Zombie Catholics vs. French Secularism

Published April 7, 2017


A few years ago, I started to realize something. Whenever I was less than five minutes early for Mass, I had to go to the overflow room, and I would typically have to step over people sitting on the floor to get there. The church was filled to the gills every Sunday, with young families and children most of the time. But we had a compelling priest, and we were in one of the poshest areas in Paris, the kind of place that has historically been conspicuously Catholic—comparable to the mainline Protestant tradition in some of the most affluent neighborhoods in older American cities.

Then I moved. And I saw the same thing. I live in a very different neighborhood now, one that is “upwardly mobile,” as real estate agencies coyly say. But on Sunday morning the church is packed. There are upscale Catholics and the senior citizens you see everywhere, but also immigrant families, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and Indian Ocean countries. There are the kinds of hipsters you might not expect to be religious. There are children everywhere.

I have started going to other, random parishes on Sundays, just to see if this is a real trend. And indeed, Sunday high Mass is packed in most parishes in Paris. This is also true in Lyon, the second biggest city in the country.

If there is a Catholic revival in France—the evidence is still mostly anecdotal in a nation where 53 percent of citizens identify as Catholic but only 5 percent regularly attend Mass, according to a recent poll conducted by Ipsos and reported by the Catholic newspaper La Croix—it may be starting in the cities, with the highly educated and, as the presidential campaign to be decided on May 7 may prove, with those highly attuned to politics. Now this is fine. You need a mustard seed. The French Revolution was originally an elite phenomenon, and historians like Rodney Stark have shown that for all the talk of early Christianity in Rome as “a religion of slaves,” it also appealed early and consistently to the elite. But now I have seen something I never expected. I think that in my entire life I had never seen more than a dozen people in the church in the village that my family hails from on any day other than Christmas and Easter. When I returned recently, it was about two-thirds full. There are also more activities outside of weekly Mass than I remember; the parish is now caring for a family of Iraqi Christians, and local teenagers have started a project with a local crafts school to beautify the church.

At first, the revival of Catholicism in France was something you could fleetingly smell in the air. I would notice more and more of my Easter-and-Christmas Catholic college friends posting Facebook updates about going to church, raising money for Christians in the Middle East or handing out food to the homeless with some a Catholic charity. I have two previously irreligious friends who, out of nowhere, dropped their high-status careers and walked the road to Compostela, still one of the most active pilgrimage destinations in the world, had a religious experience when they got there and changed their lives when they returned.

The rise of the ‘zombie Catholic’

True, vocations to the priesthood, perhaps the ultimate criterion of the church’s health, are not palpably growing, but it is significant that they have finally plateaued after a multi-decade decline. The number of priests in the Archdiocese of Paris has already showed an uptick, something than can only help attract people to the pews.

The Ipsos survey also suggested that Mass attendance may not be the only measure of the strength of Catholicism. It estimated that 23 percent of the French population are “involved Catholics” who “feel attached to the Church by means of their donations, their family lives or their commitments” and who “live their lives differently” than less engaged Catholics.

Another category of church members, with a less flattering name, has been much discussed lately: “zombie Catholics,” who may not attend Mass but have proven highly influential in this year’s presidential campaign. The historian Robert Zaretsky described them in the journal Foreign Policy as such: “Highly educated and meritocratic…[with] a strong attachment to social, community and family activities; and a general wariness over the role of the state in private and community affairs, including [Catholic schools].”

The resurgent Catholic bloc was foreshadowed by the backlash in the 1980s to the Socialist government’s unsuccessful plan to merge public and private schools, and by the opposition to same-sex marriage in 2013.

Then, last Nov. 20, something happened in French politics that made the world raise an eyebrow. That was when France’s Republican (conservative) Party held the first round of its first-ever primary for a presidential nominee and a previously written-off candidate named François Fillon smashed all his competitors, coming in 15 points ahead of Alain Juppé, the frontrunner in most polls. (One week later he beat Juppé in the run-off election almost exactly two to one.)

What made Fillon stand out was his pride in his Catholicism and his friendliness toward socially conservative causes in a country so secular and so libertine that this makes one an odd duckling even in a conservative party’s primary. (Juppé described himself as an “agnostic Catholic.”) During a primetime interview in January, Fillon put his hand on his heart and said: “I am a Gaullist and furthermore a Christian. It means that I will never take a decision that would run counter to the respect of human dignity, the respect of the individual and solidarity.” To millions of devout Catholics, this was like milk and honey. He had broken a powerful French taboo: mentioning religion in public. As a left-wing friend of mine put it: “He has a right to be Catholic, but he doesn’t have the right to say it and run for president.”

No one believes committed Catholics provided all of Fillon’s margin of victory in the primary, but they provided a crucial measure of support. According to a poll conducted for the news site Atlantico in late November, 83 percent of “practicing” Catholics were planning to vote for Fillon in the Republican Party run-off.

