Are Practicing Catholics Becoming Irrelevant in France?

Author Joseph Pearce recently wrote an article with a hopeful title that caught my eye and I’m sure many others, “The Son Rises in the West: France & the Resurrection of the Faith”. It’s based on a piece from the Jesuit magazine America by Pascal-Emmanuel Goby, who cites evidence for what he sees as the early stage of a Catholic renaissance in France. He noticed that his church was getting increasingly crowded on Sundays:

“I have started going to other, random parishes on Sundays, just to see if this is a real trend. And indeed, Sunday high Mass is packed in most parishes in Paris. This is also true in Lyon, the second biggest city in the country.”

Perhaps he’s on to something, but he comes up with the curious notion that since the percentage of practicing Catholics in the country is so small (1.8%), they may be less relevant to this revival than a much larger segment within the 48% who are non-practicing.

La Manif Pour Tous

Mr. Goby believes this revival may have started with the grassroots movement that emerged to fight the proposed homosexual marriage law in 2013, La Manif Pour Tous (“Demonstration for All”). The Catholic-influenced movement shocked France with the numbers of demonstrators it inspired to take to the streets, reportedly approaching a million at one point. Later, it spawned other, smaller, secular but Catholic-inspired initiatives which Mr. Goby sees as part of this revival. Their goals are primarily humanitarian and inspired by the teachings of Pope Francis.

He admits that the crowded churches may be the result of immigrants from former French colonies that had been Christianized. He also concedes that in France “…vocations to the priesthood, perhaps the ultimate criterion of the church’s health, are not palpably growing.” While anecdotal evidence is not always reliable for forming broader judgments, he has made a point of asking others if they have the same sense of an emerging appreciation for the Catholic religion and many have shared his sentiment.

Of the 53% that self-identify as Catholics in France only 5% of these attend church regularly according to polls. The author, citing a recent study, suggests that there is a much larger group of Catholics in France who should be regarded as part of this revival even though they attend mass seldom or not at all; these he refers to as “involved Catholics”. He adds, “Mass attendance may not be the only measure of the strength of Catholicism.”

The Catholic daily La Croix  reports that the sociologists who analyzed the survey data suggest that the 5% who attend mass regularly may no longer be relevant to the faith:

“Who are the real Catholics in France? The five per cent who attend Mass regularly, according to opinion polls, or the 53% who describe themselves as Catholic? The broad survey carried out by Ipsos under the direction of sociologists, Philippe Cibois and Yann Raison du Cleuziou, shows that there is also a third possibility. Thus, 23% of French people can be characterized as ‘involved’ Catholics, i.e. people who feel attached to the Church by means of their donations, their family lives or their commitments.”

“As a result, the study sets aside the traditional distinction between practicing and non-practicing Catholics and includes those who do not attend Mass regularly ‘but who consider themselves all the same as Catholics because they live out their lives differently,’ as the authors note.”

There is an obvious danger in taking seriously what sociologists say should define what constitutes a Catholic, (especially one named Cleuziou). Whether or not this revival, or “resurrection” of the Church, as Mr. Pearce calls it, is real, it will not be the work of the very same ones that need to revive their own Catholic faith.


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