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French Catholicism: An Autopsy

The French Orthodox writer Jean-Claude Larchet reviews a new (French) book, [1]How Our World Stopped Being Christian: Anatomy Of A Collapse, by historian Guillaume Cuchet. Cuchet specializes in Catholic history. The review is mostly a summary of Cuchet’s analysis, but Larchet ends like this:

Catholicism itself bears a heavy responsibility in the dechristianisation of France (and more broadly of Europe, because an analysis made for other countries would lead to identical conclusions). The aggiornamento realised by the Second Vatican Council, and which had proposed to face the challenges of the modern world, did nothing but adapt itself to the latter; thinking to bring the world to its side, it ended up giving in to the world, and despite wanting to be heard in the secular sphere, Catholicism has instead become secularised. Fearing to assert its identity, it became relativised to the point that a large number of faithful no longer found in it the signposts to which they had been accustomed or that they expected, and no longer saw the point of seeking in Catholicism what the world already offered them in a less roundabout way.

The Catholic authorities seek to minimise the collapse described in this book by various arguments (a large number of French remain Catholic and have their children baptised; religious practice is measured by commitments other than Mass attendance; quality has replaced quantity, etc.). Yet they struggle to convince. John Paul II is often presented as having engineered a recovery from the excesses that followed Vatican II, but it must be noted that Sunday religious observance in France declined from 14% at the time of his election to 5% at the time of his death in 2005. If it is true that living communities existing in cities can provide a false example (as was also the case with the few churches open during the Communist period in the Eastern Bloc, crowded on account of others being closed), as well as the spectacular gathering of young people during the World Youth Days, the French countryside nevertheless shows the reality of a dramatic desertification: the multiplication of disused churches (that is to say, churches no longer acting as place of worship); priests having the care of twenty or even thirty parishes and celebrating every Sunday a “regional” Mass for a small group of faithful, mostly elderly and sometimes coming from several dozen kilometres away; the disappearance of burials celebrated by priests due to the lack of available celebrants; the lack of contact between priests and faithful because of their mutual distance and the unavailability of the former, who are more occupied with clerical meetings than with pastoral visits …

The sad evolution of the post-conciliar Catholic Church, as described in Cuchet’s book, should serve as a warning to the Orthodox bishops and theologians who have dreamt and still dream of calling for a “Great Orthodox Council” similar to that by which the Catholic Church wanted to accomplish its aggiornamento, but whose main effect was to provoke its internal disintegration and the dramatic haemorrhage of a large number of its faithful.

Read the whole thing.  [1]

The Orthodox priest who passed this article along to me said in his accompanying note that as a young Catholic who lived through the postconciliar collapse in the United States, he is determined to fight contemporary efforts within American Orthodoxy to modernize the faith. P

It is an old argument within Catholicism: the extent to which Vatican II caused the collapse, or the collapse would have happened anyway. I find it impossible to believe that if the Council had never happened, the Catholic Church in Europe (and in the West more broadly) would be doing well. But I also find it impossible to believe that the Council had nothing to do with the death rattles of European Catholicism, and its steep decline in the US. This segment from Larchet’s review seems to speak to this point:

Worried as early as December 1966 at seeing [death, judgment, heaven, and hell] disappear from teaching and preaching, the bishops of France noted: “Original sin […], as well as the Last Things and Judgment, are points of Catholic doctrine directly related to salvation in Jesus Christ and whose presentation to the faithful actually makes it difficult for many priests to teach them. We do not know how to talk about them.” Shortly before this, Cardinal Ottaviani, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had noted that original sin had almost completely disappeared from contemporary preaching. Cuchet remarks that it was not only a pastoral and pedagogical problem of presenting dogma, but also that “in reality, it was indeed a problem of faith and doctrine, and a discomfort shared between the clergy and the faithful. Everything happened as if, quite suddenly, at the end of a whole work of underground preparation, whole parts of the ancient doctrine considered hitherto as being essential, such as judgment, hell, purgatory, the devil, had become unbelievable for the faithful and unthinkable for theologians.”