Campaign shenanigans are froth, but they can establish as incontrovertible something that could be glimpsed only through a glass, darkly. I first wrote about the French “Christian revival” for the American edition of The Week in early 2015. When the piece filtered back across the Atlantic to the world of French Catholicism, the main piece of feedback I got from most of my Catholic acquaintances boiled down to, “I’ve been seeing it too, but couldn’t believe it’s real.”

The reversal of May 1968
France is known as one of the most fiercely secular countries on earth. A Pew Research Center survey released in February found that only 10 percent of French citizens considered “being a Christian” a “very important” part of French identity–compared with 30 percent in Italy and 32 percent in the United States responding affirmatively to the same question about their own countries. The French Revolution was a rebellion against altar as much as against the throne—the Reign of Terror was an orgy of anticlerical violence—and the struggle between progressive forces and the church played out over centuries.

That struggle seemed to have ended in a complete and permanent victory for the secular side. The 1905 law establishing the separation of church and state is an obvious marker, but the May 1968 student and worker protests proved almost as important. The cultural heights of the country were seized by those who were shaped by the 1968 spirit of libertarian free love—and who, Steve Jobs-like, added a love of money to its love of sex and its patina of counterculture. The result was laws liberalizing divorce and abortion, and a secularism so harsh that nobody outside the country can understand why banning the Islamic veil from schools is supposed to make sense.

The resurgence of Catholicism as a political force in France in fact began in 2013 with the startling intensity of La Manif Pour Tous(“Protest for All”), the movement formed to oppose France’s same-sex marriage bill. Why this issue, more than abortion or contraception, suddenly got Catholics off their behinds is a bit of a mystery; there has not been a comparable backlash against same-sex marriage among Catholics in the United States. Laurent Bouvet, a political-science professor at Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines University, speculated to the Financial Times last fall that traditional Catholics in France “never really accepted the Revolutionary notion that individual freedom should supersede the moral authority of the priest or the family head. They are…wary of the concept of equality.”

Whatever the reason, La Manif—officially a secular, nonpartisan nonprofit, but in reality almost completely a Catholic phenomenon—moved hundreds of thousands to take to the streets in protest of the government’s policy, over several weeks in 2013. The marches included pink, baby blue and white balloons, along with signs with such messages as “Father + Mother = nothing better for a child.” For years, the question about La Manif and the energy it unleashed was whether this newfound political intensity would produce results at the polls; Fillon—who is not vowing to overturn same-sex marriage but remains opposed to the adoption of children by gay couples—may have showed that it can.

More interesting is La Manif’s potential as a kind of “May ’68 in reverse,” in the words of commentators like Jean-François Kahn, or as a touchstone for a decisive shift in mores, as well as an incubator of leaders, social networks and experiments that end up pollinating across the culture.

Indeed, many movements and ideas have arisen thanks to La Manif. On one end of the spectrum is Les Veilleurs(“The Watchmen”), a leaderless movement of youngsters who, after the same-sex marriage bill was passed, spent nights standing in front of government buildings holding candles, reading poems and protesting government’s encroachment on Christian society, with a few of them getting arrested. The movement seemed to be made up mostly of idealistic youngsters who got the adrenaline rush of their life during the Manif protests and didn’t want to quit it.

While La Manif remained scrupulously nonpartisan—even though no one was oblivious that its appeal was to the right—some of its alumni founded Sens Commun (“Common Sense”), a group affiliated with France’s Republican Party with the avowed goal of playing a role similar to that of the Christian right in strengthening America’s Republican Party. Still, many of France’s newly observant Catholics are, like most French people, jaded about politics. Catholic social teaching appeals to them precisely because, though it commands engagement in the public square, it transcends any partisan platform. These are not conservatives in either the American or traditional French, soil-and-tradition mold. They are just as likely to bang on about Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” or his calls for solidarity with migrants as they are to wax enthusiastic about John Paul II’s theology of the body. One of La Manif’s most prominent spokesmen, Tugdual Derville, promotes the concept of “integral ecology,” or “écologie humaine,” a term that tries to signify that care for the environment, care for the poor and care for the unborn go together. It seems that the vast majority have never been to a traditional Latin Mass.

Strengthening the arguments of Catholics who are wary of becoming too partisan, François Fillon’s campaign is turning out like something out of a Biblical morality tale. The shining knight of the new French Catholic Right has become enmeshed in a scandal relating to an alleged fake job held by his wife, a devastating blow for the man whose appeal in the Republican primary was largely based on his probity. As of late March, he was running third in public opinion polls, behind an independent centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, and the leader of the far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen (who has been making a late bid for Catholic votes, though she admits, “I only go to church for weddings, funerals and baptisms.”) The election may turn out to be a warning from Providence about what happens when Christians put their faith in political leaders.

