Rorate Caeli

The Economist on Thiberville and other matters

The fate of Catholic Europe
The void within
Catholicism is hollowing out in its traditional European strongholds. But signs of intriguing new life are springing up at its periphery

IN THE small world of traditional French Catholicism, everybody knows about Abbé Francis Michel. For the past 23 years this small, stubborn figure in his well-worn soutane has been responsible for the cure of souls in the village of Thiberville in Normandy. The locals like his conservative style, even though his Latin services would not suit all French churchgoers. The village’s 12th-century church, and the 13 other places of worship under his care, are kept in good repair by his supporters. (These days, some priests in rural France must cope with as many as 30 churches.)

Since the start of the year Abbé Francis has been at war with the region’s bishop—in church terms, a liberal—who has been trying to close the parish and move him to other duties. Uproar ensued in January when the bishop came to mass and tried to give the priest his marching orders. Most villagers followed Abbé Francis as he strode off to another church and celebrated in the old-fashioned way. He has made two appeals to Rome, both rejected on technicalities; a third is pending.

To Father Francis’s admirers Thiberville is a pinpoint of light against a sombre background: the near-collapse of Catholicism in some of its heartlands. In the diocese of Evreux, Christianity has been part of the fabric of life for 15 centuries. Of its 600,000 inhabitants, about 400,000 might call themselves, at least loosely, Catholic. But the number of priests under the age of 70 is a mere 39, and only seven of those are under 40. That is just a bit worse than average in a country that, as recently as the 1950s, boasted 40,000 active priests; in a few years, the number under 65 will be a tenth of that. This suggests a body that is not so much shrinking as dying.

On closer inspection French Catholicism is not dead, but it is splintering to the point where the centre barely holds. The brightest flickers are on the fringes: individuals like Abbé Pierre, founder of the Emmaus movement for the homeless; “charismatics” whose style draws on Pentecostalism, and traditionalists who love Latin rites and processions. Meanwhile, the church’s relatively liberal mainstream is almost in free fall. As conservatives like Abbé Francis see it, it is largely the liberals’ own fault: “They keep selling and closing properties, while we [traditionalists] are busy building and restoring.”

Among Europe’s historically Catholic lands, France is an outlier. Its leap into modernity took the form of a secular revolution; that differs from places like Ireland or Poland, where church and modern nationhood go together. Things are different again in Bavaria or the southern Netherlands, where the church inspires local pride; or in Spain, where Catholicism is at issue in an ideological war.

But in many European places where Catholicism remained all-powerful until say, 1960, the church is losing whatever remains of its grip on society at an accelerating pace. The drop in active adherence to, and knowledge of, Christianity is a long-running and gentle trend; but the hollowing out of church structures—parishes, monasteries, schools, universities, charities—is more dramatic. That is the backdrop against which the paedophile scandal, now raging across Europe after its explosion in the United States, has to be understood. The church’s fading institutional power makes it (mercifully) easier for people who were abused by clerics to speak out; and as horrors are laid bare, the church, in many people’s eyes, grows even weaker.

A couple of decades ago Ireland defied the idea that modern societies grow secular: churches were packed. But last year, after a decade of mounting anger over clerical malpractice, the nation was stunned by two exposés of cruelty by men and women of God. First, a nine-year investigation found that thousands of children had been maltreated at church-run industrial schools and orphanages. Then a probe of the archdiocese of Dublin, over the three decades up to 2004, not only found widespread child abuse by priests but police collusion in hiding it. Five Irish bishops offered to step down; the pope has accepted three resignations and is considering the others. When a new bishop, Liam MacDaid, took office on July 25th, he presented a stark picture: “Society has forced us in the Irish church to look into the mirror, and what we saw [was] weakness and failure, victims and abuse.”

Ireland is still a churchgoing nation; about half claim to attend mass weekly, and there has been an uptick since the economy turned sour. But in a land that used to export priests and nuns to the world, vocations have dried up. In a couple of decades there could be a French-style implosion. That need not imply a collapse in Christian belief; but as one Catholic history buff puts it, rural Ireland could go back to its early medieval state, when a largely priestless folk-religion held sway. Already, popular religion—local pilgrimages, or books on Celtic prayer—does better than anything involving priests. And Ireland’s political class, once so priest-ridden, now distances itself from the clergy.

