How bad have things gotten in the Catholic Church in France? According to a report in La Croix, they've never been worse. The French Catholic weekly has published the results of a recent survey taken by the Institut français d'opinion publique (IFOP). Among other startling statistics, IFOP found that the number of Frenchmen who identify themselves as Catholic fell from 81 percent in 1965 to 64 percent in late 2009. What's more, the number of self-identified Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week fell from 27 percent to an appalling 4.5 percent during that same time period.
To put it in perspective, those of us who observe trends in the U.S. Church have expressed concern that average weekly Mass attendance in this country hovers around the 30 percent range (which represents a slight uptick, according to the latest data from Georgetown's Center of Applied Research in the Apostolate). That's roughly the same as France's high at the close of Vatican II, when the "extraordinary form" of the Mass — the Tridentine Latin version — was still the ordinary form. The Eucharist is supposed to be the "source and summit" of Catholic life, but for French Catholics it's long been a source of ambivalence. Perhaps we have here an inkling of why Church Fathers in the mid-20th century thought a reform was necessary. Unfortunately, Vatican II made an already bad situation worse. Nowadays, if not for tourists, the great historical cathedrals of France would be like empty airplane hangars.
On the catechetical side, things aren't much brighter. A whopping 63 percent of French Catholics believe that all religions are the same — that is, they profess the heresy of indifferentism. Seventy-five percent want the Church to reconsider her teaching against artificial contraception; 68 percent want the Church to do the same regarding abortion. These are staggering figures for a country that was once referred to fondly as "the Church's eldest daughter."
These figures just scratch the surface of a severe crisis. According to official Church statistics, in France between 1996 and 2005:
· Catholic marriages fell 28.4 percent;
· baptisms fell 19.1 percent;
· confirmations fell 35.3 percent;
· the number of priests fell 26.1 percent;
· the number of religious sisters fell 23.4 percent.
Hilary White, reporting for LifeSiteNews.com (Jan. 12), notes that, at the end of 2009, only 9,000 priests were serving in France, and fewer than 750 seminarians were studying for the priesthood. This in a country that is home to over 46 million self-professed Catholics — for now. Projecting forward, this drop in vocations will result in at least one-third of French dioceses either being forced to combine or ceasing to exist entirely in the next 15 years. Yet France ranks fourth on the list of the nations of the world with the most cardinals, boasting nine. Can you say "peter principle"?
French Catholics aren't too keen on the Pope either. Only 27 percent of respondents to the IFOP survey think that Pope Benedict XVI defends "rather well" the "values of Catholicism"; 34 percent think he defends them "badly." On the bright side, these numbers reflect a thawing of the frosty French attitudes that characterized the immediate aftermath of the Pope's January 2009 lifting of the excommunications of four bishops of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX; which has roots in France). At that time, 57 percent of respondents to a Le Parisien poll had a negative opinion of the Pope. A March 2009 poll in Le Journal de Dimanche found that 43 percent of French Catholics wanted Benedict to "step down"; 33 percent of practicing Catholics did as well. And to think that these polls were conducted in the afterglow of Benedict's 2008 visit to France less than six months earlier.
The story of Catholicism in France today is one of utter and abysmal failure.
But nature hates a vacuum, so something must step into the gaping spiritual void in the heart of French culture. According to veteran Vatican observer John L. Allen Jr., the two most dynamic religious movements in France today are Islam and traditionalist Catholicism.
Among European nations, France has the largest Muslim population at five million. But before we get all up in arms over a looming Islamic "threat," we should note that the pile-driving effect of secularism in France hasn't spared that religion: According to a 2008 IFOP survey, only 39 percent of Muslims pray five times a day (as is obligatory for Muslims), and a mere 23 percent attend mosque for Friday prayers on a weekly basis. Still, from the lowly Catholic vantage point, 23 percent weekly attendance is in the stratosphere. Thirty-eight percent of French Muslims consider themselves "non-practicing believers"; 34 percent admit to drinking alcohol (alcohol consumption is forbidden in Islam). Based on these figures, it's difficult to believe that the alleged Islamic fundamentalist takeover of France is as imminent as some Western alarmists contend.
That leaves the other movement vying for France's soul: traditionalist Catholicism. "Nowhere else," Allen has written, "are traditionalists so visible, and, at times, so fractious, as in France." The poll numbers in reaction to the Pope's magnanimous gesture toward the bishops of the SSPX speak to traditionalism's polarizing effect on French Catholicism. In fact, the release of Summorum Pontificum in 2007, Pope Benedict's motu proprio that liberalized the Tridentine Latin Mass, "unleashed negative reactions among moderate-to-liberal Catholics," Allen wrote, "and complaints reached Rome that a handful of bishops were resisting implementing the decree." Summorum Pontificum was "widely interpreted here as a victory for the traditionalist camp."
To the victors go the spoils. Hilary White reports that Summorum Pontificum "is acting as a catalyst for growth in the few areas where it has been accepted by bishops." In the small pockets of French Catholic life where traditional liturgical practice has been allowed to germinate, Catholicism is "flourishing." According to Paix liturgique, a French traditionalist group in union with Rome, since the release of Summorum Pontificum, 72 new chapels and churches have been given over to use of the extraordinary form, an increase of 55 percent over the previous count of 132 approved places of worship (the SSPX reportedly commandeers 184 sites where illicit Catholic Masses are held).
Paix liturgique further notes that 14 percent of French ordinations in 2009 were for the extraordinary form of the Roman rite (the Tridentine Mass), and over 20 percent of seminarians (160 total) are currently destined to serve in the extraordinary form. The Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, host to the only seminary in the world that trains priests in both the ordinary (post-Vatican II) and extraordinary forms of worship, alone boasts 80 seminarians.
During the Pope's 2008 visit to France he told the French bishops to ameliorate their generally intransigent attitude toward the traditionalists in their care because "every person, without exception, should be able to feel at home, and never rejected…. Let us therefore strive always to be servants of unity!"
The challenge for traditionalism will be to place itself at the service of unity rather than fraction and division, for which it has been known. (To wit, no less than seven splinter groups have broken from the SSPX, which itself broke communion with the Church in 1988.) Traditionalism will have to step away from its insular pockets and free itself of its embattled, embittered aura if it is to stand a chance of attracting the interest and imagination of highly secularized Frenchmen.
The question before us is whether traditionalist Catholicism can not only resuscitate the Body of Christ in France but restore to it enough vim and vigor to challenge the secular Goliath for the soul of the nation while holding off a latent Islam. If traditionalism proves itself unworthy of the task, what hope is there for the future of the faith in France? If it succeeds, it will have drawn up the blueprint for the renewal of the Church universal.
DOSSIER: The Latin Mass & Trad Renaissance
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