The Lessons of the Ongoing Crisis in the Church of France

The CIASE Report’s findings regarding sexual abuse and the resignation of the archbishop of Paris have highlighted the fragility of the historical institutions that constitute the West, according to Catholic philosopher Pierre Manent.

Former Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit leads a mass which brought together 9000 pilgrims in the Pie X basilica to commemorate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15, 2021 in Lourdes, southern France.
Former Archbishop of Paris Michel Aupetit leads a mass which brought together 9000 pilgrims in the Pie X basilica to commemorate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on August 15, 2021 in Lourdes, southern France. (photo: Fred Scheiber / AFP/Getty)

Some call the year 2021 an annus horribilis for the Church in France: Already considerably divided at the end of summer by the apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes restricting the traditional Latin Mass, French Catholics have been overwhelmed by the staggering figures emerging from the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE) report in France between 1950 and 2020. It was published at the beginning of October. 

The subsequent controversies surrounding the report’s recommendations to address this scourge (which included, among other things, the reformation of the seal of confession) revealed the pressures to which the bishops, caught up in the turmoil of the violence in the reaction of the media and public opinion, were subjected, and brought about new divides within the Church. 

This malaise was crystalized in the publication in November of a highly critical analysis of the report by eight prominent intellectuals of the Académie Catholique de France, who denounced its methodological and ideological flaws — and reportedly induced Pope Francis to postpone the audience he was due to grant to the members of the CIASE at the beginning of December. 

The public stance in opposition to the report triggered the resignation of several members of the prestigious academy, starting with the president of the Bishops’ Conference of France, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, and Dominican Sister Véronique Margron, president of the Conference of Religious of France, who also attended the CIASE report’s launch.

 

The ‘Systemic Character’ Concept

Beyond the lack of “scientific rigor” denounced in the critique — notably regarding the methodology of the quantitative survey that led to the estimate of 330,000 victims of sexual abuse — the eight signatories also challenged the “narrative of a ‘systemic character’” that they said “lays the groundwork for proposals to bring down the Church-institution.”

For Catholic philosopher Pierre Manent, who signed the document along with academy president Hugues Portelli as well as priests Father Jean-Robert Armogathe and Father Philippe Capelle-Dumont, this “systemic” dimension implies that it is the institution of the Church in its very form that is being called into question. 

“On the basis of this argument,” he told the Register, “the members of the commission suggest that the Catholic Church is unable to reform itself, and that it would therefore be necessary to put it under the supervision of secular associations, of ad hoc bodies that would ensure its total overhaul, even in its internal constitution.” 

Manent claimed that the logic of the CIASE members’ position brought them, although not intentionally, to make recommendations that could lead, if not to the ruin of the Church, at least to its being delegitimized as a spiritual institution, and to the deconstruction of the figure of the priest.

In their 15-page critique, the eight members of the Catholic academy pointed to the conditions in which the CIASE report was made public, regretting that the national media announced to the public well in advance that a tsunami would devastate the Church, and subsequently broadcasted the alarming figure of 330,000 victims without explaining that this was only an estimate. 

“It was the first mandate of the Commission to document the extent and seriousness of the abuses, but the careless announcement of such a figure, which public opinion naturally took as the sum of the established facts, dispensed commentators from reading a substantial document,” they wrote, highlighting that this figure is the only thing that most Catholics will remember from the report.

“The bishops themselves were stunned by this figure and unable to deliberate on an adequate collective approach,” Manent said. “For a few days, they seem to have lost the ability to think and act. Their public statements were limited to the affirmation of their shame, but an institution numb with shame in front of public opinion is not what is needed to address that scourge.” 

 

The Tyranny of Public Opinion and the Collapse of Institutions 

But for the French philosopher, this approach of a part of the independent commission and the public is less the reflection of a hostility towards the Catholic Church itself than of a general rejection of all the founding institutions of Western societies. 

The members of the commission, criticized by several Catholic commentators for its ideological bias, are in Manent’s view representative of today’s dominant social, religious and scientific opinion in France. One of the main specificities of this opinion is the radical contestation of “patriarchy” — seen as the keystone of an essentially oppressive and criminogenic order — that prevails in almost all institutions, and specifically in the Church with the figure of the priest.

In this sense, he believes that the recent resignation of Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris — after an article by the weekly magazine Le Point questioned his governance methods and suggested he had an affair with a woman in 2012 when he was vicar general of Paris Archdiocese — provided another illustration of the current dynamics at work in the Western societies. 

Archbishop Aupetit, who firmly denied any intimate relationship with the woman in question, chose to let the Pope decide whether he should resign or not, in order to “preserve his archdiocese from division.” After having accepted his resignation, Francis specified during his in-flight press conference from Greece, Dec. 6, that he had done so “not on the altar of truth, but on the altar of hypocrisy.” 

Said the Pope, “The gossip grows, grows, grows and takes away the reputation of the person. He will not be able to speak because he has lost the reputation ... and this is an injustice, and that is why I accepted Aupetit’s resignation.” 

“Today, no institution can maintain in office an official who is attacked in public opinion on certain subjects,” Manent commented, adding that it has become easy nowadays to compromise anyone in a prominent position by making a public accusation on sensitive matters. “We know that the public will carry and spread the accusation and that the institution will be unable to stand up to it.” 

And this form of “diktat” of public opinion is only possible, he believes, because of the weak position of institutions themselves. “The more one feels that the institution does not have the strength to resist, the more one slanders,” he continued.

“Of course, nobody is above justice,” Manent said, “it is important that the members of an institution can be held accountable, but at the same time, in order to survive, such institution shouldn’t be at the mercy of any slanderous accusation.”

 

The Church, ‘Parent Institution’ of the West

At a time when cancel culture is gaining ground in most institutions, the Church is among the most exposed, precisely because it is the “parent institution” of the West, a sort of “institution of institutions,” the French philosopher warned. 

Therefore, in this context of the progressive collapse of institutions in general, the preservation of the ecclesial institution can contribute to maintaining all others, because “despite the state of discredit where it is now, it remains an indispensable reference to the self-consciousness of the European or Western Man.” 

Indeed, behind the “deinstitutionalization of our lives” lies the threat of a “complete loss of the meaning of collective life, because the institutions form and cement the life of societies,” Manent continued, adding that the Church has a potential for revival that other institutions don’t have, as evidenced by the many initiatives flourishing in France aimed at reaffirming the fundamentals of the Catholic faith. 

“In our country, in this great sick body of the Church, there really is an intense religious life full of spiritual vitality,” he concluded. “Let us not get the impression, from our misfortune, that the Church is turning off its lights!”

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