As France is getting ready for Benedict XVI’s arrival here this weekend, American author and Catholic theologian George Weigel finds himself to be part of the preparations.
The Pope will visit Paris and Lourdes this weekend, and French editing house Mame-Edifa-Magnificat has released — just in time for the occasion — the translation of Weigels’ book “God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church.”
Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, also authored “Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II” in 1999. In “God’s Choice,” published in 2005, he offers an introduction to Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
Weigel told ZENIT that in these three years since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, he has made some key contributions to the Church: “He has been a master catechist, drawing the Church back to its roots in the Bible and the Fathers who created Christian doctrine.
“He has also done both the world and the Church a great service by highlighting and analyzing the linked problems of faith-detached-from reason — as in jihadism — and a loss-of-faith-in-reason — as in European, and especially French, post-modernism.
“Finally, the Pope has reminded the Church that it is most itself when it is celebrating the Eucharist, which must therefore be done with appropriate dignity.”
Commenting on expectations that Benedict XVI will talk about secularism, as he did in the United States in April when he called the United States an “example of healthy secularism,” Weigel notes that France is not the United States.
“French secularism — ‘laicite’ — and American secularity are two very different things,” he said. “French ‘laicite’ was a movement against the Church; the institutional separation of Church and state in the United States was meant to foster the free exercise of religion.”
The country, often called the cradle of secularism, boasts the lowest Church attendance rate in all of Europe.
A 2005 study by the Center for the Study on Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, found that Church attendance in some areas of France is as low as 10%.
A 2000 study by the Swedish-based World Values Survey showed that nearly 60% of French people “never” or “practically never” attend church. France had the highest percentage of non-churchgoers among 14 European countries. Britain and the Netherlands followed behind with 55% and 48%, respectively.
A 2006 study by research group CSA in conjunction with Le Monde des Religions that found only 26% of French Catholics (who make up 55% of the population of France) say they’re sure that God exists, and the same number say it’s probable.
“France has been living off the moral patrimony of its Christian past for more than two centuries,” said Weigel. “The account is now drawn down, and the bank of moral credit is getting empty.”
Regarding the future of the Church in France, Wiegel noted some positive signs: “There is a lot of energy in various renewal movements. France is also home to several major Catholic intellectuals. There are several impressive French bishops.”
“But,” he continued, “I can’t say that I see the signs of vibrant Catholic renewal in France that I see in some there parts of old Europe.”
And the Pope’s Marian devotion? “I think it’s clear from his theological work over the past 45 years that Joseph Ratzinger has a deep devotion to Our Lady and a clear view of her place in the history of salvation. Ratzinger’s Bavarian heritage would also predispose him to a serious Marian piety.”
The Pope will travel Saturday to Lourdes to participate in the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette Soubirous. The Holy Father said that he will pray “at the feet of Our Lady for the intentions of the whole Church, in particular for the sick, the abandoned, as well as for peace in the world.”
Weigel, who has called Benedict XVI the Pope of quiet surprises, added that he believes the world has yet to fully understand this German pontiff, who still might have a few surprises up his sleeve.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.