PARIS — The Notre-Dame fire earlier this month captivated the world, eliciting an outpouring of empathy and more than a billion dollars in donations. It was also a reminder of France’s Catholic roots.

Controversies over secularism are a fixture of public debate here—typically pertaining to Islam. But it’s easy to forget the origin of the French attachment to laïcité: a long and violent rebellion against the Catholic Church, dating back to the Revolution and consecrated in the 1905 law separating church and state. In the words of the political commentator Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, France rediscovered its “muscle memory for Catholicism, the religion that built so many of its monuments, wrote so much of its music, painted so much of its art.”

In a secular country home to 45,000 Catholic churches—as well as Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish populations—the fire’s symbolic undertones were difficult to miss. Public holidays here are almost exclusively Christian; around 60 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center, although barely 40 percent claims to believe in God. Only one in 10 prays every day, and churches are increasingly empty—shells of a bygone Catholic France.

And yet the fire struck a chord. “It showed us how deeply rooted Catholic culture is,” Guillaume Cuchet, a historian of Christianity, told me in an interview. “Even if the practices have largely disappeared, the culture has, at least for now, outlived the erasure of religious practice,” he added. “That might not hold indefinitely, but it doesn’t disappear in two or three generations either.”

Jean-Pierre Denis, editorial director of the Catholic newspaper La Vie, agreed, saying the fire revealed the country’s deep attachment to Christianity. “We say France is very divided, but last week, it became one whole body. And this body has a heart, and that heart is Christian.”

But is France really a Catholic country? Or even a Christian country? On the heels of the Notre-Dame blaze, it’s worth unpacking the notion of Catholic—and Christian—identity—today, and in contemporary Europe more broadly.



A brief history of French Catholicism’s decline

Things have not been rosy for some time for the Catholic Church, which has been racked by an ongoing series of high-profile sexual abuse scandals around the world. In France, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin resigned in March after he was convicted for failing to inform the authorities that a priest in his diocese had been accused of sexually abusing children.

Churches have also been vandalized under shadowy circumstances across the country. And in July 2016, two men who claimed allegiance to the so-called Islamic State group attacked a Catholic church in Normandy, where they held six congregation members hostage and murdered an 85-year-old priest named Jacques Hamel by slitting his throat.

“Catholics are demoralized by the sexual abuse scandals,” Denis said. “There’s an impression that their church is on fire—and many saw the fire as a symbol of the church as human, itself on fire.”

The scandals have aggravated a larger sense that Catholicism is in crisis. “Religious practice has been destroyed,” he added, “and our secularized society has trouble understanding the religious, spiritual experience.”

But the recent scandals are just the most recent episode in France’s waning attachment to Catholicism, which can be traced to the decades leading up to the Revolution. The formal secularization of the French state, which began in 1790, set the process in motion, helping establish a strong anticlerical attitude in certain parts of society. A certain segment still remained very attached to the Church even during the Revolution, Cuchet said. But others—notably on the Left—identified with laïcité even if they were culturally Catholic, “because they had a problem with the Church.”

In the decades following the official separation in 1905, external factors such as urbanization helped propel Catholicism’s decline. Many scholars also identify the 1960s as a major contemporary turning point, set in motion by the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II): largely viewed as the Catholic Church’s opening to the modern world, with critical shifts on outreach to other denominations and non-Christian faiths, education, the media and even divine revelation.

          The Sacre Coeur cathedral in Paris. France is home to some 45,000 Catholic churches

Catholic identity, politicized

On the night of the fire, President Emmanuel Macron sent his thoughts to “the Catholics in France and all over the world, especially during this Holy Week.” But in his official address the following night, he spoke to the entire nation, a shift that drew criticism from François-Xavier Bellamy, a Catholic politician who is leading the candidate list for the conservative Republicans party in elections to the European Parliament next month, and from the archbishop of Paris. Neither the president nor the interior minister, Bellamy said, offered “a single word to Christians, to Catholics.”

For Denis, the problem isn’t Macron’s words as much as his actions. The president used the fire to advance his political agenda, he said, by “trying to make it a metaphor of his political project” and “instrumentalizing Catholics” in the process. “It’s typical of Macron’s attitude toward the presidency: he decides, without taking the time to consult intermediaries. When Macron says, ‘we’ll restore Notre-Dame in five years, and it will be even more beautiful,’ he makes this about France’s image for international tourism. To me, it seems reductive.”

But if Catholics may have considered Macron’s outreach to their community insufficient or disingenuous, others have called it excessive. Some worried that framing Notre-Dame as a religious site rather than a cultural monument would play into the hands of far-right ideologues who have couched so-called Catholic identity in terms hostility to Islam in the past. Indeed, the French far right regularly invokes the 8th-century Battle of Tours, in which Charles Martel, a French military chief, defeated invading Muslims, setting the stage for the consolidation of the Franks’ authority over Gaul.