Something that tectonic doesn’t happen merely as the result of a church council. But the church council, I think, can be fairly said to have taken away much of what remained within the Church’s system that would have provided a means of resistance to the disease spreading within post-Christian societies.

As a former Catholic, now for almost as many years an Orthodox, it is striking to me the extent to which Orthodoxy has within it things that people speak of as strengths of preconciliar Catholicism — in particular, a much greater “vertical” sense (that is, a palpable sense of mysticism), and the traditional Christian ascetic practices (e.g., regular fasting). It is certainly debatable as to whether or not the relatively tiny number of Orthodox Christians in the US are more faithful than Christians in other communions. But if you do want to be faithful to the Way, the resources within Orthodoxy for weak Christians like me are unparalleled.

When I read about the way of life of preconciliar Catholicism, it’s startling to see present some of the things that we take for granted as Orthodox, and that Catholics used to have. The shock of the loss of these things — my God, those poor Catholics. What violence the mid-century Catholic fathers did to their people: to strip them of their traditions, and their defenses against the enemy, all for the sake of making peace with a world that hated what the Church stood for.

UPDATE: Not one minute after I posted this, I received an e-mail with an article claiming that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, the eminent English Orthodox theologian, has come out in favor of same-sex marriage.  [2] Here is a link to the full article by Met. Kallistos [3], which is a foreword to an issue of a theological journal. As I read it, the headline of the first article goes too far. Met. Kallistos doesn’t explicitly endorse same-sex marriage, and he’s careful to say that he doesn’t agree with all of the articles in the journal (without saying which ones). This, I think, is a red flag:

Ah, dialogue. Whenever it has to do with Church teaching and modernist approaches to sexuality, you may be assured that it is a trap.

UPDATE: A French reader e-mails to say:

Just read your article on French Catholicism and I’d like to add my two cents. I don’t blame – entirely – Vatican II for the collapse of the Church in our country. It started much sooner, when the Church not only made its peace with the Republic, but embraced it even though it was actually trying to destroy Her. Even worse, what few notable Catholics remain here are as committed to “laïcité” and “republican values” as your average secularist, either out of genuine conviction or more often because it allows them to attack Muslims (the failure of conservative Christians in the West to realize that secularism, not islam, is their real enemy is a factor of never-ending amazement and frustration to me).

I for one am a democrat, not a republican – in the original, not American, meanings of these words. Unlike most of my fellow-compatriots I realize and admit that there are countries that are freer than ours and yet are not republics; conversely I don’t partake in what I regard as a paganist cult whose sacred cows are the Revolution, “laïcité”, the “Great Men” and “les acquis sociaux”. Neither should any Catholic with reasonable awareness of history and philosophy. The whole system was built against us and we should accept it – there is no other choice in the present context – but certainly not celebrate it. As French philosopher Pierre Manent put it, there was a civil war and not only we’ve lost but we have embraced our servitude – what you himself called “dhimmitude” in a previous email of yours. This is ridiculous.

159 Comments (Open | Close)

159 Comments To "French Catholicism: An Autopsy"

#1 Comment By Bernie On June 17, 2018 @ 2:08 pm

“I’d say the opposite is why we tend to have a more irenic view towards the Orthodox. They are schismatic…”

“History suggests the opposite. The Bishop of Rome elevating himself above the collegial leadership of the church was schismatic.”

Wow, Siarlys! As you sometimes say – “…in my not so humble opinion”. Well, I think it applies in spades here. I’m sure I’m far from alone in believing that you’re hardly in a position to judge this issue, but of course, everyone is entitled to his not so humble opinion. 🙂

#2 Comment By JonF On June 18, 2018 @ 10:31 am

When John Paul II suggested to the Christian East that perhaps the papacy ought return to its first millennium AD dimensions he was admitting that the institution did expand and change in the second Christian millennium. I wish the Orthodox had been more responsive to that suggestion at least as far as an honest dialogue as to what a more modest papacy should look like– the East and Rome almost certainly do disagree as to what the historical powers of the bishop of Rome were. It is a historical fact that beginning with the (much needed, to be sure) reforms of Gregory VII in the 11th century Rome did take on a great deal more power than had been the case, and the Church in the West became much more centralized than had been the case in earlier eras.

