The Catholic Church in France was once so powerful that it was considered a state within a state. In the global hierarchy of Catholicism, France consolidated its position in the fifth century, when they began to call it “the eldest daughter of the church.”
While Catholicism has fallen into decline in the Western world, its relentless decline in France is all the more striking given its former prominence. The church’s devastating report on clerical sexual assault released this week, following similar calculations in other countries, is yet another degradation that further shook what was once a pillar of French culture and society.
The report, which corroborated stories of abuse that had surfaced over the years, shocked the country with details of the extent of abuse, involving more than 200,000 minors over the past seven decades. It reverberated loudly in a country that had already been transformed in recent generations by the fall of Catholicism, and heightened the sentiment of the French Church to accelerate its retreat.
The Rev. Laurent Stallat-Bourdillon, a priest and theologian from Paris, said the church was still struggling to cope with “the degree of its gradual marginalization in French society.”
“Numerically marginalized by declining compliance and politically marginalized respect for the church as an institution,” said Stalla-Bourdillon, who was once chaplain to French legislators.
According to him, due to the fact that she was unable to stop sexual violence in her environment, the church is “not only marginalized, but also discredited.”
Globally, the Catholic Church in France has weakened more than its counterparts, especially in Germany and the United States. For some Catholics who have experienced a rapid erosion of their faith in society and in their families throughout their lives, the report heightened the feeling of siege.
“This is perceived to some extent as an attack,” said 80-year-old Roseline Delcourt after Wednesday evening mass at Notre Dame de Grasse in Passy, a parish in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, a rich and conservative bastion. “But I don’t think it will hurt the church.”
But another parishioner, 66-year-old Dominic Darya, said the report is a chance for change.
“I hope now we can turn the page and have a renewed church,” she said.
If someone seizes the report as an opportunity for reform, it could be drowned out by French Catholics, who are becoming more politically and culturally conservative, said Raphael Lioggier, a French sociologist who teaches at Science Po Aix-en-Provence and a former director. Observatory of Religion Research Center.
Conservative French Catholics living in a society where Christian religiosity has declined even as Islam has grown, he said, are a powerful political force and active participants in the cultural wars that excite the country.
“This report risks provoking a backlash among those with a very strong Catholic identity that this has gone too far,” Liogier said. “They may perceive this as a conspiracy of progressives to weaken the Catholic Church and destroy what remains of French identity.”
For victims of sexual assault by clerics, however, the report became a devastating account of their suffering and a long overdue correction to decades of denial.
François Deveaux, co-founder of the victims’ association, asked if the church, after all its betrayals, is capable of reforming.
“Can we afford to trust them again, despite their opacity, to do whatever is necessary to rehabilitate all these broken lives?” he said.
The historical power of the church can be immediately appreciated by visitors to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris or any French village where the local church stands in the most prominent place. The church continued to challenge the state long after the French Republic was born in revolt against the church and the monarchy.
But its influence has steadily waned over the past century and has intensified since the early 1960s, when 96% of French people said they were baptized Catholic, according to this week’s report.
Research using data from the European Values Survey found that in 2018 only 32% of French people identified themselves as Catholics, and less than 10% attend Mass regularly.
Today, according to its own statistics, the church celebrates half the number of baptisms than two decades ago, and 40% of marriages.
The number of priests in France has declined, but not the number of foreign priests, who are often called from abroad to fill the ranks of the declining clergy – in the era of the abolition of the colonial era, when the country was the largest exporter of priests to Africa.
Successive governments limited the influence of the church, pushing it out of school and other social functions that it traditionally performed. For decades, public schools have been closed even on Thursdays to allow students to study the Bible, according to this week’s report.
Céline Béraud, a sociologist at the School for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences in Paris, noted that, according to the report, more than half of the alleged abuses by clergy took place from 1940 to 1969.
“This is a period when there were still tens of thousands of priests, when younger generations were baptized, went to Bible school, or were scouts,” said Béraud, who has written a book about the sexual abuse scandals in the French Catholic Church.
While middle-aged French may no longer practice their faith, many have grown up in the church and understand its rituals, Liodgier said. Many young French people today ignore basic facts about Catholicism, such as the meaning of Easter, and are unable to pass on this knowledge to the next generation, he said.
Claire-Marie Blanchard, 45, a mother of four and a Bible study teacher, saw it firsthand.
“There are children who have never heard of Jesus, even children whose parents are Christian or Catholic,” said Blanchard at the Notre Dame de la Medaille Miraculese chapel in the Seventh arrondissement of Paris. Her own son angered her when he did not baptize his newborn so the child could decide later.
“Being a Catholic in France is difficult,” she said. “But we are not giving up.”
Under siege, some practicing Catholics have become more conservative. In the 2017 presidential election, far-right leader Marine Le Pen received 38% of practicing Catholics votes, up from 34% of the total.
The decline of Catholicism and Catholic French identity – in contrast to the growing role in society of Muslim immigrants and especially their children of French descent – is a major divisive issue in French society. In politics, while it fuels Catholic support for right-wing candidates, it also manifests itself in an unusual way.
Eric Zemmour, a far-right writer and TV personality who is gaining traction in polls ahead of next year’s presidential election, has long criticized Islam and gained popularity with the right, portraying himself as a great defender of French Catholic culture – although he is Jewish, his parents moved to France From Algeria.
Isabelle de Golmin, editor-in-chief of France’s leading Catholic newspaper La Croix, said the church’s decline may have forced her to abandon direct solutions to sexual violence for fear of exacerbating existing problems.
“Evolution has been very brutal,” she said of the fall in power of the church. “So there is a feeling that this is a siege fortress.”
This feeling is fueled by the fact that the church is poor. Unlike its counterpart in Germany, which is supported by a state-levied tax, the French church does not receive a constant stream of subsidies and must rely almost exclusively on donations from the parishioners, although the state pays for the maintenance of the church under the complicated French secular law. almost all church buildings
Victims of sexual assault, awaiting compensation from the church, immediately indicate that some dioceses have significant real estate assets.
Olivier Savignac, who was sexually abused by a priest as a minor and who founded an association of victims, said they wanted compensation to reimburse multi-year medical bills, not a small token amount covered by parishioners’ donations.
“We want dioceses to pay out of their own pockets,” he added.
Many say the report put the Church at a turning point – reform or further extinction.
“It’s now,” said Stalla-Bourdillon. “Not later than.”