Macron’s approach to the country’s religious communities has garnered the most criticism from those deeply attached to France’s anticlerical past and laïcité. He had already unsurprisingly raised eyebrows over his plan to “restructure French Islam,” potentially by amending the 1905 law separating church and state. And he drew particular ire a year ago, notably from the Left, for a speech he gave at the Collège des Bernardins, the center of Catholic intellectual life in Paris where he told a room full of priests that the “link between church and state has been damaged and it’s important, for you and me, to repair it.”

Jean-Luc Mélanchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, reacted by saying: “Macron is in a complete metaphysical delirium. Intolerable. We expect a president, and we hear a priest.” Olivier Faure, a leading member of the Socialist Party, made similar remarks. “What are we talking about? The Catholic Church was never banished from the public debate. What link is there to restore with the state? Laïcité is our jewel. That’s what a president of the Republic should defend.”

         The Saint-Étienne-du-Mont church in the 5th arrondissement, Paris

But while many in France cringe at the thought of a president who explicitly addresses religious communities, Catholicism has undeniably been part of the political scene in recent years. Perhaps the most startling indicator of its resurgence was “La Manif Pour Tous,” or “The Demonstration For All,” a movement formed in 2012 against the legalization of gay marriage. A collective comprising nearly 40 organizations, La Manif Pour Tous gained surprising momentum. “No one saw it coming,” Cuchet told me. Its leaders acted strategically: Although nearly all the affiliated organizations were religious—the majority Catholic—La Manif Pour Tous didn’t present itself in religious terms. “At first, it focused on opposing gay marriage with a fairly moderate, centrist strategy, avoiding any appearance of being homophobic or hostile, really just focusing on marriage. That enabled it to reach a broad audience,” Cuchet said.

“Over time,” he added, La Manif Pour Tous “radicalized and ended up much farther to the right.” In January 2013, the movement managed to draw thousands—over 300,000, by some estimates—to the streets of Paris in opposition to the bill, which ended up passing that May by a relatively slim margin: 331 to 225. Days later, the historian and essayist Dominique Venner, known for his far-right views, fatally shot himself on the altar of Notre-Dame—in front of more than 1,000 visitors—after declaring his support for the movement on his blog.

La Manif Pour Tous fizzled out in the following years but resurfaced in the lead-up to the 2017 presidential election. In October 2016, it managed to mobilize some 24,000 protesters in Paris who aimed to pressure right-wing candidates, ahead of their own party primary, to pledge to overturn the law if elected.

The movement’s return coincided with the brief rise of François Fillon—the conservative former prime minister who was considered an easy favorite to win the 2017 elections, before corruption allegations effectively ended his campaign. His popularity led some to describe a “political reawakening of Catholic France.” A Roman Catholic member of the center-right Republicans party, Fillon centered his campaign on “family values,” firmly positioning himself against same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex parents. His political statements often carried religious undertones: He called the war against the so-called Islamic State “a battle of end times” to the tune of “trumpets of the apocalypse.” He once said, “I am a Gaullist, and furthermore I am a Christian.”

Declining practice and belief in Christianity have created a hollowed-out religion that is vulnerable to exploitation.

Earlier this year, the Republicans party selected Catholic hardliner Bellamy to lead its party list in the European Parliament elections, representing a movement within the party called Sens Commun—born directly from La Manif Pour Tous. And although it’s still trailing the far-right National Rally (previously the National Front), the Republicans ticket has risen more rapidly in the polls than any other party’s.

In elections elsewhere across Europe, politicians have also increasingly invoked Christian identity. Still, figures like Fillon or Bellamy—practicing Catholics—are few and far between. Instead, the notion of Christian roots has been integrated into a populist discourse that advances xenophobic policies and in fact distances itself from faith.

Catholic identity, secularized

The far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen rarely hesitates to refer to France’s “Christian roots,” but the twice-divorced leader of the National Rally party has a tenuous relationship with Catholicism. In her 2017 campaign, she regularly referenced Christian identity, saying the French triptych of “liberty, equality, fraternity” stems from the “principles of secularization resulting from a Christian heritage.” But she has also expressed support for abortion and gay rights, and in 2017 told the Catholic magazine La Croix she was “angry with the Church.” The pope’s call for European leaders to take in migrants and refugees, she said, would require countries to “go against the interests of their own people.” Religions, she added, should not “tell the French people how to vote.”

Le Pen also criticized Fillon during the campaign, saying his overt religiosity “deeply contradicts secularism and our values.” She went on: “To justify a political choice with religious beliefs is shocking: How will we oppose those who, tomorrow, will want to enact policy in the name of their faith—like, for instance, Islam?”

When it comes to France’s Muslim minority, Le Pen, who often wears a crucifix around her neck, manages to invoke both Christianity and laïcité: Muslims, she contends, are incompatible with France’s Catholic roots and its secular values.

          Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party. Photo by Sebastian Bozon, © European Union 2016 – Source : EP

That kind of selective attachment to so-called Christian values has become the norm among the xenophobic populists who have taken Europe by storm in recent years. It’s less about God than identity.

“Beyond the hard Catholic core, the majority of the right, following the example of their leaders, no longer have anything to do with Christianity,” