Government of the Church in France: between a spirit of “Ralliement” and episcopal self-effacement

Par Philippe Maxence

Français, italiano

Government of the Church in France: between a spirit of “Ralliement” and episcopal self-effacement

The recent publication of a scientific work about he Conference of French Bishops raises again the question of the power and role of each bishop, the relation of the latter with the papacy (the sovereign pontiff and the Curia) and, more generally, between the bishops of the same nation, notably through those in charge of coordination of the episcopate. Concentrating the subject of their study rather on the structures than on the personalities, historians and theologians have taken advantage of the centenary of the Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops (ACA) to hold a conference in 2019 on “A hundred years of government of the Church in France”. The proceedings of the conference[1] show the evolutions on this subject since the law of Separation between Church and State (1905), and then the evolutions related to the Vatican II council and its developments.

Without necessarily going deep in the detailed presentation of this proceedings, though it would be interesting because of its rich documentation, several ideas stand out from the readings of the different works. The weight of the “political” factor is certainly the one main idea and one of the most enlightening.

From the Ralliement to the permanent transaction

The upheaval created by the French Revolution, and then the “new rule”[2] established under Napoleon have had direct repercussions over the life of the Church in France and over the relations of the bishops with each other. Not to mention here the martyred bishops, of those who emigrated and the renewal of the episcopate to which the Concordat of 1801 lead, it must be noted with the historian Christian Sorrel that “From 1801 to 1905, the concordat forbids any national consultation, and its realization, the Council of 1811 called by Napoleon in opposition against Pius VII, leaves a painful memory in Rome.” For a century, the bishops of France could not gather to assess the situation and look for solutions. Christian Sorrel notes however that the provincial Councils are making a come back starting in 1848 (precisely from September 1849 to October 1850, and then from 1851 to 1860) but will not survive the establishment of the Third Republic and the start of profoundly anti-clerical policies, with for a goal the total laicization of French society.

But, it is so that the provincial or plenary councils formed an old form of episcopal consultation, updated by the 1917 Pio-Benedictine code of Canon Law (canons 281 to 292), which stipulates that they cannot gather until after having received the authorization of the Sovereign pontiff (canon 281) and that they must be convoked in each of the ecclesiastical province “at least every twenty years” (canon 284). Two important specifications directly undermined by the intrusion of the political power born of new right issued at the time of the French Revolution.

While inscribing itself in this ideological framework, the law of Separation of Church and State drove pope Pius X to authorize the gathering of the plenary assemblies of the French Episcopate. They will meet only three times: April-May 1906, September 1906 and January 1907. The desire of the bishops of France to meet was primarily born of the need to look for a response to the anti-Catholic republican legislation. In this context, Rome also wanted to clearly show the unity of the Church in France, yet aware that some of the bishops (the majority?) was ready, in the spirit of the Ralliement imposed by Leo XIII (1892), to compromise with the secular and republican power.

For Rome, what was to be avoided was that this assemblies became a doctrinal body and that they appeared in the eye of the public and political power as a sign of a disagreement between the Pope and the French episcopate. These assemblies, therefore, were organized by the publication of pontifical documents (the encyclical Vehementer nos from 18 February 1906; the encyclical Bravissimo officii of 10 August 1906 and the encyclical Une fois encore of 6 January 1907). Moreover, between the publication of the first two documents, Pius X had also consecrated on 25 February 1906 fourteen French Bishops, thus renewing the episcopal body. Nothing followed from these plenary assemblies, Rome demanding they be replaced by “regional conferences around the Cardinals of Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux and Reims”.

After that, it is only in the wake of the First World War that a first body of consultation was formed with the creation of the Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops and their first meeting which took place on 19 February 1919. From this first meeting, the discussions are essentially on political questions in the perspective of the publication of a collective letter. Though the display of the Sacred-Heart on the tricolor flag was discussed, the meeting mostly tackled  the issue of “electoral rules: rejection of a Catholic party, duty to vote, choice of the candidate based on the candidate’s ability to get elected and not solely on ideas and program.” On this subject, Christian Sorrel notes: “The preparation of the collective letter proves to be more difficult than expected and the compromise published in June 1919 is disappointing both to the supporters of a politic of appeasement and to hardliners.”

