The Catholic Church in France, among the places where the fashionable “liberalism” of the 1960s and ‘70s has most taken hold, is dying out, with Mass attendance, priestly vocations and seminarians at record lows. At the same time, the growth of the doctrinally and liturgically “traditional” movements, who tend to be strongly pro-life and pro-family, is continuing.
The Institut français d’opinion publique (IFOP Institute) has just issued its survey on the situation of the Church in France and reports that the French Catholic Church is in freefall. Between1965 and 2009, the number of French identifying themselves as Catholics fell from 81 per cent to 64 per cent. The number attending Mass once a week or more fell from 27 per cent to 4.5 per cent in the same period.
The statistics, published in the Catholic weekly La Croix, show the effects of institutionalized “liberalism” in Catholic teaching. Sixty-three per cent of those who still consider themselves Catholic believe that all religions are the same; 75 per cent asked for an “aggiornamento” in the Church to reconsider Catholic teaching forbidding artificial contraception, while 68 per cent said the same thing for abortion.
According to official Catholic Church statistics, the total number of Catholic marriages (-28.4%), baptisms (-19.1%), confirmations (-35.3%), as well as priests (-26.1%), and religious sisters (-23.4%), has continued to fall between 1996 and 2006.
Statistics compiled by the traditionalist Catholic group Paix Liturgique show that the decline is sharpest in the most doctrinally “liberal” dioceses with regard to priests and future ordinations. Due to the critical shortage of vocations to the priesthood, it is estimated that up to a third of the dioceses of the Catholic Church in France – some dating to the second century AD – will be forced to close or amalgamate by 2025.
In November last year, Paix Liturgique reported that only 9000 priests are serving the Catholic faithful in France. In 1990, the total number of ordinations in the country was 90. Paris had 10, with two for a local independent religious order. Seven are predicted for 2010, and four for 2011.
There are fewer than 750 seminarians currently studying for the priesthood, with about a hundred of these being for religious orders, not dioceses. The diocese of Pamiers, Belfort, Agen and Perpignan have no seminarians. The drop in vocations to the priesthood will result, the group said, in at least one third of French dioceses either effectively ceasing to exist or being forced to amalgamate over the next 15 years.
But in small pockets where traditional liturgical practice, combined with traditional moral doctrine, is encouraged, French Catholicism is flourishing. Two years ago, Pope Benedict issued the document “Summorum Pontificum,” allowing the use of the pre-Vatican II Mass in Latin. Despite it remaining a “taboo” subject to the liberal faction of the French episcopate, the older rite, what is now being called the Extraordinary Form, is acting as a catalyst for growth in the few areas where it has been accepted by bishops.
More than 14 per cent of ordinations in France were for the Extraordinary Form in 2009, according to Paix Liturgique, with 15 French priests ordained for it. Almost 20 per cent of seminarians, 160, are destined for the Extraordinary Form. The group notes that if the current trends continue, in a few more years more than a quarter of all French seminarians will be studying for the older form of the liturgy, a rite that naturally selects against doctrinal and moral “liberalism.”
According to a CSA poll taken in September 2008, a third of practicing Catholics in France said they would willingly attend a traditional Mass if it were available.
In September, Archbishop Dominique Rey of the southern diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, ordained two priests to his diocese in what is now being called the “Extraordinary Form.”
This move, though heavily criticized by many in the liberal factions of the French Church, followed the ordination of 14 priests and 11 deacons in the newer “Novus Ordo” form in June, demonstrating that the two forms can live side by side.
Paix Liturgique reports that the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon has about 80 seminarians in the only seminary in the world that trains priests in both the pre-Vatican II and the newer rite.
In July, Paix Liturgique reported significant growth in Mass attendance in areas that have allowed the use of the older form. In addition to the existing 132 “authorized” places of worship and 184 served by the canonically irregular Society of Saint Pius X, an additional 72 new chapels and churches have been allowed for the use of the Extraordinary Form. This represents an increase from 55 per cent in two years, compared to an increase of between 2 and 5 per cent between 1988 and 2007.
Even more unexpectedly, the requests to dioceses from the laity for the celebration of the Extraordinary Form, have also dramatically increased. Paix Liturgique reports that more than 350 groups of French Catholic families have formally requested the older form of the Mass from their dioceses all over France and more than 600 groups have formed to promote the older form and have asked for it informally, making direct requests to parish priests.