Catholicism in France Could Soon Become a Minority but a More Traditional One, Experts Claim
In the country known as the ‘Eldest Daughter of the Church,’ Islam and evangelical Protestantism could reach hegemonic positions over the next few decades, while Catholicism would become anchored with a more orthodox momentum.
Today’s announcement of the resignations of two French bishops suffering from episcopal burnout, and the impending release of a potentially devastating report about sexual abuse allegations at France’s Community of St. John, have directed renewed attention towards the fragile state of the Church in France. Is Catholicism now on the verge of extinction in France, “Eldest Daughter of the Church” and homeland of St. Louis and St. Joan of Arc?
Studies of the evolution of the country’s religious landscape have already suggested so over the past months. The most recent of these shows that Catholicism is the religion with the steepest decline and the lowest rate of intra-family transmission.
These findings have led historian and sociology of religion expert Guillaume Cuchet to suggest that, in a few decades’ time, Catholicism could be in the minority, overtaken by Islam, evangelical Protestantism and, above all, by people with no religion at all. At the same time, this trend is likely to be accompanied by a more traditional and observant approach among minority Catholics.
If these predictions prove true, the face of France, whose 1,500-year history began with the baptism of King Clovis by St. Remigius, will be profoundly altered, as will that of Catholic practice itself.
The Collapse of Family Transmission
This decline of Catholicism, which Cuchet has often warned against in recent years, has accelerated dramatically since 2008, as shown by the “Trajectoires et Origines 2” (TEO2) survey commissioned by INSEE (the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies). The survey’s findings were made public in April 2023.
In fact, only 25% of French people aged 18-59 declared themselves to be Catholic in 2020, compared with 43% in 2008 according to the Trajectoires et Origines 1 survey. While those with no religion rose from 45% to 53%, Islam increased by 37% over the same period, and another study indicated Muslims now comprise an estimated 10% of France’s total population
Commenting on the study in an interview with La Vie magazine, Cuchet also highlighted the “spectacular rise” of evangelical Protestants over the past decade, who account for a growing share of the 9% of the French population who are non-Catholic Christians .
Such data led the sociologist to the theory that Catholicism could become, “one not-too-distant day,” the country’s second or even third religion.
For historian Yann Raison du Cleuziou, and expert in contemporary Catholicism and author of Qui sont les Cathos aujourd’hui? (Who Are the Catholics Today?), this theory is almost mathematically self-evident.
Based on the 2018 European Values Study, which found that 15% of 18-29-year-olds were self-identified Catholics, compared with 13% of young Muslims, he notes that there is already a crossover occurring in the relative numbers of the younger Catholic and Muslim generations.
In an interview with the Register, he said that, although TEO2 merely confirmed long-established trends, it had the benefit of demonstrating that family culture was the essential matrix for the perpetuation of religion — an area in which Catholics are the least successful among major French religious groups. Indeed, the generational reproduction rate for Islam is 91%, 84% for Jews and 67% only for Catholics.
“In Western societies, the belief has spread that a religion’s values alone determine its social success. However, from a societal point of view, religion is above all an inherited culture designed to embody the general population,” Raison du Cleuziou said.
From Vatican II to the Abuse Crisis
At the same time, this changing faith landscape is undoubtedly amplified by the steady increase in migration to France over the last few decades (10.3% of the population was foreign-born in 2021, compared with 6.5% in 1968), which has fostered the rise of Islam and evangelical movements. However, most experts agree that the decline in Catholic religious practice and its transmission within the family dates back to the mid-1960s.
In his 2018 book, Comment le monde a cessé d'être chrétien (How Our World Ceased Being Christian), Cuchet outlined the upheaval that occurred in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, positing that “the end of the pastoral insistence on the obligatory nature of religious practice that came along with the Council played, on a collective level, a fundamental role in the rupture” led to the spectacular fall in religious practice from 1966 onwards.
This phenomenon continued and worsened relentlessly until the COVID-19 crisis and the 2021 “Sauvé Report” on sexual abuse within the Church further accelerated the existing trend of decline, according to Raison du Cleuziou.
“Every new crisis, all the more so on divisive issues such as sexual morality, encourages mass departures; only the most resilient remain,” he said.
The strongest resilience, according to the historian, is often to be found among more observant Catholics today, precisely because they have built up a relatively critical stance towards the ecclesial institution and its decisions in post-conciliar pastoral care, from the 1970s.
This theory echoes a recent study by the La Croix newspaper, which showed that these observant and rather conservative families, unlike the rest of the faithful, “successfully” ensured their spiritual transmission, carefully prioritizing the religious socialization of their children.
Raison du Cleuziou explains this as a consequence of the minority functioning of these conservative religious communities which, like other groups such as Jewish communities, are more aware of their precariousness and possible disappearance.
“When a group is a minority, it tends to be demanding about the level of conviction of its members to ensure its perpetuation, which depends not just on free adherence but on a transmission that maintains the rules and rituality as much as possible,” he said.
“That’s why observant Catholics are the ones who best perpetuate themselves in France, because they have maintained codes, prohibitions and clear boundaries between what belongs to the religious domain and what is extraneous to it,” he added.
Such a trend, in his view, runs completely counter to that promoted by the French Church since the 1700s, through a posture that is quite typical of a weakened majority: focused on openness and welcoming, and undemanding in the socio-cultural norms and codes that mark its identity.
In this respect, he is convinced that a profound transformation is about to take place in the country’s Catholic landscape, which he predicts will be anchored, at least for a time, in a strong reaffirmation of dogma’s importance in religious experience.
Traditionalism, Future of the French Church?
This opinion is shared by “Père Danziec” — a well-known pseudonymous commentator in the French Catholic media — who also warns of the imminent collapse of the hierarchy of the Church of France. For this priest of the traditional Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the recent sex scandals that have rocked the Church have particularly hastened its decline.
“To face up to the challenges of today’s society, you really need to be strong in every respect, and the French clergy seems to have been completely stunned since the publication of the Sauvé Report,” he told the Register, drawing a parallel with the atmosphere that preceded the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
However, the general disaffection with Catholicism, the desertion of churches and the wave of seminary closures in France, is accompanied at the same time by a strong attachment to traditionalist movements, especially among young people, as evidenced by another recent study that lends additional credence to the hypotheses of a gradual refocusing and tightening of religious practice.
In May, for the first time in 40 years, the organizers of the annual Christendom Pilgrimage of Chartres — which brings together Catholics attached to the Traditional Latin Mass — had to close registration some ten days before the event, due to their 16,000-person ceiling being exceeded.
The pilgrimage’s director, Jean de Tauriers, said in an interview with the Register that an increase of around 10% was recorded each year, and that more than half of participants were under 21.
“Many of them are what we call ‘recommencers,’ who are returning to religious practice or in any case are asking themselves questions, driven by a thirst for spirituality and religious anchoring,” he said at the end of the 2023 pilgrimage on May 29. “Alongside this, I also see a search for exacting standards among these participants, insofar as our three-day pilgrimage is also marked by both physical and spiritual constraint.” He also pointed out that participation by diocesan priests is on the rise.
These facts lead Père Danziec to believe that, while Cuchet and Raison du Cleuziou’s predictions regarding the continuing decline of the Church in France are highly probable, the trend could also be rapidly reversed by a subsequent resurgence of traditional faith.
“More and more people are attracted by the triptych of coherence, transcendence and exigency, in the conviction that, if you’re going to be a Christian, you might as well be one in every aspect of your life.”