PARIS – A Catholic church at France it was once so powerful that it was considered a state within a state. In the global hierarchy of Roman Catholicism, France consolidated its position as early as the 5th century, when it became known as the “eldest daughter of the church”.
although the Catholicism has declined in the Western world, its relentless decline in France is all the more remarkable given its prominence in the past. Now, a devastating report requested by the Church on sexual abuse practiced by the clergy and released in early October, after a similar assessment elsewhere, was yet another degradation, further undermining what was once a pillar of French culture and society.
The report, which confirmed stories from abuse that emerged over the years, shook the nation with details of its magnitude, involving more than 200,000 minors over the past seven decades. It reverberated a lot in a country that has already transformed, in recent generations, by the fall of the Catholicism, and deepened the feeling of a French Church in rapid decline.
Reverend Laurent Stalla-Bourdillon, a Parisian priest and theologian, said the Church was still coping with “the extent of its gradual marginalization in French society.”
“Marginalization in numbers, due to decreasing rates of observance and marginalization in the political sphere of esteem for the Church as an institution,” said Stalla-Bourdillon, who was once chaplain to French lawmakers.
How failed to stop the sexual abuse in its midst, he said, the Church “is not only marginalized but also discredited.”
Globally, the Catholic church French became weaker than its counterparts, especially in Germany and the United States. For some Catholics – who in their lives have experienced the rapid dwindling of their faith in society and in their own families – the report added a sense of siege.
“It was seen as an attack,” Roselyne Delcourt, 80, said after Mass at Notre-Dame de Grâce de Passy, a parish in Paris’ 16th district, a wealthy and conservative bastion. “But I don’t think it will harm the church.”
But another parishioner, Dominique Dary, 66, said the report was an opportunity for change.
“I hope we can turn the page and have a renewed church,” she said.
If some see the report as an opportunity for reform, it may be stifled by French Catholics who have become increasingly politically and culturally conservative, said Raphaël Liogier, a French sociologist who teaches at Sciences Po in Aix-en-Provence and is formerly -director of the Religious Observatory, a research center.
Living in a society where Christian religiosity declined even with the growth of Islam, the Catholic conservatives French are a powerful political force and vocal actors in the culture wars raging across the country, he said.
“This report is in danger of provoking a reaction among those who have a catholic identity very strong and they think it went too far,” Liogier said. “They may perceive it as a conspiracy of progressives to weaken the Catholic church and destroy what remains of the French identity.”
for victims of sexual abuse of the clergy, however, the report was a devastating account of their suffering and a long-awaited reprimand for decades of denial.
François Devaux, co-founder of a victims’ association, asked if “the church, after all its betrayals, is capable of reforming itself.”
“Can we allow ourselves to trust them, once again, despite their opacity, to do everything they need to to rehabilitate all these destroyed lives?” he said.
The historic power of the church can be immediately understood by visitors to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris or any French village, where the local church stands in the most prominent place. The church continued to defy the state long after the French Republic was born in a revolt against the Church and the monarchy.
But their influence has steadily diminished in the last century and accelerated in the early 1960s, when 96% of French people declared they were baptized Catholics, according to the report.
Studies using data from the European Values Study found that, in 2018, only 32% of French people identified themselves as Catholic, with less than 10% regularly attending Mass.
Today, according to its own statistics, the church celebrates half of the baptisms of two decades ago and 40% of weddings.
The number of priests in France has declined, but not the number of foreign priests, who are often called in from abroad to fill the ranks of a declining priesthood – in a reversal of colonial times during which the country was the largest exporter of priests. to Africa.
Successive governments have limited the church’s reach, pushing it out of school teaching and other social functions it traditionally performed. For decades, public schools were even closed on Thursdays to allow students to participate in Bible study, according to the report.
Céline Béraud, sociologist at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, noted that, according to the report, more than half of the abuses estimated by members of the clergy occurred between 1940 and 1969.
“This is the period when there were still tens of thousands of priests, when the younger generations were baptized, went to religious school or were Girl Scouts,” said Béraud, who has written a book about the scandals of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church French.
Isabelle de Gaulmyn, a leading editor of La Croix, France’s leading Catholic newspaper, said the church’s decline may have made it reluctant to tackle the issue of sexual abuse from the front, for fear of increasing the existing challenges.
“Evolution has been very brutal,” she said of the church’s fall in power. “So there’s a certain feeling that this is a fortress under siege.”
This feeling is also fueled by the feeling that the church is poor. Unlike its counterpart in Germany, which is supported by a tax collected by the government, the French church receives no steady stream of subsidies and relies almost exclusively on donations from the faithful, although, under France’s complex secularist law, the state pay for the maintenance of almost every building in the church.
victims of sexual abuse, who expect compensation from the church, are quick to point out that some dioceses have considerable real estate.
Olivier Savignac, who was sexually abused by a priest as a minor and founded an association for victims, said they wanted compensation to recoup years of medical bills, “not a small token sum” covered by donations from the faithful.
“We want dioceses to pay out of their pockets,” he added.
Many say the report has placed the church at a turning point — reform or further weakening.
“It’s now,” said Stalla-Bourdillon. “Not after.” /TRANSLATION LÍVIA BUELONI GONÇALVES
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