Bishops for a restoration of the Church: Anyone?

Par l'abbé Claude Barthe

Français, italiano

To bring the Church to recover and thus get Her out of a deadly “adjustment” to modern society would require some bishops disposed to intervene. But any reflection over a reform of the Church runs into a stubborn fact: there are indeed some “good bishops”, able to make good analysis and act accordingly, but they refrain from doing so or only take half measures. Bernanos at the end of his life would say that what Churchmen have lacked in the mist of modern society was not charity, but force[1].

Yet, to despair would be a sin. Using the data gathered by Vincent Herbinet in Les espaces du catholicisme français contemporain[2], and by interpreting them, we would like to point out a couple of positive things:

  1. A mutation is slowly taking place within the diocesan landscape opening opportunities for reforms[3];
  2. There are different sorts of bishops, and some can cease this new situation to engage in a reform.

Let us note that the data from Vincent Herbinet, on which our reflexions are based, are French  data, but that they seem to be able to extend to the whole Church, though certainly with many adaptations.

A mutation of the French diocesan landscape

The diocesan landscape has progressively transformed since the seventies. First, because Catholicism is now in minority in society: rural Catholicism is dying, urban Catholicism, despite more favorable appearances, is running out of strength. And in this numerically reduced Catholic society, progressivism is no longer successful. For example, the progressive experience of the SCAP, Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest has practically vanished. An other example, the vows of the German synodal way, synthesis of “leftist” Catholicism, miles away from the expectations of the rest of the Christian people, at least in France: a questionnaire titled Synod on synodality reveals that 92.9% of those surveyed expect  firstly form a priest that he confers the sacraments, 87.6% are favorable to priestly celibacy, 70% reproaches the Church for not standing by her opinions and not to uphold the Truth by fear of creating turmoil”, 74% expect Her to promote “a bioethics model ensuring total respect for the human person, from conception to natural death”, 70% that She “supports the family in its traditional form”.

Herbinet puts forward “the hypothesis that a more visible Catholic action is taking shape now following family, ethic and doctrinal issues” (p. 96). Younger generations of practicing Catholics are clearly engaged in a more affirming approach of their Catholicism. He points out to a number of characteristic phenomena, and notably:

  • The implementation of perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, notably as advocated by the Emmanuel Community, with candles, incense, genuflections, renewal of Corpus Christi processions in city streets.
  • The growth of “family based campaign” with a very active generation of those aged 30-40 years old, the one belonging to Family Action Association, notably Notre Dame Teams, a particularly favorable place of an entirely new porosity to all the fractions of identity Catholicism.
  • A return to Catholic identity of quite a number of diocesan schools, which had started in the nineties, and serve as a base to boy-scout associations and to the pastoral of a “new” clergy concerned with its identity.

The rare young men who come to the door of the seminaries, coming from an urban Catholic setting, are for the majority of very classic sensibility. For many they are former Catholic boy-scouts (Scouts Unitaires, Scouts d’Europe), have attended college (but rarely for an Arts degree) and choose their seminary a la carte. Yet they are rare, often isolated. In the end, the impression is that the clerical society has practically disappeared from society, particularly in country settings.

Instead, it has been replaced by the new communities, specially the most classic ones, the ones sociologists call “neo-integralist”, an “integralism that, except in certain cases, refrains from condemning the current modern desire for liberty, but strives to show the helplessness of the modern world in its capacity to give it more meaning”. (Danièle Hervieu-Léger, quoted by Herbier, p.220). It also refrains from condemning the modernity which looks like company  management, pretending sometimes that they are able to adapt to their apostolate work.

For the Community of the Emmanuel, the term to describe them is “neo-charismatic”. It has actually broken off from its association, in its beginning, with Pentecotalism, hiding away the manifestations of the Spirit like speaking in tongues, spiritualizing healing sessions, erasing the heavy sentimental appeal of its spirituality. Among French bishops, six of them come from the Community. Also, a hundred or so seminarians are enrolled in canonical studies in Paris in the former Benedictine Abbey of La Source. Active in about fifty French dioceses, the Community of the Emmanuel is more present and integrated (its priests can be incarnated either in the dioceses where they are serving, or in the Community) than the Community of Saint Martin is.

Yet, Saint Martin is the community with the most growth within French catholicism, like an “ecclesial and sacerdotal UFO”, according to Herbinet. Its seminary was first established in Genoa, under the protection of Cardinal Siri, then it was moved to France, in Candé-sur-Beuvron, to finally find a home in Évron in the diocese of Laval. This seminary became the largest on French soil (over a hundred seminarians). The Communauté Saint Martin settles in dioceses in groups of at least three priests. It fills an ideological interval based on the choice of its founder, Fr. Guérin: located between Écône and the “spirit of the Council”. He brought the community as far as it could towards the Council (cassock, Latin and Gregorian, altar at the seminary facing the Lord, conservative and “manly”), yet not crossing the liturgical Rubicon of the Traditional liturgy.

