Cover image: The French bishops after a meeting in Lourdes on Nov 9, 1997. (AFP)
At the end of the 20th century, a series of questions arose about Christianity in contemporary society
Though the article in LA CROIX INTERNATIONAL is specificially on the status of Christianity in France, yet it is very thought-provoking considering global pattern. Isaac Gomes, Asso. Editor, Church Citizens' Voice.
LA CROIX INTERNATIONAL
December 23, 2019
French historian René Rémond was concerned about a wave of accusations concerning Christianity.
He wondered whether it was Christianity that was condemned to oblivion or whether it was the Church that was considerably losing weight.
Other historians or sociologists also insist on the spectacular growth of religious plurality and the challenge it posed to the traditional Christian faith.
In this tumultuous 21st century, attention of several observers is focused on the critical situation of the Catholic Church in western countries. The decline in the number of Catholics speaks voluminously of a trend in society.
On the other hand, there are a few who air a contradictory view by citing the constant progress of adults attending catechism and requests for baptism coming from families without any religious affiliations.
Some call this decline dechristianization following the spiritual demand from young people and adults knocking, so to speak, on the door of the Church.
Should we take a serious interest in the numbers and start worrying about them?
Isn't it interesting to look closely at the conditions under which demands for learning about the Christian faith are being made?
The question arises
The question of majority or minority status for Christianity in a country like France is a troublesome query.
But why is it so? Because for some, in the Catholic ranks, it induces a way of lowering one's flag and turning it into a ridiculous slogan: "Catholics and French always."
Figures tell us that in 1960 more than 90 percent of the French were baptized and were ready to manifest their Catholic faith through meaningful rituals like funerals and marriages.
Now, we learn that barely 30 percent of them were baptized in early childhood.
"Not in our country, it is not possible," said an otherwise convinced Catholic.
Yet, the landscape is showing an unprecedented change.
Are we moving towards a situation where the Church would become a minority in countries with an ancient Catholic tradition?
This would dent the symbiosis that allowed the society to be called a "Christian society."
Some evoke a minority situation which would correspond to the Church under the Roman Empire.
Such a rapprochement is an inadequate shortcut.
According to a logic based on the figures, one would then pass to a kind of bipartition between what is Christian and what is not.
History here invites us to introduce strictly new parameters in relation to what was the minority situation of the Church in a pagan world which was indeed a religious world. And it is precisely what the contemporary Europe, which had Christianity, is no longer.
When we look at the astonishing percentage of people who declare themselves "without religion," how can we fail to remember that the Christian minority was evolving in a pagan socio-cultural universe.
It cannot hide the fact that it is conceivable today to live without a particular religion. The manifestation of religion in public space raises questions. This, of course, conditions the approach to a message such as that of Christianity.
At the same time, however, the traces of Christian centuries, in the form of monuments, calendars, and the anthropological presuppositions that still dominate in societal debates, persist for those who have not acceded to the Christian faith and for those who have detached themselves from it.
The mere question of whether or not to consider baptism some time after birth is not insignificant. And it cannot be so as long as there are adult parents and relatives who have themselves been baptized in early childhood.
But the renewal of generation is accompanied by an impressive halt in transmission.
In the socio-cultural changes of our time, a minority status for the Catholic Church in France raises unprecedented questions. Secularization seems to be an irreversible phenomenon. The error of Catholics would be to confuse it with a form of anti-religion.
A religious minority, moreover, with a long history of guiding society, cannot resign itself to a marginality that would lead to insignificance.
In the same context, on the other hand, it could become more and more accustomed to a "among oneself" where shared convictions favour isolationism.
The Christian communities in the pagan empire refused to accept this type of positioning.
It is not today that the Church could play the communitarian card without losing all credit in a situation where professional and social life presuppose neck and neck, where Catholics could not extricate themselves from the social game without contradicting their own message of solidarity.
Gaston Pietri is a senior priest of the Diocese of Ajaccio (Corsica) and a former adjunct secretary general of the Episcopal Conference of France