Could it be otherwise? If all the French bishops show themselves opposed in principle to the secular laws of the Republic, their position differs as to what practical mode is to be used in response to this Republic, author of anti-Catholic laws.

Schematically, the bishops who have accepted the principle of the Ralliement look at the Republic through the traditional prism of the different types of regime without understanding the radical novelty, a theological novelty, born of the Enlightenment and institutionalized by the Revolution. The secular laws are from then on perceived only as excesses that are to be fought against inside the very Republican system. The Separation of Church and State, considered bad in principle, presents itself as an opportunity to break from the ties with the Republican regime, to find again a liberty of action and of … consultation.

In the line of Saint Pius X, other bishops want to adopt a firm position, not that they necessarily have a better comprehension of the ideological and fundamentally new character of the revolutionary republican system, but because any tentative of transaction seems to jeopardize the right of the Church.

As in any assembly where different positions meet, the solution of the compromise which is the median opinion, can only be but an emergency way out. It is even more true that, if we follow Christian Sorrel, the Rome of Pius XI sets the tone: “The pope and the Secretary of State, Cardinal Gasparri, hope to pursue the sacred union and the renewal of the instructions of Leo XIII in favor of the Ralliement to the Republic in order to facilitate the resumption of diplomatic relations between Paris and Rome as well as the elaboration of a legal status of the Church of France.”

The culture of compromise is thus going to continue settling in within the deliberations of the ACA, especially since the Roman treatment of the Action Française case (1926) is not meeting the unanimity among French Bishops. But, here again, Pius XI imposes his line. The questioning of Democracy in the 1927 report of the ACA is perceived by the assembly as an “an attitude that could easily be interpreted as a support towards the Action Française”. In 1929, the ACA having refused to pass on the Roman decision to forbid all Maurassist publications, the nuncio, “Mgr Maglione negotiates a compromise by consulting with the individual members” and obtains satisfaction.

Later, the preparation of the Council Vatican II is going to encourage some reflections on the collegiality and on the relations between the Roman pontiff and the “episcopal body”, expression still rejected in 1962 by the Secretary of State of John XXIII, Amleto Cicognani.

When collegiality engrosses bishops

With the Council taking place (1962-1965), French bishops are forced to put in place new structures, especially since, according to a letter of Mgr Veuillot to Mgr Garrone quoted by Christian Sorrel “ ‘the regime of assembly’ imposes itself as a norm”. Finally, the ACA disappears in May 1964, giving way to the French episcopal Conference which then becomes the French Bishops Conference (CEF), created in the line of the dogmatic constitution Lumen gentium (n. 23).

Though without a well-defined theological status, the Episcopal Conference develops in an autonomous way, without now having to wait for the Roman authorization to gather. During the years of John Paul II, the tension is going to be exactly at this level, particularly after the publication of the motu proprio Apostolos suis on “the theological and legal nature of episcopal conferences”. At the time, two interpretations of the Roman document are in opposition with each other: One from Dominican theologian Hervé Legrand, solicited by Father Oliver de la Brosse, spokesperson for the CEF and, the other, Cardinal Eyt, Archbishop of Bordeaux.

The Dominican theologian “considers that the vision of collegiality expressed in the letter is marred by a “considerable doctrinal unilateralism: the episcopate (or the college of Bishops) is clearly disconnected from the communion of Churches’ “, further adding: “it was precisely what Vatican II had wanted to amend for sound ecclesiological reasons, pastoral precision, ecumenical commitment.” To the contrary, Cardinal Eyt “presents himself as the spokesperson of those who insist on the individual character of the function of the bishop and deny to the episcopal conference the quality of magisterial body.” What is at stake is quite simply that the episcopal collegiality may give birth and impose an intermediary magisterium between the pontifical magisterium and the one of each bishop, successor of the Apostles.

It remains that in the eye of the faithful, the CEF appears now as the communication body of the Church of France, including on the magisterial level, as shown again recently with the request gathered and relating to pedo-criminal cases where priests or religious are involved and having to do with the evolution of the priesthood (celibacy, opening to woman, etc.) and to a greater extent over the re-definition of Catholic doctrine as a whole (liturgy, theology, moral). Requests which did not generate any public reactions on the part of the CEF in itself or on the part of individual bishops.

