Book Review: Danièle Hervieu-Léger and Jean-Louis Schlegel, Vers l’Implosion? Entretiens sur le présent et l’avenir ducatholicisme. Paris: Seuil, 2022. 392 pp.

The first lecture I heard in French, in 1967, spoke of the ‘dechristianization’ of the Bordeaux region, a new and shocking word for me. Since then, year after year, visiting La Procure I have read a stream of books on the decline or the crisis of French Catholicism, with a feeling akin to that induced by Samuel Beckett’s plays in which the second act repeats the first, but more gloomily. The present book is possibly the gloomiest of all, despite the relaxed tone of the two discussants. It is dominated by the Sauvé report on church sexual abuse of 5 October 2021 which claimed that an estimated 330,000 children were abused by priests, deacons, monks, nuns, and other church workers from 1950 to 2020 (13). The leaders of the Académie catholique de France questioned the reliability of these figures, and despite repeated assurances from the authors of Vers l’Implosion?, some doubt has been sown, though not sufficient to palliate the blow to the church’s credibility. Naturally the authors rehearse the now common critique of seminary formation: ‘Sexuality, their own and that of those who would be entrusted to them, was approached only under the angle of the sin it led to. Woman was present only through the figures of the Virgin and the mother. And in that entirely masculine world, homosexuality was simply taboo: that of which, par excellence, one never spoke’ (281). This refers to the 19th century, but would still fit seminary formation in the 1960s or 1970s. Schlegel notes a correlation between abuse and a catechesis that made all offenses against the sixth commandment ‘equally grave’ (221). Hervieu-Léger notes that the early church ‘took up again and revalorized elements of cultic sacrality that Rabbinic Judaism had abandoned’ (223). This is one of many remarks showing how the present crisis has people reaching deep into history to find out where things went wrong. 

In the main the book moves in the familiar grooves of the liberal Catholic diagnoses of the causes of the church’s ills. John Paul II asked: ‘France, Eldest Daughter of the Church, what have you done with your baptism?’ The chaplain of France’s embassy to the Vatican assured a group of us that the Vatican sees France as having succumbed to ‘apostasy.’ Our authors return the compliment, blaming the Catholic restoration of John Paul II for betraying Vatican II and leaving the faithful in the lurch. His ‘obsessional fixation on the figure of the priest’ (204) led him to shut his eyes to the need of female ordination, which would alter the definition of priesthood and thus put in question the very foundation of Catholic churchhood (227). One item new to me was the suppression of priestless liturgical assemblies at the end of the 1980s (204). Cardinal Eijk of Utrecht proposes the same thing this year. This undermines the identity of the parish community, and seems motivated by mistrust and fear, as if having depleted the clergy by insisting on celibacy the authorities must weaken the laity in turn to ensure control.

The polar opposite of liberalism is no longer ultramontanism just now, given that Pope Francis is embraced by liberals and disliked by the Catholic Right. The last powerful rally of conservative Catholics was their key role in Le Manif pour tous, a very dynamic resistance from all over France to the same-sex marriage legislation of May 2013. Subsequent causes did not draw the same engagement, as they could not fuel the same passions. Though encouraged by the bishops (subsequently disillusioned), the victories of this movement are probably Pyrrhic ones. Meanwhile the authors refer to a ‘remnant’ Catholicism, Rod Dreher’s ‘Benedict option,’ and note that when it takes root in a parish it scares away the ordinary faithful (319-21). 

A key concern of this book is that the faith is no longer being transmitted from parents to children, a problem noted by Michel de Certeau in the 1970s (177). Hervieu-Léger cites as an example of religious ignorance the question of a doctorate student, ‘could you remind me, what is the Eucharist?’ (176). As the emotive reaction to the fire in Notre-Dame showed, many French cherish the Catholic patrimony, its art, music, and literature, and they like to go on pilgrimages or stay in monasteries, but our authors view this negatively as contributing to ‘the folklorization of Christianity’ diagnosed by de Certeau (Le christianisme éclaté, 1974). Still, remembering the glories of French Catholicism in the century of Claudel and Péguy, Bernanos and Mauriac, Gilson and Maritain, and the hosts of Dominican and Jesuit theologians who laid the basis of Vatican II, one does not despair of a new effusion of the Spirit, new fire from those embers. The synodality process launched by Pope Francis could let brilliant, critical French voices resonate in open discussion; the present book makes no reference to this, nor to ecumenical and interreligious discussion, with the result that the reader may feel suffocated by its intense Catholic and ‘hexagonal’ focus. 

Is the tale told here simply one of loss of faith? The authors write as sociologists of religion, not pursuing philosophical and theological inquiry into the life of the soul. But what can be deduced from their findings is that the crisis of French Catholicism may be primarily one of communication and organization rather than of faith and spirituality. A creative, imaginative revival of this great tradition is not to be ruled out. 

Joseph S. O’Leary

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