Catholic Traditionalism from a French Perspective
There is a deeply rooted conviction among French Catholics, in particular French bishops, that Traditionalism – or as it called with a very negative innuendo « intégrisme » (integrism) – is nothing but a … French question connected with a few unpleasant political episodes of our national history during the first half of the XXth century. Scholars like Etienne Fouilloux, Philippe Levillain, Florian Michel are constantly hammering this idea. In Norwalk (CT) half of my goal is already achieved because Americans know very well they live in the Promised Land for Traditional Catholicism. To give a couple of examples of this transition from Old Europe to the New World : two personal parishes and one quasi-parish, the latter in my home diocese of Strasbourg, have been established before Summorum Pontificum and nothing has changed since when the number of personal parishes in Northern America is nearly ten times more and one has been established in Rome in 2008. At its birth, the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter was mainly French though a German-Swiss priest was appointed superior general, Fr Bisig ; then Fr Devillers, a Frenchman, was appointed as superior general but he was before superior of the American district and finally, in 2006, Fr Berg, an American, was elected at the helm of the F.S.S.P.
Before looking at the present Traditional landscape in France, which is nicknamed « Tradiland », it is necessary to expose this controversial historical legacy that is still having effects today. Then we’ll be able to suggest some perspectives for the coming years.
A controversial historical legacy
If France played her part in the original integrist network of Msgr Benigni (1) under Saint Pius X, code named La Sapinière or Sodalitium Pianum, French Catholicism paid a much bigger tribute to Charles Maurras (1868-1952) and his movement Action Française (French Action) mainly between the early XXth and the 1940’s. To smear French trads with the infamous label of « Maurrassiens » is the most common way to dodge their legitimate questions and requests, just like it is to consider Bishop Williamson’s negationist statements to be reflecting the official position of the Society – following the U.S. use to speak of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X. Why ?
Charles Maurras has been an intellectual luminary for the Far-Right as soon as the 1900’s when he gave a second life to the Monarchist movement infusing it with a strong nationalism, antisemitism and a passion for authority. But this admirer of the Roman Church was himself an agnostic and expressed fierce contempt for the growing aspirations called « Social Gospel » – re Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. To provide an illustration of this influence suffice it to say that the young François Mitterand, future Socialist French president, raised in a very Catholic family, found in the 1930’s Paris an accommodation in a student home controlled by Action Française ; when he converted to Catholicism with his wife Raïssa, the famous philosopher Jacques Maritain began a companionship with Action Française which ended only in 1926. Saint Pius X put some of Maurras works on the Index list in 1914 but stalled the publication of his decision because the movement was a precious ally in the fight between Church and the anticlerical Third Republic. In 1926 and 1927, Pius XI unearthed this condemnation and added the paper L’Action Française to the Index list. The movement went outlawed up to 1939. This caused a huge trauma among the French Catholic elites : families divided, Cardinal Billot deprived of his red hat, Fr Le Floch cssp removed from office as superior of the French seminary in Rome. Both Marcel Lefebvre and his elder brother René were admirers of Fr Le Floch though the future leader of the Traditionalist dissent never belonged to Action Française nor fully endorsed its philosophy.
This situation has been made even worse by three facts. During the Second World War, Maurrassians sided with the Vichy regime of Marshall Pétain like the young Jean Arfel (the real name of essayist Jean Madiran) or then Fr. Georges de Nantes who mistakenly took the secular collaborationist regime of Pétain for an ideal Catholic state close to the model of the Syllabus. With the Liberation of France in 1944, Maurras was sent behind bars. In the 1950’s, a hot debate opposed anticommunist « integrists » and « progressives » who were attracted by the Communist movement like the worker priests : La Pensée catholique versus Témoignage Chrétien and Fr Congar op got involved in this passionate controversy. Worse during the war of independence of Algeria (1954-1962), « integrists » were often among the most radical opponents of General de Gaulle. In 1962, when he was briefly – less than six months – bishop of Tulle, Archbishop Lefebvre paid a visit to leaders of the terrorist organisation O.A.S. imprisoned in his episcopal city. He had also in Dakar some reservation on the pace – not the principle – of the independence movement affecting French African colonies.
