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The decline of Catholicism in France: Cube vs. the Cathedral
5/10/2005 8:48:00 PM by www.chiesa.espressonline.it - Sandro Magister
ROMA, May 9, 2005 -- By electing Joseph Ratzinger as pope, the cardinals made a strategic decision too: they identified Europe as the epicenter of the great conflict of faith, culture, and civilization - which hinges upon the vision of life and man - that the Catholic Church must face during the next years and decades.
Within Europe, France is both the real and symbolic center of this conflict.
In symbolic terms, the conflict is one between "The Cube and the Cathedral," the title of the most recent essay by political analyst and theologian George Weigel, published just recently in the United States.
The Cube is La Grande Arche de la Défense (see photo), the building François Mitterrand had built in Paris as a monument to secular modernity. The Cathedral is the Catholic cathedral of Notre Dame.
The opposition between the Cube and the Cathedral is that which divides secularism from Christianity in today's Europe.
In his last conference before being elected as pope, which he delivered at Subiaco last April 1, Ratzinger defined this opposition in very radical terms.
Europe, Ratzinger affirmed, "has developed a culture which, in a way unknown to humanity until now, excludes God from public awareness."
The confirmation of this exclusion is the "no" to a reference to the Christian roots of Europe in the preamble of the new European constitution.
According to Benedict XVI, "the reasons given in public debate to explain this 'no' are superficial, and it is evident that they disguise the true motivation more than they reveal it."
The true motivation, in his opinion, is that "according to secularist Enlightenment culture, Christian roots cannot be admitted into the definition of the foundation of Europe because these roots are dead, and they play no part in its present identity. This new identity, which is determined exclusively by the culture of the Enlightenment, means that God has nothing to do with public life and with the basis of the state."
France is the European country that expresses this outlook more than any other.
It is also the country in which Catholicism is experiencing its most rapid decline, whereas not long ago it was seen as a leader even outside its own boundaries.
The most important recent essay by Danièle Hervieu-Léger, a renowned sociologist of religion, is dedicated to an assessment of the condition of the Church in France. The verdict is clear from the title itself: "Catholicisme, la fin d'un monde [Catholicism, the end of a world]."
Hervieu-Léger makes up her own word to describe this end: "exculturation." The word brings to mind not so much a battle that is taking place as one that is already finished, with Catholicism completely excluded from the dominant secularist culture.
Is this a correct interpretation of the facts? And above all, in what way is the French Catholic Church responsible for this trend?
These questions are answered in the review of Hervieu-Léger's book reproduced below. The author is Gianni Ambrosio, the general ecclesiastic assistant at the Catholic University of Milan and a professor of the sociology of religion at the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy.
Ambrosio's judgment of the responsibility of French Catholicism is very severe: if the Church has been marginalized, this is in part because it has excluded itself.
The error of the Church in France - beginning after the Second World War - is that of having rejected its own rich religious tradition in the name of a new pastoral proposal of an abstract character:
"One path was left behind as out of date, while some other possible paths were pointed out in view of pastoral renewal, but these were based on a utopian model that refers only to community, fraternity, small groups, and individual choice."
Ambrosio's review of the book by Hervieu-Léger appeared in issue No. 12 , 2004, of the monthly "La Rivista del Clero Italiano [The Journal of the Italian Clergy]," which is edited by the Catholic University of Milan. The original title is "Tra fragilità ed entusiasmo. Uno sguardo al cristianesimo che verrà" ["Between fragility and enthusiasm: A look at the Christianity to come"].
On the Future of Catholicism in France
by Gianni Ambrosio
More and more assessments of the state of Christianity keep appearing. Among the most drastic evaluations, one by Danièle Hervieu-Léger stands out. In "Catholicisme, la fin d'un monde [Catholicism, the end of a world]" (Bayard, Paris, 2003), she does not hesitate to predict the end of Catholicism in France.
Her diagnosis is peremptory. This is not a question of a grave but localized crisis, such as the Church's decline in membership or the decline in religious practice. It is a generalized retreat that is leading Catholicism to its terminal phase. It is, in fact the end of "un monde," a turn of phrase introduced by Émile Poulat: the crisis is generalized and systemic, and is destined to end in death.