Read more at The Economist


Athelstane said...

Meanwhile, the church’s relatively liberal mainstream is almost in free fall. As conservatives like Abbé Francis see it, it is largely the liberals’ own fault: “They keep selling and closing properties, while we [traditionalists] are busy building and restoring.”

It is hard to state the reality on the ground in France more succinctly than this.

The liberal Catholic project has been tried - and found wanting. The numbers speak for themselves.

Anonymous said...

Nothing will change until the Pope bishops and priests believe in Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus as strongly as the church's enemies believe in their errors. Not until we see the zeal and courage of the North American Martyrs who lost limbs and life to get the saving sacraments to the natives will the church expand again. Most are just going through the motions these days!!

Anonymous said...

Yet we ought to take some comfort from our own history. Dawson, in "The Making of Europe", describes the late ninth and early tenth centuries as the worst period through which Christendom had passed to that point (mid-20c). It featured some of the most unsavory characters the papal throne has ever received (known by the ignominious name of the "pornocracy") and barbarian assaults and church-state strife that wiped out most of the monasteries and schools of Western Europe. Yet he notes that wherever a single monastery survived, again and again the monks began over, and the Church survived. All we need is a loyal remnant, and the Abbe makes the point that we have such.
We will come back.

Knight of Malta said...

Not all of this dreadful news can be attributed to Vatican II, but frankly, much of it can frankly can be. The feeling of "freedom"--now the reins are loose--is attributable to Vatican II, and the wholesale loss of good priests during that period, and their replacement by liberals.

Many of those liberals were gay, and used their institutional positions to abuse young boys.

So, Vatican II was a huge failure. Not every council has benefited the Church. Some councils even Fail

Fratellino said...

"...even though his Latin services would not suit all French churchgoers."

Since the majority of mass attenders in France are traditionalists, his services actually would suit the vast majority.

Oliver said...

More than anything, the thing that will finish off the Church is the development of cultural Catholicism. This trend is full of that nostalgia for things old among the general population and a clinging to familiar childhood patterns. So long as these elements do not interfere with the comforts of modern life, they will continue to stimulate and take their place but among other disparate fancies. Of course, this is not Catholicism.

Anonymous said...

"Since the majority of mass attenders in France are traditionalists..."

Uhmmm, no, not yet. The stats indicate that at most, 5% of French churchgoers attend the TLM.

We need to distinguish between what we want to see and what can actually be seen.

French trads are supplying an inceasing percentage of French seminarians, but that is not because Trads are increasing, but because other Catholics ("conservatives", "charismatics", etc.) are falling off (although the "Emmanuel" charismatics still have more French seminarians than the FSSP or ICRSS.)

Fratellino said...

"We need to distinguish between what we want to see and what can actually be seen."

What you say may be true, but you assume that the rest of that 95% of French church-goers are actually attending valid, Roman Catholic masses, or are at the least still doctrinally believing Roman Catholics, rather than de-facto Protestants by another name. I would submit that in all actuality, that most of them by far are the latter. And so the impact of the Traditionalist numbers rises dramatically, if not - perhaps - to the majority. There are lots of churchgoers in France, I'm sure. But I'm equally sure that there are far fewer "Catholics" than you seem to think.

Society of St. Oliver Plunkett said...

Well some of us in Ireland are trying hard to 'buck the trend' in rural Ireland. The link is to some photos of a recent Solemn Mass in our diocese.

LeonG said...

"He has made two appeals to Rome, both rejected on technicalities; a third is pending."

That is the sum total of the assistance this excellent priest will receive from Rome. The Vatican and its hierarchy are not in any manner committed to traditional liturgy but rather to a pluralised form.

Adam said...

The diocese of Paris appears to be quite healthy. Only a few weeks ago, on 26 June, Cardinal Vingt-Trois ordained nine men to the sacred priesthood in the presence of 10,000 people.

The number of ordinands is by no means unique. Under Cardinal Lustiger, the Diocese of Paris was ordaining more priests per year than at any time since the French Revolution. According to the obituary in the Daily Telegraph, the priests ordained for the diocese of Paris (actually 230, not 200 as reported), during his time as archbishop “represented 15 per cent of the French total, drawn from a diocese which had two per cent of the population”.