Tensions Surface in French Archdiocese After Avignon Archbishop’s Departure

NEWS ANALYSIS: Sources indicate that the controversy that preceded Archbishop Jean-Pierre Cattenoz’s recent retirement occurred because of his conservative views, as well as the financial issues highlighted by media reports.

Retiring Archbishop Jean-Pierre Cattenoz (l) led the Archdiocese of Avignon, whose cathedral and Pope’s Palace are shown, for almost 20 years.
Retiring Archbishop Jean-Pierre Cattenoz (l) led the Archdiocese of Avignon, whose cathedral and Pope’s Palace are shown, for almost 20 years. (photo: Le Borgne de Fecamp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Martin Kraft, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The news of the retirement of Archbishop Jean-Pierre Cattenoz, who  led the Archdiocese of Avignon for almost 20 years, has highlighted the tensions there over Archbishop Cattenoz’s methods of governance and staunchly orthodox stances with regard to morals and society issues.

And according to the archbishop, who spoke with the Register following his Jan. 11 retirement, many of the problems stemmed from the ability of a small group of critics to broadcast their concerns widely through French news media.

Ahead of his resignation, the archbishop was under fire because of renewed criticism over both his financial and his pastoral management. In recent years, he had already been the target of a number of attacks, both in the country’s secular and Catholic press, and the news of the Pope’s acceptance of his resignation was accompanied by severe criticism with regard to his record in the French press. 

Archbishop Cattenoz — who was appointed to the archdiocese in southeastern France by Pope John Paul II in 2002 and submitted his resignation on his 75th birthday, Dec. 17 — was known for his outspokenness and his comments in the media against abortion, same-sex “marriage” and gender ideology, in particular, stances that won him few allies in France, including within the ranks of the Church. 

Indeed, the most virulent critics of the archbishop in the press are the members of a lay association called Chrétiens en Vaucluse (“Christians in Vaucluse,” referring to the French regional administrative region where Avignon is located). The small association, which claims 20 members and 200 sympathizers, has been repeatedly denouncing his behavior through press releases and interviews granted to several media outlets, accusing him in particular of squandering the archdiocese’s money and neglecting the concern for the poor, as well as ecumenical and interreligious initiatives. 


‘Discouraged Christians’

In a letter sent to Pope Francis in 2019, the association asked the Holy Father to send the archbishop, described as “the prelate of discord,” to early retirement in order to “give new momentum to discouraged Christians” in the archdiocese.  

In an interview with the Register, the secretary of the association, Joëlle Bonnet, complained that Avignon —  the seat of the papacy for seven popes in the 14th century — has been “ill-treated by its archbishop for 18 years” and that the Church hierarchy “never intervened, despite the numerous actions from Chrétiens en Vaucluse (CEV) to the metropolitan archbishop of Marseille, the apostolic nuncio, the president of the bishops’ conference of France and the archbishop of Paris.” 

According to the documents included in the file that the association sent to the Pope in 2019 — of which the Register obtained a copy — Archbishop Cattenoz allegedly bullied several priests of his archdiocese and even dismissed or forced them to transfer to another diocese. Moreover, the archbishop is accused of having heavily put the diocese into debt — during a period when donations and bequests dropped dramatically — most notably through the 4-million euro ($4.8 million) building project he launched in 2015 for the new diocesan major Seminary Redemptoris Mater, which was designed to replace the interregional major seminary that closed its doors shortly after he took office.

The documents also cite a preexisting financial precariousness in the diocese, due to Archbishop Cattenoz’s choice to “import” many foreign priests and communities to compensate for the aging of the archdiocese’s clergy — which also had the effect of further increasing the internal frustrations and tensions, including for cultural reasons. 

But a priest of the same diocese, who chose to remain anonymous, told the Register that although he didn’t always agree with the archbishop’s governance, CEV’s accusations only represented, in his view, one side of a more complex reality. 

“His opponents monopolized the media, but, in reality, despite his rough and sometimes unbearable character, he was loved as much as he was hated,” he said. “Some people loved his dynamism and his authenticity; it is a man who never compromised with worldliness and was not afraid to speak up.” 


Opposing Visions 

After having always refused previously to discuss criticism of him with the press, Archbishop Cattenoz agreed to reply to some of the main accusations he received during a Jan. 27 interview with the Register. 

He said the dialogue with the members of CEV was broken off when they started attacking him in the public arena, several years ago. 

“I refused to start public exchanges with them in the press because these are not my methods, and I considered that we should have kept trying to dialogue privately, between brothers, even [if it was] harshly,” he said. 

He added that, although he was convinced that the association was made up of real Christians, their sensitivities have been consistently influencing their judgment and actions. 

CEV members — who claim to belong to the “Vatican II Generation,” have been formed by Catholic Action or movements like Young Christian Students and are elderly middle-class Christians (all of them are over the age of 70) — make no secret of their progressive views. 

