Does France Have a Prayer?
Papal French.


‘France needs convinced Catholics who aren’t afraid to affirm who they are and what they believe in . . .  Catholics who are fully Christian, and Christians who are fully active.”

These seem like perfectly fitting sentiments for Pope Benedict to express during his pastoral visit to France this weekend. But these are actually the words of his host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, spoken last December at the Vatican during an unusual — and unusually thoughtful — official reflection on French secularism.

No doubt Benedict agrees. But that hardly implies across-the-board endorsement papal of Sarkozy’s political views, much less direct papal intervention in French politics, as some careless observers suggest. Hence the London Times, for instance: “Pope Benedict XVI waded into French politics [Friday], throwing his weight behind a controversial drive by President Sarkozy to put religious faith back into the life of the strictly secular state.”

That’s just plain wrong. There’s no such “drive” to alter France’s basic church-state arrangements, which everyone agrees are settled, apart from France’s substantial but poorly assimilated and poorly integrated Muslim minority (more on that another time). But it’s useful to compare Benedict’s more modest and focused agenda — and leadership style — with Sarkozy’s altogether more ambitious political program and regrettably scattershot approach.

The three-fold aims of Benedict’s pastoral visit were to (a) encourage the local church; (b) further dialogue with secular European cultures and institutions; and (c) remind the universal church, mainly through his own personal witness, that a highly intellectual faith is entirely compatible with traditional forms of devotion.

Benedict’s first and foremost aim was to encourage French Catholics, now emerging from a long period of decline and demoralization as a more compact, committed, and dynamic community. Roughly 75 percent of France’s 60 million citizens are baptized Catholics, though far fewer identify themselves as Catholics or practice their faith. Only 5 to 10 percent attend Mass on a weekly basis (versus perhaps one-third in the U.S.).

France’s trajectory from “eldest daughter of the church” (la fille aînée de l’Eglise) to “mission country” (pays de mission) — as one senior cleric acknowledged as early as the 1940s — has particularly French causes rooted in modern French history, culture, and politics. The upshot is that committed French Catholics are such by choice, rather than by tradition or convenience, and are therefore noticeably more forward-looking, hopeful, and “evangelical” than their immediate predecessors.

This “creative minority” — Benedict’s term for committed Catholics in an increasingly secular Europe — was the pope’s principal focus.  In fact, Benedict’s presence brought more Catholics into the streets than any event in the past quarter century, recalling the spontaneous demonstrations that erupted against Francois Mitterand’s unsuccessful back-door attempt to close down Catholic schools.

In a revealing interview with the center-right daily Le Figaro, France’s new Catholic leader, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois, the watchword is hope, a term long absent from ecclesial parlance: “To be sure, we’ve undergone hard times since the 1970s and I expect that the Pope will encourage us to tackle the situation with hope and confidence.” He spells out these objectives:

First of all, we must intensify our spiritual life. Christians can’t tackle the issues and conflicts in the life of our society without being profoundly rooted spiritually. It follows that our church should serve as a witness for hope. The church needs to say that humanity isn’t stuck in a fatalistic trap, be it economic, ecological, or political.

Nowadays hope is in especially short supply among the French, especially the young, who find the whole system rigged against those just getting started in life. France as a whole is sharply divided between haves and have-nots, the former consisting of comfortable retirees and secure middle-aged workers (impossible to dismiss without incurring confiscatory tax penalties), protected by the heavy hand of France’s massive unionized bureaucracy and a notably risk-averse culture.

Not surprisingly, young people in France rank at the bottom of a recent international poll measuring confidence in the future (Americans ranked at or near the top). One consequence is the “flight of the young” (la fuite des jeunes), whereby the most able and ambitious are emigrating, almost invariably to the same two destinations: London and New York.