This political background produced a kind of informal network of clubs, associations, papers, reviews, leaflets and this existing network found with the opposition to Vatican II orientations a rejuvenation. It explains why the French Traditionalist movement began early and forcefully if we compare to Northern America. In the end of 1964, Una Voce France was created, roughly six months after the minute Una Voce Norway, and the French association assumed a very active role in the 1960’s and 1970’s : nothing today matching the strength and influence of Una Voce America. Fr de Nantes and his Little Brothers of the Sacred Heart were already at the frontline by 1963-1964 and he got his canonical penalty in 1966. It was a small group of French seminarians in Rome, like then Fr Aulagnier during a long time Assistant to Archbishop Lefebvre in the Society, that urged him to launch a new seminary first in Fribourg (CH) then in Écône (1970).
This controversial history is today largely ignored by the younger generations of trads and the name of Charles Maurras stays unknown or little known for many people.(2) The Far-Right main political party, Front National, has always been a secularist party : the companionship with some trads was/is an individual story not a massive trend. Even less with the new party chairwoman Marine Le Pen who defeated a more openly Catholic oriented challenger in her victorious battle for the succession of her father. As for Philippe de Villiers, a more conservative politician who has been playing the Catholic card during a long time, he completely and bitterly distanced himself from the Church (and the faith) last year deciding to leave political life.
Besides even among French trads affiliated to Maurras or merely influenced by him, different choices regarding the Church have been made. Fr de Nantes never joined the Society and remained until his death in a special form of dissent : very critical of the popes and of the Council, he nevertheless downplayed the liturgical opposition and allowed his disciples to attend Novus Ordo masses when it was necessary. Bishop Tissier de Mallerais is one of the four bishops consecrated in 1988 in the F.S.S.P.X and whose excommunication was lifted in 2009. Jean Madiran opted for the full communion with the Holy See after the schismatic episcopal consecrations of 1988. Three « Maurrassian » Catholics, three different choices.
Above all what is pushing a still tiny minority of Catholics in France to join the rank and files of Traditionalism is certainly not a reverence for Charles Maurras, a love for dictatorship or the antisemitism of Action Française. The main reasons are to be found within the Church rather than through a specific political affiliation or questioning. Some of them do that because they’ve been educated in Traditional families and within a growing network of Traditionalist schools. But this reaches to hardly 10.000 pupils, probably less, if we combine all types of traditional schools. However a majority of priestly vocations in the Society seminaries are coming from these schools. The largest group is made of an increasing number of Joe and Jane Pew fed up with the neo-liturgical chaos which is still dominating the scene. The « litnik » – to use this picturesque neologism – establishment is still in charge and backed by most bishops : it is providing a neo-liturgical training of priests, seminarians and the local increasingly prevalent lay teams. This goes with a poor training in catechism. Cardinal Ratzinger had a fight with the French bishops in the early 1980’s about that. Technically, Pierres vivantes (Living Stones), the French episcopally approved catechism, was improved a little bit but not truly reshuffled. We can keep in mind this episode to understand why the same Cardinal Ratzinger pushed for a Roman Catechism which editio princeps in 1992 was in … the French language. Finally some Catholics are increasingly dissatisfied with the tepid stance often adopted by the French episcopal Conference (C.E.F. in French) on critical issues. French bishops are reluctant to stand up and speak out loud and in doing so embarrassing the government whether a right-wing or a left-wing administration. C.E.F. issued, like U.S.C.C.B., guidelines to help the Catholic citizens to make a choice for the 2012 general elections : its tone is softer than the American document and though controversial and specific questions (abortion, euthanasia, human cell research …) are listed, they are carefully mixed up with more consensual debates. According to some sources, the initial draft was tougher and more « Ratzingerian » but it has been toned down. Bishops stayed in the background on the newly imposed gender theory in school programs even when 80 representatives decided to protest. A handful of bishops are joining in physically a « Marche pour la vie » (marching for life) – though 10% of the diocesan bishops supported it in 2010 – organized by trads and neo-conservative Wojtylian Catholics every year and very few dioceses have a pro-life office in their chanceries. When Trads and some other Catholics decided to protest again a play where the face of Christ was covered with feces and stoned in previous performances, cardinal Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Paris and president of C.E.F., lashed at … the protesting Catholics claiming they are « des idiots sympathiques » (naive dummies) manipulated by the Society and o horror … Maurrassians. Later the Archbishop of Rennes, a major see, endorsed the play with an astonishing statement : « Castelluci n’est-il pas un de ces « chercheurs de Dieu », dont a parlé Benoît XVI à Assise ? » (3) As early as 2002, Archbishop Rouet and Bishop Louis endorsed the Piss Christ of Andres Serrano. The contrast between France and the U.S.A. is also striking when it comes to reprimanding high profile politicians who openly advocate for proposals openly contradicting the Church doctrine and yet keep flaunting their Catholic beliefs. Mrs Bachelot, a Catholic member of the Sarkozy administration, is, for example, a champion for gay marriage and personally responsible for supporting planned parenthood in state high schools. She has never been publicly disciplined or even warned by her bishop. Recently Frédéric Mounier of La Croix – a kind of influential French version of John Allen – was proposing this tepid stance adopted for years by the French Catholic Church as a model for Catholics in a secularist Europe. This modern Nicodemite « expertise », Mounier used this word, is exactly what Traditionalists and, in general, the John Paul II and Benedict XVI generations are refusing : to become the gentle humanitarian supplementation of a soul-less Europe, in short to set aside the Via Crucis. Here is the real driving force for French traditionalism’s growth.