It is perhaps for this reason that Hervieu-Léger does not make an effort to specify whether this end refers to Catholics living in France, or the Church as an institution, or theoretical and practical belief in the Christian faith. It seems that result of the diagnosis is taken so much for granted that it can ignore the different possible hypotheses which would otherwise be considered: whether the ecclesiastical structure is too archaic, or Catholic preaching is inadequate, or a society that has become "pagan" has left Christianity behind.
In any case, with each phase of its journey modernity distances itself from Catholicism and uproots it from the French cultural context. "Secular" France becomes "pagan" France. The France that was once her "firstborn daughter" no longer has room in its culture for Mother Church. It doesn't matter if the state, the school, or the courts come from the Church as the "origin of civilization." It doesn't matter if it was from the Church of France itself that there came, through a reformist avant-garde, valuable institutions for the renewal of the relationship between Christianity and modernity.
As the author recalls, the term "pagan" is a recurring one in French pastoral literature. It is enough to cite to the well-known work "La France pays de mission?" by H. Godin and Y. Daniel, published in 1943. In it, they denounce the danger of dechristianization, understood as a return to paganism: the "new pagans" of the cities and the factories live in the social vacuum and the moral corruption of a society characterized by a purely materialistic vision of the world.
Fifty years later, in a work that attracted a good deal of attention, "Vers une France païenne?", Hippolyte Simon, bishop of Clermont, revisited the question of paganism, updating it to meet the new reality. He writes, in fact, of a "new paganism," which consists of the passive acceptance of the world that just as it is: the new paganism is the slavery of fatalism. For Simon, this paganism could lead to the destruction of the French model of society, and of its secularity in particular. If the idea of justice found in French society is connected to the Christian ethos, and this ethos is diminished, then there is the risk that the very idea of justice would be lost.
This tendency, Simon continues, certainly involves the Church and its mission. But above all it involves French society, which must defend its secularity. Because secularity is the arena for the realization, in a secularized form, of the values which have come from and been sustained by Christianity: the equality of persons, individual responsibility for the development of the rules for life in common, the distinction between the things of God and the things of Caesar. Thus, Simon concludes, "the real debate, the only one that matters, does not take place between believers and 'misbelievers,' as they call themselves. It takes place between those who recognize the dignity of the human person as the preeminent value that gives meaning to every personal and collective action, and those who are willing to make the person an instrument at the service of idolatry, of whatever nature it might be."
So, according to Simon, the mission of the Church today does not at all involve the rejection of this modernity and the French idea of secularity. On the contrary, the Church today intends to safeguard these advances against the invasion of new forms of pagan belief that encourage individuals to fatalism. It is society itself that must collectively "shake itself out of it" if it wants to save itself instead of plunging into the pagan meaninglessness of modernity.
THE STAGES OF MODERNITY'S TRIUMPH
But for Hervieu-Léger, there has not yet been and there will never be any "collective convulsion" in French society, which does not recognize the threat of paganism as represented in the different (and sometimes opposing) scenarios of Godin-Daniel and Simon. French society continues along its way as instructor of modernity, proceeding by stages toward the "exculturation" of Catholicism. This journey has been made more rapid by the fact that Catholicism, in the meantime, has lost its traditional points of support like rural identity and the family, the places where it transmitted its vision of the world, life, and morality, and it has not sought or found any others.
A quick mention can be made of some stages in this process.
The first is the "secularization" effected by the French proponents of the Enlightenment and by the French Revolution and the establishment of the republic. The "ecclesial monopoly of transcendence" was thus dissolved in favor of reason, liberty, the secular state, and the spirit of science and technology.
The second stage was characterized by the "internal secularization" of the ecclesial world caused by the continual working of modernity within the religious sphere, with the controversy over the affirmation of religious versus profane values, over the idea of an elite religious community versus a religion of the people, over triumphalistic Catholicism versus a Catholicism engaged in the world.
