Despite social changes, France deeply rooted in Christianity, expert says

4 mins read
Philippe Portier, a French academic professor and political scientist, poses for a photo in Paris April 10, 2024. In secularized France, he said, "Christian religious elements are still perceived by the French as a precious heritage," so he is not surprised the country mobiliZed to rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral. (OSV News photo/Paulina Guzik)

PARIS (OSV News) — Specializing in the relationship between democracy and religion, Philippe Portier, a French academic professor and political scientist, is not surprised that secularized France is so interested in rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral in the nation’s capital.

“The interest aroused in France by the restoration of Notre Dame is very telling,” he explained to OSV News. “In the current context, where society tends to become unstructured, Christian religious elements are still perceived by the French as a precious heritage, because they help preserve the French identity, which seems to be dissolving in a changing world.”

“Our society is marked by anxiety about its future,” Portier pointed out.

Preservation of French heritage

“When the French, and even more widely Europeans, are surveyed, they express a great deal of pessimism. They used to say that tomorrow would be better than today. And today, it is the other way around. The general feeling is that the future will be bleaker than the present,” emphasized Portier, a professor of world-renowned French political science schools such as Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and Sciences Po Paris.

“Faced with this, people tend to revalue the past, and the heritage that is its legacy,” he added. “Heritage elements appear as reassuring refuges in a period of doubt, and loss of benchmarks.”

It has little to do with faith, he said however, with “little effect on religious practice, and no impact on people’s moral positions, which are disconnected from those of the church.”

Nevertheless — people do not want to cut ties with the roots of their past identity, Portier pointed out. “They are attached to their village church, and they give money to help preserve it. Today’s interest in Notre Dame Cathedral is part of this attitude.”

Rebuilding trust in the Church after CIASE

From 2019 to 2021, Portier was a member of the independent commission, known by its French acronym CIASE, set up in 2018 by the French bishops to investigate sexual abuse committed in the Catholic Church since the 1950s. In October 2021, CIASE published a report that indicated that 216,000 children had been abused by Catholic clergy since 1950 — a number that shocked France and the Catholic world.

The sociologist and political scientist said that establishing the commission helped rebuild the church’s trust and, in consequence, make it a more reliable institution in a society going fast down the path of “de-Christianization.”

“The work of this commission considerably accelerated the process of raising awareness of sexual abuse in the French church, a process already underway since the late 1990s,” Portier explained.

“It marked a radical turning point in dealing with abuse. Since then, bishops and religious congregations have been taking reparation and prevention measures very seriously. They acknowledged the facts, recognized and accepted the church’s responsibility as well as their own. … My thesis today is that the French bishops are doing a good job in this area. In the face of abuse, the dynamic launched by the church in France is going in the right direction,” Portier told OSV News.

Stabilizing influence of Catholicism

“At the very top of the state, decision-makers have followed this affair very closely,” he said. “For the political elites in France, Catholicism continues to be a stabilizing element in the architecture of society, due to its central place in the history of the nation. Everyone praised the work of CIASE and the courage of the church of France, which commissioned it,” the French professor emphasized.

“Beyond the political elite, since this report there has been a return of confidence in the Catholic Church within society as a whole,” Portier continued. “This is evident in recent polls I conducted. In modern democracy, where individuals count more than institutions, society places transparency at the heart of its functioning.

“An institution that shows itself to be transparent, as the church has done, has everything to gain. Today, in general, the church is recognized for having taken matters into its own hands with courage, and for acting with determination.”

France’s changing religious landscape

Since 1970, the church in France has been losing 10% of its membership every 10 years, and today only 30% of French people claim to be Catholic, Portier said, but “we now see that this figure is no longer falling. The decline is stabilizing. There are even signs, not of a new rise, but of a significant increase in the number of adults asking for baptism.”

Over 12,000 people, both adults and adolescents, were baptized in France on Easter — a record number in the country that at the same time made abortion a constitutional right on March 4 and started a heated debate on legalizing euthanasia.

“The most numerous French people today are those ‘without religion,’ who represent 55% of the population,” Portier pointed out. “Their numbers have very strong effects on society. The more numerous the ‘without religion’ are, the less the French adhere to the moral standards of the church, but also to moral standards in general.”

However, those “without religion” have changed, Portier pointed out. “They are no longer the militant communists of the 1950s, who cultivated a militant atheism. These are people in search, who doubt but who still adhere to a certain spirituality.”

“So, the French no longer go to Mass, but it does not mean that religion is no longer important to them,” he explained.

The symbolism of Notre Dame Cathedral

“Churches have lost a lot of churchgoers, but there are still well-functioning ecclesial structures, dioceses, parishes, Catholic institutions that look after the poor. The church continues to appear as a recourse. We cannot say that the French have totally forgotten their Christian roots. It is more complex than that,” Portier pointed out.

“In this context, Paris’ cathedral is a strong symbol, in the end,” the French professor concluded. “The history of Christianity in France is not a history of closure, but a history of openness to otherness, and there is unquestionably a continuity between the religious narrative of Christianity and the national narrative of French history. Today, Notre Dame is the expression of the weaving together of the history of Christianity and the history of France, which the French, on the whole, do not deny.”

Caroline de Sury

Caroline de Sury writes for OSV News from Paris.