Public Catholicism emerges during France’s election season

A more public form of Catholicism has arrived in France that may seem unexpected in this secular country but has actually been developing for decades, writes Samuel Gregg in First Things magazine (February). The emergence of popular presidential candidate Francois Fillon, a devout Catholic with conservative views on abortion and euthanasia, has galvanized young and politically active Catholics, even forcing secular candidates, such as Nicholas Sarkozy, to appeal to the faithful. It is unusual for politicians to embrace Catholicism openly, but the concern over Islamic expansions, most notably the murder of a priest by two extremists last summer, has ignited concerns about national identity and its relation to Catholicism. Gregg adds that Fillon realizes that appealing to fellow Catholics can put him over rivals such as the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who has recently taken a more secular approach on such issues as abortion.

These shifts have been long in the making, starting with the papacy of John Paul II and his appointment of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger to Paris, according to Gregg. Lustiger’s dynamic leadership and orthodox approach inspired a generation of priests, some of whom are now bishops. These bishops come from elite, educated backgrounds and are not hesitant to challenge secular influence. Lay Catholics, some of whom are convert-intellectuals, have been behind such movements as Le Manif pour tous, which led a nationwide protest against the Socialist government’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2013. Gregg adds that there are other currents in the French church, including a traditionalist party, and general “low energy” in other quarters. “Still, something has changed in French Catholicism. It is alive in a way one does not see in neighboring Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland,” Gregg concludes.

(First Things, 35 E. 21st St., New York, NY 10010)