Magazine article The Christian Century

French Catholics Speak Up

Magazine article The Christian Century

French Catholics Speak Up

Article excerpt

Something quite unexpected is happening in France: in what has long been regarded as one of the world's most secular societies, Catholics are now reemerging as a potent force in public life.

For many years, French Catholicism has repeatedly been the subject of depressing news stories. Vocations are in sharp decline, and barely half of French people are willing to claim even a notional Catholic identity. In religious terms, the country seemed destined for total secularization, or alternatively, perhaps some kind of Islamization.

How surprising, then, over the past couple of years to see the French media proclaiming the return of les Cathos. An early token of change was the mass movement formed to protest proposed legislation of same-sex marriages. That new law promised le mariage pour tous (marriage for all), to which Catholic protesters responded with La Manif pour tous (The Demonstration for All). La Manif drew many thousands to its protests, drawing comparisons to the Tea Party in the United States.

Still more remarkable is the role of Catholic belief in the current presidential election. The initial favorite in this contest was center-right candidate Francois Fillon, who explicitly proclaimed his Christian faith. But Fillon is not alone. As a stunned Nouvel Observateur asked, reporting on the five leading contenders for the presidency--from the far right to the far left--"Why the devil are all the candidates Cathos?"

Survey evidence also forced some rethinking about the scale of that Catholic presence. The familiar assumption has long been that French Catholics are overwhelmingly lukewarm or nominal in their faith. They are Cathos culturels. The number of pratiquants or practicing believers is tiny, basically the 5 percent or so of the population who attend Sunday mass regularly. But major surveys now move away from using that Sunday mass criterion and look instead at the number of believers who identify with church life and teachings. By these standards, about a quarter of the French population, some 16 million people, count as Catholiques engages, being significantly involved or engaged with the church.

Many shades of belief and practice exist within that broad grouping, but a sizable minority are strikingly conservative and devout. Some favor traditional liturgy and might be inspired by charismatic movements like the Emmanuel Community and revived pilgrimage sites such as Paray-le-Monial. Age is actually a good predictor of loyalties, as younger Catholics--especially among clergy--are substantially more actively Catholic than are baby boomers. …

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