The pre-conciliar liturgy makes precisely the clear distinction and the attractive force of the traditionalist world, with, as it is often said, “what goes” with this liturgy, that is to say essentially a catechism old style, well structured. This sets these communities, for the moment, a world apart. A divide that the motu proprio Traditionis custodes and the subsequent documents tried to accentuate. The prosperity in terms of the number of priests in the Tridentine world, including the Fraternity of Saint Pius X and the “official” Communities (Fraternity of Saint Peter, Institute of Christ the King, Institute of the Good Shepherd, for the main ones), though relative, is noted by all observers. The Tridentine establishment is as young as the Community of the Emmanuel or the Saint Martin, with practicing families often large, but which, because of its liturgical specificity has produced a large group of organizations and specially an important network of independent schools, rich in vocations, which reactivate regularly the activism of the members for it requires a substantial human (and financial) investment.

Vincent Herbinet points out that the traditionalist communities, like the charismatic communities, are evolving – he speaks of “neotraditionalist” -, the younger generations now carry a style more liberated similar to the one of other young Catholics. He notes particularly an important porosity in young generations between members of the Emmanuel, Saint Martin, and all the traditional communities whatever their particularities. The critics that Traditionis custodes has produced among many classic Catholics, yet non traditional, is a sign of this proximity. Saint Pius X and the Ecclesia Dei communities represent a certain attraction to the young because what they have to offer is well structured whether it be catechism, schools, pilgrimages (40% of the youth who come to the Chartres pilgrimage are not regular attendees of traditional mass venues), Pro Life demonstrations with an astonishingly young public, all this contributes to the mixing.

Vincent Herbinet suggests that a progressive opening up of the “trad” world has been taking place for the past twenty years: “The porosity between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” Catholics develops on a scale of one or two generations and [we] believe that it could be a possible element of the new organization of the ecclesial and territorial fabric. On the whole, the generation of young priests, by a their tendency to bring back adoration, confession, a well cared liturgy, a classic predication, doctrinal teachings, could produce a migration of young Catholics (below 45 years old) with crossovers depending on the rites and the communities” (p.276).

Are there bishops of a different kind ready to take advantage of this new phenomena?

For this new pastoral phenomena to give way to a reformed Catholicism, better structured, it necessarily needs a different type of shepherds, able to finally become reforming shepherds. The fact that a few bishops, to diverse degrees, are not along the common line, is a sure thing. But, as we said earlier, their differences are minimal at this point. The question is thus to figure out if some bishops can concretely show a real independence in regards to the consensus of the Bishops’ Conference, the priests who surround them and the Roman surveillance.

Herbinet dedicates a chapter of 30 pages to examine the very particular case of the Bishop of Fréjus-Toulon. A case of a different type of bishop, eventually on the exit row, since after the interdiction to proceed with ordinations, a canonical visit has been carried out to make him get back into line, as it happened before with the Bishops of Albenga, Italy, and San Luis, Argentina. The fact remains that the experience fits very well with the expectation of this new Catholicism. Bishop Rey, coming from the Emmanuel, took over the diocese in 2000, succeeding to Mgr Madec, himself successor of Mgr Barthe, two very classic bishops. Herbinet speaks of “a fourth way”, neither progressive, nor integralist, not even “a third way” of the type of Cardinal Lustiger in the year 1980-90. The very dynamic pastoral plans have come about one after the other and at a good pace, bringing together a great care for evangelization with the use of the charisms of many communities. In the end, it appears that Bishop Rey practiced a very systemic and pragmatic welcoming of the new communities, classical and traditionalist priests, all seduced by his relaxed classicism. The result is a larger clergy than in any of the French diocese, with an average age well below the national average, and that the seminary of La Castille is second after Paris in terms of the numbers of seminarians.

Vincent Herbinet grants a decisive importance to the articulation between classics and traditionalists, and in fact the central point of the Rey tentative: “We offer as a premise the strong originality of the diocese of Fréjus-Toulon carried out by his atypical bishop. Unlike a traditionalist world still ostracized from some dioceses, often in isolated chapels, with communities as a result not much inclined to be witness on the outside, we notice that the Summorum Pontificum communities of Fréjus-Toulon carry this missionary vocation in a very outgoing way” (p.188).

“We wonder why, looking at the fruits of the Toulon model, says Herbinet, in a falsely naïve way, other dioceses wouldn’t use a similar mode of government” (p. 202). Will other bishops, in the same context, find in themselves the moral and spiritual resources to assume an open crisis with the Roman offices, as well as with the major part of their bishop counterparts, and some of the priests of their respective dioceses? If the answer is yes, then we would enter in a new phase of post-conciliar history. It should be said over and over again: Asking God to grant “good bishops” for his Church is today the most urgent prayer.

Father Claude Barthe

[1] Encyclique aux Français, in process of being reprinted by the Éditions de L’Homme nouveau.

[2] Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2021

[3] See Res Novae, For a true reform of the Church.