Segments of French Catholicism pursue resistance while tide of decline continues

Facing a sociological decline as well as a shift of values, a number of practicing Roman Catholics in France have become more combative on the public stage, according to a new book by historian and political scientist Jérôme Fourquet, a leading expert at IFOP, a French survey firm. He finds that six percent of the French population currently attends Mass every Sunday, while 35 percent did so in the early 1960s. A la Droite de Dieu (“On the Right Side of God,” Editions du Cerf) identifies two trends that have contributed to the mobilization of a section of French Catholics—the legal successes achieved by the LGBT lobby and the feeling that French identity is being threatened by the growth of Islam at the very time Christianity is declining. Jihadist attacks, including the killing of a priest in a church in 2016, have contributed to such fears. This is also boosting initiatives by some groups for evangelizing Muslims, despite negative reactions from sectors of French Catholicism eager to promote interreligious dialogue. Practicing Catholics seem on average to be more concerned than the French population in general about migrants, who are often associated with Islam.

Nearly half of practicing Catholics in France are open to welcoming new immigrants (the percentage goes up to almost 70 percent if the question is asked only about Christians from the Middle East), but more than half tend to resist calls by Pope Francis for welcoming migrants in Europe. There is an intra-Catholic debate about such issues in France, with some Catholics critical of what they see as a turn toward identity by more conservative French Catholics, whom they suspect of becoming more eager to defend an idea of Christendom than Christianity itself. The analysis of some electoral results shows that Catholic activists have not been able to translate mass movements against homosexual marriage and adoption into electoral pressure, either within existing parties or through new political groups. Mimicking what leftist activists had done after the 1960s, they have now started engaging in long-term efforts to penetrate not only politics but also cultural fields.

Once a contested demand has been enshrined into law, there is a legalist tendency to accept it despite the initial clash. While opposition to homosexual marriage had been massive from 2012, support for it had been gaining ground and it has become law. Similarly, the cause of legalizing medically assisted procreation for lesbian couples and single mothers has been gathering growing support in the French population (going from a 47 percent approval rate in 2013 to 64 percent in 2017). Even 48 percent of French Catholics tend to support such a legal move. Moreover, remarks Fourquet, there are currently clear signs of moves at the highest level of the Roman Catholic Church for adjusting pastoral approaches to new social realities. But conservative French Catholics are unlikely to welcome such initiatives. Fourquet concludes that the hardening of a significant part of French Catholicism might represent the classical sociological phenomenon of a stronger emphasis on one’s identity by a group becoming aware that it has turned into a minority in a rapidly changing environment.