#3 Comment By Turmarion On June 18, 2018 @ 10:36 am

Siarlys: “History suggests the opposite. The Bishop of Rome elevating himself above the collegial leadership of the church was schismatic.”

Bernie: Wow, Siarlys! As you sometimes say – “…in my not so humble opinion”. Well, I think it applies in spades here.

Thank you, Bernie. That’s the exact same attitude he often displays in the debates I’ve had with him lately (with the addition of a sprinkle of anti-Catholicism in this case) that irks me so much. At least I try to argue in good faith and acknowledge that, you know, I might be wrong.

Anyway, dominic1955 is right on this–the Patriarchs of Constantinople had plenty of pretensions to power of their own, and it’s interesting that the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch schismed off into Miaphysitism and Nestorianism, partly as a response to what they perceived as the oppressive attitude of Constantinople; whereas the weaker Patriarchate of Jerusalem was more or less forced along for the ride. In the process, liturgical variety was pretty much steamrolled, too–the Orthodox Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch (smaller organizations that claim to be the “real” patriarchates of those cities, instead of the Coptic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East) uniformly use the Byzantine liturgy, rather than the equally old and venerable Coptic and Syrian liturgies.

The Catholic Church and any number of popes have had their flaws; but there have always been plenty of flaws to go around on all sides.

#4 Comment By Bernie On June 18, 2018 @ 8:28 pm

Turmarion, thank you. The truth is that many of Siarlys’ comments have added to them more than “a sprinkle” of anti-Catholicism. I’ve been reading his comments for years, and my observation is undeniable – it irks me, too. Thanks for the additional history.

#5 Comment By William Tighe On June 18, 2018 @ 9:12 pm

Turmarion wrote:

“… and it’s interesting that the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch schismed off into Miaphysitism and Nestorianism, partly as a response to what they perceived as the oppressive attitude of Constantinople; whereas the weaker Patriarchate of Jerusalem was more or less forced along for the ride. In the process, liturgical variety was pretty much steamrolled …”

Best to leave the Nestorians out of it, as they didn’t really originate in a schism within the Patriarchate of Antioch, but over the border, in Sassanian Persia, although Nestorian or Nestorianizing refugee theologians from Syria may have contributed to that process, which wasn’t really complete until the 480s (and the “Nestorians” have always said that they have no problems with the Chalcedonian definition, although they played no part at Chalcedon).

Rather, while almost the whole Patriarchate of Alexandria ended up as Miaphysite (the Chalcedonians always being a small minority), the Patriarchate of Antioch split in half in the 540s and 550s, the Chalcedonian half becoming what we call today the Antiochian Orthodox Church, and the Miaphysite half the Syriac Orthodox Church.

You’re pretty much on target about Jerusalem, though, and not least because Jerusalem owed its status as a patriarchate to the Council of Chalcedon, which meant that its bishop would not be very likely to end up on the anti-Chalcedonian side of anything.

#6 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 19, 2018 @ 11:28 am

Bernie… never before would I have dreamed of responding to a comment from you with the word “snowflake.” Even now I hesitate to say you ARE a snowflake, because from most of your comments I know you better than that. Sometimes I say something in defense of Roman Catholic theology (generally when an atheist tries to apply a rational basis test) and you express appreciation.

But this time, you spout some epithets and blanket rejection, and offer no substantive reason why I might be wrong. Just a bit of sectarian jealously as far as I can see.

Turmarion has been waxing hysterical about almost anything I say for the last half year, and it continues to befuddle me since we’re not really all that far apart. I haven’t denied that various patriarchs have had pretensions to power or been subject to corruption. But none of them have claimed that in order to be saved, every man, woman and beast must be in subjection to their august selves.

I recall, as I’ve mentioned before, the comment on Rod’s old Beliefnet site, from an Orthodox Christian who said the Pope was the first Protestant, because he elevated himself above the rest of the bishops and patriarchs. Now if you want my own opinion on early church governance, I find the Mennonite view that their local church organization reflects that of the earliest Christian groups, to be credible, if not perfectly proven.

