By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
On December 8 of last year, The Washington Post featured an article by James McAuley entitled: “In secular France, Catholic conservatism makes a comeback.” It sounds good, no? Maybe.
McAuley begins by pointing to the success enjoyed by François Fillon in the presidential primaries in France. McAuley describes Fillon as a man viewed in France as “a crusader in the throes of a holy war,” who “campaigned mostly on a genteel conservatism of economic restructuring and strengthened national security,” appealing to “a wave of nostalgia for a nation of traditional families and quaint village churches” that feels itself “under siege from the dual threats of multiculturalism and Islamist terrorism.”
It is a pattern that is emerging in much of Europe, as evidenced by the vote by the British to exit from the European Union and the rise of right-wing populist leaders such as Viktor Orban in Hungary and Marine Le Pen in France.
But McAuley sees something additional happening in France. He writes, “In a country that firmly defines itself as ‘secular’ in its constitution, Fillon’s unexpected victory represented an astonishing prospect: the political reawakening of Catholic France after decades of slumber.” McAuley contends that the “slaying of an 85-year-old village priest in July by Islamic State-inspired militants” has led many in France to believe that “the essence of France” is under attack.
Fillon is described by McAuley as a “fervent Roman Catholic” with a platform that defends “family values,” which is “often translated into staunch opposition to same-sex marriage and, lately, to adoption by same-sex parents. In short, what he promises is a return to his nation’s roots. And in his eyes, those roots are fundamentally Catholic.”
It is at this point that things get curious. We have heard in recent decades of how “secular” France has become, of how only a tiny portion of its population attends Mass on a regular basis, that France is only “culturally Catholic.” How does that fit into McAuley’s thesis?
To deal with that question, we need to ask ourselves what it means to be “culturally Catholic.” McAuley cites Fr. Mattieu Rougé, the pastor of Paris’ St. Ferdinand des Ternes Catholic Church. “We have a secular state but not a secular society,” said Matthieu. “The majority of the French,” even those who do not attend Mass any longer, “have studied in a Catholic school, they marry in churches, and they baptize their children. They are Catholic,” he said. “All our streets, the names of our towns and villages — everything is related in some way to the Catholic faith.”
This means that many of the French men and women who voted for Fillon saw him as a defender of “Catholic values” that they associate with Fr. Rougé’s vision of what it means to be French. They were not voting for a stronger bond between the state and the Catholic Church.
McAuley underscores this reality by pointing to Philippe and Sandrine Mathieu, 51 and 41, respectively, who “work in a framing shop near Chartres Cathedral. Although they described themselves as non-practicing Catholics, both said Fillon’s Catholic identity appealed to them at least as much as their perception of his seriousness. ‘For 20, 30 years, there’s no social cohesion in France,’ said Philippe Mathieu. ‘We’ve lost our values.’ Asked to define these values, Sandrine Mathieu explained that they had sent their children to local Catholic schools instead of public schools because ‘there they say, Bonjour, madame’.” The Mathieus did not point to a recitation of the Sign of the Cross.
McAuley sees this new attraction to Catholicism in France as part of the “emergence of a new French conservatism increasingly focused on the concept of patrimony, an amorphous sense of cultural inheritance largely unrelated to matters of policy or the economy.” Which means that their Catholicism has little to do with the teaching authority of the Church, and more to do with their hope that Catholicism can provide, in MacAuley’s words, support for “traditional family values, authority and a sense of the moral order. Members of the clergy explain this increasing embrace of religion in the context of recent terrorist attacks, which they say have drawn many secular French Catholics back into churches for the first time in years.”
I don’t think I’m being unfair, then, when I say that for cultural Catholics what is important about Catholicism is not that it is true in a theological sense but that it can be employed to buttress France’s cultural patrimony against the Islamization of Europe.
Many readers of The Wanderer have heard these sentiments before in another context. They are near-to-indistinguishable in their logic from the theories of Charles Maurras, the mid-20th-century French writer and politician sometimes described as a “Catholic atheist.” What Maurras wanted to preserve was what he called France’s “pays reel” against the inroads being made in the country by the “pays legal.”
By pays reel, he meant the France rooted in the customs and local pieties of the common people, the France of Charlemagne, Roland, and Joan of Arc. In contrast, the pays legal was the France of the secular intelligentsia and the international bureaucrats who came to power in the years after the French Revolution. Maurras saw Catholicism as a healthy strand in the cultural heritage of France, something that could be used to create a society separate and distinct from the forces arrayed against it in the mid-20th century. He didn’t believe in God or the Church, but since his fellow countrymen in the pays reel did, he encouraged their religious beliefs.
François Fillon does not view Catholicism in the same way as Maurras. From most accounts, he is serious in many respects about the faith. But those in France who are “cultural Catholics” do, whether or not they have ever heard of Maurras. The question is whether their cultural Catholicism will be of much help in preserving France’s national culture. An “amorphous sense of cultural inheritance” is not what French men and women in the past meant when they referred to France as “the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church.”
There is nothing morally reprehensible, or un-Christian, about turning back waves of Muslim refugees, insisting instead that they be given the military protection and charitable assistance that they need in their countries of origin or in international safe spaces. But it can result in some disturbing scenes on the nightly news.
A determination to protect their freedom of religion can give the French the resolve needed to deal with this challenge. It will give them a way to convince themselves that they are entitled to what Thomas Jefferson called in the Declaration of Independence the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” Freedom of religion is guaranteed even by the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Rights, the secular elites’ preferred legislative authority.
But won’t it have to be a real religion to do that, not some quaint folkway interwoven in the nation’s “amorphous cultural inheritance,” rather than something analogous to a fondness for Breton fiddlers and escargot? One would think so. People don’t man the barricades at moments of crisis to defend such things.