But, beyond these appearances the very structure of the Conference of Bishops and the regime of assembly carries very practical consequences. In an interview given in 2019 to the daily newspaper La Croix, Mgr Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, then new president of the CEF, considers that the bishops of France have “a parliamentary mode of operations.” Certainly, some find that this is still too classic and that it is necessary to go from “government” to “governance”, understood as the passage of a vertical vision to an horizontal vision, which the synodal process that was started, from the top and with universal authority, should promote.

In September 2016, in a document titled In a changing world, finding again the political sense, the permanence Council translates this requirement by estimating that “the normative order no longer comes from the top, but from a mutualization of horizontal connections” (§ 7). A seminary course about synodality, organized in December 2018 by the Comité Études, a project presided at the time by Mgr Ulrich Bishop of Lille, future Archbishop of Paris, concluded to the necessity to “propose the permanent council and plenary assembly an assessment over the necessity for synodality”, an objective that was immediately echoed as a priority by Fr. Thierry Magnin, General Secretary of the CEF and presented by La Croix as “a man of consensus”.

Let’s not be mistaken: the present objective of the synodality constitutes in fact the current step of a long process of democratization that is rooted in the era of the Ralliement and which was strongly reactivated after Vatican II, as we are going to explain. Far from being the beneficiary, the bishops are the victims, their power and their responsibility of successor of the Apostles being diluted in the Episcopal Conference and its inevitable consensus. This is happening at a time when each episcopal voice should be able to express aloud the doctrine of Christ against the diminution of the faith and the so-called societal laws. 

Democratic practices or primacy of the faith, one must choose

Leo XIII still rested on a classic doctrine to impose a politic (in this regard) of recognition of the Revolution.The tension born between this transigent politic, and the one of his successor, intransigent, lead the French bishops to seek the consensus in their fight against secularism.

The episode with the Action française, often presented as a second Ralliement (cf. Adrien Dansette), took place in a manner intransigent favoring a transigent line vis a vis the secular republican State, forbidding bishops any criticism of the modern democracy so not to give any support to the Action française.

Pius XI also carried out this politic by appointing bishops in agreement with this transigent line in regards to democracy. As a result, democracy eventually made its way in the very structures of the Church of France, not at first by the use (legitimate) of the vote between peers, but as a social mechanism of uniformization of thoughts and action of bishops normally independent and free, through the search for a permanent consensus. This always works as more like a machine of ralliement to secularization, first recognized in the fact and then elevated to the rank of ideal paradigm, as with the Dagens Report (1996).

While the secular State, in close to fifty years, has imposed abortion, so-called bioethics laws, reimbursement of contraception and abortion, reinforcement of secular laws, homosexual “marriage” and soon euthanasia, none of the French bishops have been able to speak up in the long run, as defender of the City, by putting into question secularism, at the risk otherwise of ruining the episcopal consensus.

* * *

At the root of this episcopal self-effacement is not only the ambiguous relation of the Church with the modern State, but more deeply yet the crumbling of the faith provoked by this ambiguity. Essentially, what was sought after in a process that started in 1892, is a form of conviviality with a State with anti-christian roots, which lead to its recognition and then to the adoption ad intra of these ideas and these democratic practices. The only response there is, is to put back in the center of the consultation and decision of the French bishops, faith and thus the question of Salvation, as it was done it previous councils. In other words, to break the consensus of the opinion in order to rest on the bedrock of faith.

Philippe Maxence

[1] Cent ans de gouvernement de l’Église en France, under the direction of Valentien Favrie, Charles Mercier and Christian Sorrel, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 296 pages, 25 €.

[2] « Droit nouveau » in the sense of Leo XIII who defined in this way its fundamental principle in Immortale Dei : “The authority of God is passed over in silence, just as if there were no God; or as if He cared nothing for human society; or as if men, whether in their individual capacity or bound together in social relations, owed nothing to God; or as if there could be a government of which the whole origin and power and authority did not reside in God Himself.”