An overview of French « Tradiland »
The hardest question to be answered is : how many Trads in France ? According to the most recent poll, there are 64% of self-declared Catholics among the population : 20 years ago, they were around 80%. Practicing Catholics are between 5% and 8% and a realistic estimation gives 50.000 Trads so they represent only 1% of the … sole practicing Catholics. At a local level, the Strasbourg (4) quasi-parish of Saint Joseph Koenigshoffen is reaching to a maximum of 500 people for the major celebrations and an average 200 people regular attendance on any given Sunday. In the whole diocese of Strasbourg, there are only 2 official locations for T.L.M.
Nearly all traditional priestly societies are represented in France, from the pioneering F.S.S.P.X covering roughly 60 % of the dioceses to the Fraternity of Saint Peter (25%), the Institute of Christ the King, the Good Shepherd Institute (born in Bordeaux 2006), the little association of diocesan priests Totus Tuus launched after the Motu proprio. Religious orders like the Benedictine abbeys (Le Barroux, Triors, Randol …), the Dominican Fraternity of Saint Vincent Ferrer at Chémeré-le-Roi and the Avrillé Brothers (close to the Society), a couple of Dominican teaching sisters revolving around the Society, the Canons of the Mother of God in Lagrasse and their feminine counterpart … all this shows a greater variety than in the USA. In the diocese of Toulon-Fréjus, there is at least one locally recognized Society of Mercy (Fr Loiseau).
Unlike in the U.S.A., monasteries played an important part in the growth of the Traditionalist movement in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, in particular when Dom Gérard Calvet (1927-2008) was abbot of Sainte-Madeleine of Le Barroux. So the sensitivity of French Trads when the newly elected abbot of Fontgombault (5) , Dom Pateau, is underlining his support to concelebration and a hybrid 1965 version of the Traditional Latin Mass. Cardinal Ratzinger chose a symposium held in this abbey in 2001 to call for his famous « new liturgical movement », stressing shortly after that it was from the Novus Ordo to the 1962 missal and not the reverse as some, among the French Benedictines in particular, seem to have understood until then. For numerous reasons, these Benedictine monasteries, though still rather prosperous, are not to the same extent the beacons of French traditionalism they were in the past.
There are three other major differences between North American Traditionalism and the French one . Sedevacantists are sometimes boisterous (like on the web the sites linked to Louis-Hubert Rémy…) but they have never been really significant ; the proportion of people following late Fr Guérard des Lauriers and his Thesis of Cassiciacum is greater than elsewhere – apart from Mexico – probably because this former Dominican father who proclaimed himself a bishop in 1981 was French and had been briefly teaching at the Society Ecône seminary. Also the number of independent priests, whose credentials can be dubious depending on each case, has been very low in France compared to Northern America since the 1980’s and the gradual extinction of the few local parish priests who initially refused the Novus Ordo. The different priestly societies have taken over. The last difference is striking : with Winona and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Denton (Nebraska ), the USA have two big seminaries for Traditional priests when there is none in France for the Roman Traditionalist societies ! The French section of F.S.S.P. is located in Wigratzbad (Germany), the I.C.R.-S.P. has one in Gricigliano (Italy) and even the Society seminary of Flavigny (diocese of Dijon, France) is not hosting a complete cursus. An attempt of first cycle seminary for traditional vocations began last year in Lyons under the authority of Auxiliary bishop Batut and the Totus tuus association. But so far, it is a failure with only two candidates and no guaranty for them, if they pursue to the priesthood, they could have an apostolate related to the T.L.M. There is also a trad-friendly diocesan seminary at La Castille, under the French Bruskewitz, Bishop Rey (Toulon-Fréjus), and Bishop Aillet (Bayonne, former vicar general of bishop Rey) said he will open one.
