Analysis: New religious ferment in France?

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Editor   |   Aug. 27, 2003 at 2:48 PM   |   0 comments

GURAT, France, Aug. 27 (UPI) -- France, the Catholic Church's first and wayward daughter, is experiencing curious cross-currents in the religious realm. While it was at her government's insistence that no mention be made of Christianity in the draft of a new European constitution, signs of a new ferment of faith abound.

Most remarkable among them is an eight-part series in the national newspaper, Le Figaro, on the highly sensitive topic of what happened to a once powerful species -- the Christian intellectuals. Are there worthy successors to such wonderful minds as François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Maurice Clavel, Charles Péguy, André Frossard and Paul Claudel - and if so, why do we not hear of them?

Have they gone the way of the parish priests and the throngs of Sunday worshipers in the past 30 years - that is, have they simply disappeared, like the comforting chime of church bells? Have they simply conceded defeat to the atheist or agnostic zeitgeist?

"It's not that there are no Christian intellectuals in France," philosophy professor Chantal Delsol of the University of Marne-la-Vallée near Paris wrote in Le Figaro. "There are legions of them... silent legions. 'Who are they?' you may ask. Ah! Am I going to denounce them?"

But it seems that -- to use Delsol's words -- the "primitive and arrogant anticlericalism" that has cowed Christian thinkers in France especially in the three decades since the student rebellion of May 1968 is losing its thrust.

Their long march through the desert is nearing its end, according to essayist Guy Coq. True, France still ranks, alongside Quebec and the Czech Republic, among the three Western nations where the Christian religion appears to be vanishing. Indeed, Paris is the one capital in Europe untouched by a certain renewal of religious zeal that Austrian theologian and sociologist of religion Paul M. Zulehner has discovered in virtually all other major urban centers on the continent.

On the other hand, even in France a new interest in Christianity pops up in the most unlikely quarters. Régis Debray, once a leftwing revolutionary and Ché Guevara's companion, suddenly pleads for religious instruction in public schools. Gérard Depardieu, one of France's leading film actors and producers, has astounded the public with statements of support for the Christian faith.

Of course, while the media and the intellectual establishment in Paris were singularly preoccupied with the monolith of godless thought -- and to a lesser degree the neoconservative though generally irreligious reaction to it -- they tended to ignore phenomena pointing in a totally different direction.

At the Catholic Institute (university) of Paris, for example, some 2,000 laypeople are pursuing rigorous studies in theology - not because they wish to be ordained but simply in a search for God or, as Paris sociologist of religion Danièle Hervieu-Léger suggests, out of a postmodern desire for self-fulfillment.

This indicates a turnaround, even though the number of French priests is continuously declining dramatically. This nation of 60 million has a little more than 25,000 Catholic clergymen left, down from 32,000 just 10 years ago. There are about 100 new ordinations every year, a pitiful figure. Some time ago Hervieu-Léger predicted in an interview that by 2010 no more than 6,000-7,000 priests will still minister to their flocks.

This, however, says a lot about the situation of the priesthood but little about the state of Christianity in France. Protestant divinity schools are crowded, even though Calvinist and Lutheran pastors are just as badly paid as priests - a little more than $1,000 per month; Protestants make up less than 2 percent of the country's population.

In the Catholic Church, men with pastoral ambitions seek alternatives to the priesthood, alternatives that allow them to get married. One is the diaconate. "The number of ordained deacons is steadily on the rise," Jean Jonchéray, vice rector of the Catholic Institute in Paris, told me two years ago, "I can foresee deacons outnumbering priests before long."

Then there are the 120,000 lay catechists, mainly married women, who by now conduct most church services and burials, prepare couples for marriage, and work as chaplains in prisons and hospitals, where they often hear confessions but may not give absolution because they are not ordained.

In many parishes they report constantly swelling catechism classes and Bible study groups for adults. This corresponds to other phenomena indicating that Christianity is by no means dead. Thousands of grownups have themselves baptized every Easter night, both in Catholic and Protestant churches, and new Bible translations become instant bestsellers.

Now, it seems, the time has come for the most revered species in France, the intellectuals, to jump on the bandwagon. The question is whether they will do so in time for the country with the most beautiful abundance of churches and monasteries, and a rich history of Catholic and Protestant thinking, to allow Europe to acknowledge its debt to Christianity.

"What is it that makes Christian thought seemingly incompatible with today's world?" Le Figaro asked Protestant philosopher Olivier Abel. Christian thought, he replied, is always anchored in gratitude, "but today one does not want to acknowledge any debt, except the assumed debt to oneself."

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