The Catholic social network
So, while many new Catholics are politically active, some talk about being “meta-political,” as the popular Catholic lawyer and blogger (and author of Identity: The Evil Genius of Christianity) put it. They understand not only that the magisterium transcends political boundaries; they understand a fundamental lesson of May 1968: Politics is downstream from culture.

These new Catholics have identified the enemy as “liberalism,” in the French sense of a drive for ever-greater individual liberty. Liberalism, in this view, is responsible for sexual depravity and the culture of death, and for the excesses of globalized capitalism red-in-tooth-and-claw. Pope Francis’ warnings about a “throwaway culture” that leads both to abortions and to quasi-slaves in third world factories making disposable consumer items of questionable worth are tailor-made for them.

Some exponents of this doctrine have started an intellectual review called Limite (“Limits”), marrying a scathing critique of capitalism to excoriation of progressive dogmas regarding sexuality. The inaugural issue featured an article criticizing artificial contraception for going against the philosophy of consuming organic, locally sourced products. It is hard to tell how much of this is genuine and how much of it is artful trolling of a French left that likes to think of itself as the opponent to “liberalism.”

And in Lyon, new Catholics opened a “cooperative café” named after Simone Weil, the mystical Jewish-born philosopher who had a lifelong love affair with Catholicism. Young people gather there to hear speakers on the evils of globalization, environmental degradation and the culture of death.

Protest movements and intellectual reviews are well and good, but if a tree must be judged by its fruits, then the true criterion of whether the new Catholicism is for real will be the Beatitudes. One reason to be optimistic is the story of a nonprofit named Entourage.

Entourage is an iPhone app that bills itself as a “social network for those who don’t have a social network.” It helps volunteers for organizations that help the homeless coordinate and share information. But it is also a public-facing app that helps anyone help the homeless around them. Someone can post about a person on the corner of such-and-such streets who needs a blanket, and someone else can bring it to them.

Jean-Marc Potdevin, the founder of Entourage, is as earnest as anyone you will meet. An engineer by training, he became wealthy by working in several internet startups before undergoing what he calls a mid-life crisis: Why was he working so hard when he didn’t need to, and what for? Although raised Catholic, he had stopped believing, praying or attending church. One day, Potdevin decided to walk the road to Compostela, and he says that during his trip he had an encounter with Christ. In his earlier career as a scientist, “I worked in a cognitive science research lab, so I know the mind can play tricks on you,” he quickly adds after describing how he believes the Lord spoke to him. After two years of working out his mystical experience under spiritual guidance, he got the idea for Entourage after spending more time with homeless people. Some who work at Entourage used to live in the streets, and the nonprofit has an advisory group made up of homeless people. More and more homeless people can now find smartphones, get online through free Wi-Fi hotspots and are now on Entourage making requests.

In a first world country, he explains, homeless people can find ways to feed themselves or get emergency health care or shelter: “I’m not saying things are good, they’re not, but that’s not [addressing] what kills homeless people. What kills homeless people is loneliness.” Behind the practical good that Entourage can do, he unfurls a vision that goes beyond hot meals to enabling social connections. “Look at this society, where it’s a permanent rat race, where we’re all divided,” he says. “What are we missing? We’re missing the face of Christ, which is in the poor.”

Potdevin makes it clear that even though he does not hide his faith, Entourage is a secular group, with that status enshrined in the nonprofit’s by-laws, and that he works with everyone. He seeks to partner with as many groups that help the homeless as possible, whether secular, Christian, Jewish or Muslim. But some groups refuse to work with him because he doesn’t hide his faith, he says.

But this isn’t about Entourage. After all, in every era and country Catholics are coming up with worthy initiatives to help the needy. The French government recently launched a contest called “La France s’engage,” awarding grants to the innovative nonprofits that received the most online votes. Voters could vote again each day, and every Catholic I knew on Facebook and Twitter kept pestering their followers to vote for Entourage repeatedly. As the app vied for first place, a story came out trying to trigger bien-pensant outrage at Potdevin for appearing at an event where a spokesman for La Manif had been featured, but Entourage nevertheless triumphed. The victory cannot be credited wholly to Catholic networks, as Potdevin’s friends in the startup world also beat their drums. Nonetheless, the fact that an app like Entourage could win is a sign of serious engagement by Catholics, and engagement for the right causes.

The new Catholics comprise a movement that is still young and small, and which faces many pitfalls. It is still, sociologically, an elite movement. It might be lured by the temptations of politicization. It might still frizzle out. But I don’t think so. I believe this is a real movement of the Spirit—one that could change the country in my daughter’s lifetime.

This article also appeared in print, under the headline “Religion is playing an unexpectedly large role in this spring’s presidential election,” in the April 17, 2017 issue.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who lives in Paris, is a contributing writer to America, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a columnist at TheWeek.com.

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