With Bishop Centène (Vannes), they are the only openly trad-friendly bishops among the French episcopal Conference (over 120 bishops) and none has been appointed to a major see, though Toulon-Fréjus has become a nationwide attractive diocese first with Bishop Madec then with Bishop Rey, both appointed under John Paul II. The lack of support from the French bishops is mainly illustrated by what I call the containment policy unofficially adopted to stall the implementation of Summorum Pontificum. If there are now a handful of dioceses left without a single official T.L.M., if the increase of the locations since 2007 has been noticeable (around 40%), we are still far behind to meet not the expectations but the actual official requests of the faithful. Not only in too many cases, bishops have retained the final decision, implementing … Ecclesia Dei adflicta of 1988, but very often they have the initial word before any pastor could use his right to decide. One parish pastor of Paris who took this liberty had to seek refuge in Bishop Rey’s diocese after his mandate was not renewed by the Cardinal-archbishop. In this regard, there is little change to be expected with the Instruction Ecclesiae universae (2011) because the containment policy is more subtle than a frontal opposition. The renewal of the episcopate is decisive and the contrast between Northern America (or Australia)and Western Europe (beyond France herself) is striking : on one hand, a determined policy started by John Paul II and actively endorsed by the present pope, on the other hand a handful of « new evangelization » prelates appointed in an ocean of moderate « Spirit of the Council » bishops. Without an Americanization, so to speak, of the European college of bishops, the doom and gloom perspective is likely to prevail alas.
After this grey picture of French Traditionalism, I want to offer a few words of conclusion with some encouraging elements.
Amidst an ageing and rapidly declining cafeteria Catholicism, the « Tradiland » offers a younger face with numerous active lay people. The success of Traditionalist websites, like le Forum Catholique or le Salon Beige, is so obvious that it was acknoledged this year by the Holy See, to the great disappointment of the semi-official paper La Croix (a daily paper ideologically close to the U.S. Jesuit review America). Traditional communities are in France, like everywhere else, a cradle for religious and priestly vocations. French liberal dioceses (ex. Poitiers) have become vocational deserts ; in Strasbourg, from around 40 seminarians less than ten years ago, we have now 14 and a single new one in first year. It is commonly estimated, based on the present stats, that traditional institutes will provide nearly 20% of French ordained priests around 2015. Moreover, when they are not pressured to quit, trad-oriented seminarians, if not traditionalist themselves, are a growing number in the surviving diocesan seminaries.
For the whole Western Europe, Traditional communities, with a few others mainly coming from the « Ratzingerian » movements, are called to become little strongholds of the Catholic faith, a Catholic diaspora scattered on a secularized continent like Early Christians were in the Pagan world.
From a Catholic point of view, in spite of the slow growth in Europe and more spectacular in Northern America of Traditionalism, it is a necessity for all to consider that, based on vocations statistics, the future of the Church along this century is in Africa and Asia, the two continents where the Traditionalist movement is the weakest. Are Traditional Catholics able to spread the flame of their missionary zeal to Africans and Asians, it is a key question for Catholicism in the end of the XXIst century.
1. Emile Poulat, Catholicisme, démocratie et socialisme : le mouvement catholique et Mgr Benigni de la naissance du socialisme à la victoire du fascisme, Turnhout, Casterman, 1977.
2. There is a revival of interest in academic research but on a purely historical basis cf. M. Leymarie et J. Prévotat, L’Action française : culture, société, politique, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2008.
3. After considering that the old man’s loose bowels represent the image of « Christ who purged from himself until death and death on the Cross » (sic), Archbishop d’Ornellas – during a long time the right hand of Cardinal Lustiger – is asking : « Is Castellucci one of those who seek God Benedict XVI talked about at Assisi ? » (Statement of the archbishop posted on the official website : http://catholique-rennes.cef.fr/?Sur-le-concept-du-visage-du-fils, November 3, 2011). Another bishop in charge of monitoring the cultural scene, Bishop Wintzer, issued a Note applauding the play and basically considering that any work of art is by essence laudable even as a provocation to the Catholic faith. Fortunately, Bishop Brincard (Le Puy) stated bluntly the obvious truth : « la pièce de Castellucci est – et je pèse mes mots – violente, pénible et inutilement provocante. » (http://catholique-lepuy.cef.fr/Quelques-propos-au-sujet-d-une.html) [Castellucci’s play is – and I weigh carefully my words – violent, a nuisance and offensive without any necessity].
4. The city with its outskirts has over 400.000 inhabitants.
5. Clear Creek abbey is a daughter of Fontgombault in Oklahoma.
Copyright 2011 by Luc Perrin