The third stage, finally, was marked by "ultramodernity," understood as an intensification of the modernity that asserted itself as a liberation from every sort of prejudice and hypocrisy and as the autonomy of moral judgment. It is "the questioning of the foundations of any kind of absolute truth," any statement that transcends the individual, from nature to authority, from the bond of marriage to social institutions, from norms to values.
At this point, both the institutional aspect of the Church and the foundation of the Christian faith (from the content of the faith to moral principles, from the magisterium to obedience) found themselves shut out from the new cultural logic.
With the frenzy for well-being and happiness, the ego alone is placed at the center; only the ego has the right to full citizenship in a culture polarized by self-fulfillment. This is the basis for the understanding and enactment of relations among individuals and between them and the world; it is the standard by which all values and all behaviors are judged.
Self-fulfillment is the point of reference and the essential principle of the new ethics. This demon master is on the one hand completely interior (the individual's own ethics), but on the other it is planetary, in that, through the individual, it exerts pressure for the care of the planet and the protection of the environment (environmentalist ethics). It is also extremely enticing and persuasive, appealing to the spontaneity of the psycho-physical needs of the individual, but is also greatly demanding and imperative, creating a relationship between the absolute principle of self-fulfillment and the needs of the other, and thus with the entire social context.
INCOMPREHENSION OF THE CHANGES IN ANTHROPOLOGY
The essay by Hervieu-Léger is not limited to the situation of the French Church and to the confrontation between Christianity and modernity. If it concerns itself above all with the changes in the religious sphere, the work also meditates and focuses upon transformations in society, and particularly in culture, which are considered from the point of view of Catholicism.
As happens in the classical sociological tradition, particularly that of France, religion serves as an entry point for a broader analysis of the changes in social ties and in the understanding of the world.
It is in this light that Catholicism is undergoing, according to the interpretation of the author, a cultural disqualification so open and so thorough as to sink into cultural insignificance. Thus the Church, already banished from society and politics through the work of 19th century secularism, now finds itself eliminated also from the cultural scene.
Today, moreover, Catholicism must confront another challenge, one much more radical, that of the individual as "a legislator unto himself" who, heedless of the symbolic values of the religious message, utterly denies the Church's claim to tell the truth about life.
How can the Church face this challenge? The author does not directly consider this argument, which is not, in itself, pertinent to sociology, all the more so if the verdict of the end of Catholicism in France has already been decreed. In any case, it is useful to examine what could be considered a pastoral problem.
What emerges, in fact, is the limitation of the ecclesial strategy that accompanied - or perhaps followed - the affirmation of the individual: welcoming “laicitè à la française," going out to meet psycho-spiritual needs, accepting the addition of interiority to religious expression. The risk for the Church (and for Christianity) was that of disintegrating, of becoming simply one of many resources for individual well-being. This would mean, in the end, accepting a place outside of the culture, even if the Church of France - "esteemed and worthy of esteem," the author clarifies - continues to provide emotional and psychological services.
It therefore seems that the Church either did not wish or was not able to comprehend the transformation of the vision of the world at a time of the "affirmation of the psychological component of modernity, which gives contemporary individualism its particular tonality." In other words, its seems that the Church, together with other institutions traditionally charged with the task of giving meaning to the common adventure, has already counted upon its own delegitimization.
This very incomprehension of the radical nature of the anthropological shift - which concerns both social ties and the relationship with the world, as well as "the qualitative transformation of the relationship with nature brought about by dazzling advances in science and technology, particularly in the domains of the life sciences and the neurosciences" - dramatically accentuated the crisis in the relationship between Catholicism and modernity.
INCOMPREHENSIBILITY OF THE CHURCH AND SELF-EXCLUSION OF THE CHURCH?
If a state of crisis has characterized the relationship between Catholicism and modernity for at least two centuries, it must not be overlooked that is only in the last thirty years that it has become terminal, and has led, according to the diagnosis of Hervieu-Léger, to the "incomprehensibility" of the Church, to the disappearance of Catholicism from collective consideration, to the complete severing of ties between French self-embodiment and the Catholic culture.
