some dioceses have significant real estate assets.
Olivier Savignac, who was sexually assaulted by a priest when he was a minor and who founded an association for the victims, said he wanted compensation to recover years of medical bills, “not a small symbolic amount” covered by the gifts from the faithful.
“We want the dioceses to pay out of pocket,” he added.
Many say the report put the Church at a crossroads – reform or fade further.
“It is now,” said Father Stalla-Bourdillon. “Not later.”
Léontine Welsh contributed reports.