In a document handed over to the archdiocese’s current apostolic administrator, Archbishop George Pontier, the association put together a six-page “job description” for their next archbishop, who should be appointed in the coming months. Among their requirements are the development of ecumenical relations, interreligious dialogue, the need to “modernize, rejuvenate and eradicate stereotypes so that the youth feel involved” and to “regularly celebrate Mass in the different parishes with simplicity … meet Christians often and in informal, simple and spontaneous manner.”

They also demanded the new archbishop be “open to modern currents of thought in order to be in dialogue with men and women of his time in the diocese,” to focus charity efforts on homeless people and migrants, to “have had a life and an occupation prior to his ordination” and to “possibly do an internship in civil society to be confronted with ‘real life.’” 

“This association represents a minority of Christians who are very active and feel like they have a mission to carry out,” an archdiocesan source who requested anonymity told the Register. He explained that this lay generation, who lived the civil unrest of May 1968 in France, got used to having  far more power within the archdiocese in subsequent decades, notably through the archdiocesan synods that took place until the 1990s. Therefore, this long-standing discord is, in his view, partly due to a deep divergence in their conception of the Church, with respect to its functioning and its hierarchy.  


Ideological Clash 

These ideological discrepancies between Archbishop Cattenoz and his opponents in the archdiocese are, in the prelate’s view, at the origin of many accusations against him. 

In particular, when questioned about the allegations of persecution and injustice against several priests of his diocese, Archbishop Cattenoz said he had to deal with widespread moral corruption when he took office. 

In particular, the Interdiocesan Major Seminary of Avignon that was closed soon after Archbishop Cattenoz’s arrival by collegial decision, because the various regional bishops couldn’t reach an agreement on the seminary’s new superior and its teaching staff, was considered by CEV as “a beacon which radiated and attracted people.” In contrast, for the archbishop emeritus, it was the root of the diocese’s moral decay. 

“I knew what happened in that place, as I taught there for two years: There were several practicing homosexuals, while other seminarians used to receive women in their room,” he said. “I referred it to Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger [then the archbishop of Paris] and to the apostolic nuncio of the time [Cardinal Fortunato Baldelli],” he continued. “I was appointed archbishop of Avignon six months later, with the instruction to reveal the truth at the seminary.” 

Such a claim was confirmed by a priest of a neighboring diocese who chose to remain anonymous. He said this moral decay was widespread in the three main dioceses of the PACA region at that time — that is, Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Marseille. 

“One-third of the seminarians from this interdiocesan seminary were not accepted elsewhere when it closed because of their well-known sexual misconduct,” he told the Register, adding that Cardinal Baldelli was determined to find someone capable of “cleaning up” the Archdiocese of Avignon for this precise reason — particularly because Archbishop Cattenoz’s predecessor, Archbishop Raymond Bouchex, had been gravely ill for years and did not have the necessary strength to carry out this task. 


Spiritual Lethargy 

Convinced that “someone like him was perhaps necessary to deal with a number of issues to thus ensure a solid transition to today,” and that a “Copernican revolution should be operated within the Church to fight ideologies and put the Word of God and the Person of Christ back at the center of people’s life,” Archbishop Cattenoz said he did not shy away from taking measures to address these matters during his ministry. 

And inviting to his archdiocese several foreign religious communities (mostly from South America, Africa and Asia) — whose members CEV contend did not always easily integrate into the diocese — was for him a first step in his strategy of strengthening consecrated life. 

However, beyond the fact that the archbishop was accused of giving too much responsibilities to these newcomers (to the detriment of local priests), the main bone of contention was the heavy cost that these communities burdened on the archdiocese. But such expenses were, according to Archbishop Cattenoz, indispensable to its survival. 

“There was a terrible and concerning loss of vocations; the religious communities were closing, one after the other, to group together, and I couldn’t leave the diocese without consecrated life,” the archbishop explained. “It is true that we had to shoulder the new communities at the beginning; but, today, most of them are self-sufficient, except for two or three.”

“Thanks to this policy, “he continued, “the mean age of consecrated life has decreased in the diocese, the faithful can always find a Mass less than 10 miles away from their home, and the diocese ranks among the country’s top, in terms of new ordinations.”

“I’m happy to have accomplished my mission, although with my limits and sins, but history will be the judge; and I will be accountable to Christ.” 


What’s Next? 

According to several sources close to the archdiocese, the nomination of Archbishop Cattenoz in the early 2000s was also meant to create an alternative — a “third way” between two very contrasting movements that were dividing the region at that time. On the one hand, the traditionalist movement influenced by the nearby Barroux Abbey; and, on the other hand, very progressive currents that were no longer concerned with the doctrine of the Church. 

Now, with Archbishop Cattenoz gone, the future direction of this important archdiocese in the history of France and Christendom remains to be determined, after the nomination of a new archbishop within the next few months.

In the meantime, Archbishop emeritus Georges Pontier of nearby Marseille, the former president of the French Bishops’ Conference until 2019, was appointed by Pope Francis as a temporary apostolic administrator, with the mission to stabilize the archdiocese and ensure a peaceful transition.

A man known for his diplomacy and his sense of dialogue, Archbishop Pontier is perceived as a person who can mollify the opposing Catholic forces in the Archdiocese of Avignon.