It might be said that recently French Catholicism, after abandoning the places where it was traditionally anchored, in the countryside and in the family, has not been able to seek other places to anchor itself, or has not wished to.
The process of the "exculturation" of Catholicism in France is not linked only to the disenchantment of the world or to the secularization that makes religious discourse scarcely plausible. It is also linked to the general decline of the institutional regime. This involves the Church in a unique way, in that this regime is implicitly of religious origin.
This point raises decisively the pastoral question. If we acknowledge that institutions are inhabited by persons, were we cannot help but ask ourselves if the decline of institutions has not been encouraged by decisions made and strategies implemented.
This is not an undue consideration. The question is raised in a certain sense by the author herself, when she affirms that "the apparent dispersion of ecclesial strategies aggravates, both internally and externally, the feeling of the incomprehensibility of Catholicism."
In short, it seems that the process responsible for marginalizing the Church has gone hand in hand with the Church's exclusion of itself, through its dispersive strategies that hampered the transmission of lived religious experience, until it left behind that "civilizing work" and that production of meaning that French Catholicism knew how to offer in the past, even amid polemics with the “République” and with modernity.
"The end of a world is not necessarily the end of the world," the author concludes. The affirmation, beyond the witty play on words, appears to be consoling in some sense. But Hervieu-Léger goes beyond this, indicating a strategy for the Church to follow.
She affirms, in fact, that "fragile Catholicism" does not at all have a "low profile," but "is certainly the only realistic and rational response to the irreversible momentum of exculturation." Such an assessment is surprising in the work of a sociologist: we ask ourselves if it is based upon "participatory observation," according to the sociological method, or is rather an assessment that serves too well the theory being argued.
In any case, sleep comes no easier for those who have "the world" at heart: that world which is Christianity and the Church, as also that world which is the society of men in which Christian identity is constructed in a specific place and time. [...]
I limit myself to a few quick notes which, although they partly concern the work under examination, keep in consideration the question of pastoral practices intended to foster a significant presence of the Church in today's reality.
The first observation concerns the risk of a simplistic interpretation of religious and social reality.
The analysis of Hervieu-Léger, although it distances itself from the "pagan threat," must take into account the idealized image of rural and Catholic France, in respect to modernity and then to "ultramodernity," which extracts Catholicism from the cultural universe. On a number of occasions one is aware of a certain fragility of interpretation owing to such a neatly organized scheme. Assuming a special affinity between rural identity and Catholicism, the conclusion is the incompatibility between urban modernity and Catholicism/Church. [...]
The second observation concerns the reference to "paganism" and to the "pagan threat." This reference is problematic from the point of view of both methodology and content.
As has been observed, the term was borrowed from “La France pays de mission?”, a work that was - together with the pastoral letter of the cardinal of Paris, Emmanuel Suhard, “Essor ou déclin de l’Église,” 1947 - a point of reference for pastoral renewal in France and elsewhere after the Second World War.
Beginning from just demands for pastoral renewal, a sort of forced contrast was created between the pastoral plan that was implemented and the one that had been hoped for.
The demand for a missionary pastoral approach brought a very critical response to the pastoral plan that was implemented. However, no precise and workable pastoral proposal was offered after the devaluation of the religious heritage, cultural influence, and ritual gestures handed down by Christian tradition.
One path was left behind as out of date, while some other possible paths were pointed out in view of pastoral renewal, but these were based on a utopian model that refers only to community, fraternity, small groups, and individual choice.
But it seems that it will be difficult to transmit the faith in a sort of void created by the abandonment of those social ties utilized by Catholicism to consolidate itself and constitute itself as a social group
It is certainly true that the very contrast between the traditional pastoral approach, held to be out of date, and the new but hypothetical and abstract pastoral form might have contributed to the "exculturation" of Catholicism.
George Weigel, “The Cube and the Cathedral. Europe, America, and Politics without God,” Basic Books, New York, 2005.
Danièle Hervieu-Léger, “Catholicisme, la fin d’un monde [Catholicism, the end of a world],” Bayard, Paris, 2003.