For me, Professor Tighe’s detailed historical summary reinforces that while Christ may be the vine, we are scattered in some very disconnected branches, so its a good thing there IS a vine that gives each of us some purpose, meaning, and sustenance, despite all of our differences.

#7 Comment By Bernie On June 19, 2018 @ 6:50 pm

Siarlys, I’ve been called worse than a snowflake. You’re a very intelligent man and I often agree with your comments. But you are anti-Catholic.

#8 Comment By Turmarion On June 19, 2018 @ 7:26 pm

Siarlys, I have not been hysterical. I just have been less willing than in the past to let you get away with unfair arguments, and to press you to find out where you’re coming from. I have never made any secret of where I come from, what my interpretive framework is, and my method. Love it or hate it, agree with it or think it’s cracked, it’s where I’m coming from.

You, by contrast, have been maddeningly coy about just what exactly you do believe, and have hopped hither and yon, taking shots at my perspective from contradictory positions, without ever quite coming clean about what you yourself believe. That, by me, is unfair argumentation. Plus, your attitude has been a bit more insufferable and condescending of late.

I replied to you on the Shroud of Turin thread, though, and complimented you there on being a bit more straightforward than usual, and toning the attitude down a bit. I’m not sure we agree as much theologically as you think we do; but that’s OK. My main issue is that your perspective, to the extent that I understand it, seems to me to be maddeningly hodge-podge and inconsistent even from your own perspective. That’s fine; but if your own view is provisional and pick-and-choose, magpie like, it seems to be a weak basis from which to critique others’ perspectives. That’s all.

I find the Mennonite view that their local church organization reflects that of the earliest Christian groups, to be credible, if not perfectly proven.

Perfect example: So why aren’t you a Mennonite?

#9 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On June 20, 2018 @ 10:12 pm

Bernie, I’m sure you’ve been called worse than a snowflake, but I didn’t want to be the one doing the name-calling. I don’t even like to say someone who stole something “is a thief.” They committed theft. Its something they did, not the essence of who and what they are. I once knew a woman who referred to ancestors who were “formerly enslaved,” and we had a mutually satisfying discussion about how saying someone “was a slave” defines that as the essence of their being, rather than a condition that was imposed upon them, or something that happened to them.

You’re a very intelligent man and I often agree with your comments. But you are anti-Catholic.

Next to my copy of Paul Blanshard’s excellent work on the 1940s and 1950s, American Democracy and Catholic Power, I have a book called The Enduring Prejudice which asserts that anyone who denies the divine mission of the Roman Catholic Church to rule the world and overcome all other denominations and faiths is indulging in “bigotry.” Not unlike the strident logic of certain LGBTQWERTY talking heads.

You can call me anti-Catholic only in the sense that I deny that church’s claim to hegemony and to be the repository of Truth. I’m perfectly happy for people who believe that to worship within the doctrines of that church and order their own lives accordingly. For all I know, they MAY be right.

Perfect example: So why aren’t you a Mennonite?

Perfectly mimicking the precise organization of the Early Church is not a sina qua non for me. But it is instructive when others make claims to Apostolic Succession or to be the One True Church Established by Christ and His Apostles.

What you call “maddeningly coy” appears to be the fact that I can find value and meaning in a WELS Lutheran service, even though I am far from qualified for communicant membership, and in a pamphlet by a Unitarian minister, and in attending mass with an elderly Hispanic friend who needed a ride, and probably more in Methodist and Baptist teachings. Its true, I don’t find any set of doctrines, including those of the church I belong to, to be The Truth, or all others to be Error. I consider them all to be branches of the vine. I also recognize that the vine is more substantial because SOME people practice the doctrines of their particular faith as a coherent discipline. But that doesn’t make it Theologically Correct.

If I seem a bit condescending of late, it is because I have declined to respond in kind to the increasing shrillness of your remarks, and have, for better or for worse, avoided that course by trying to keep my responses concise, and framed in some humor, perhaps deprecatory at times.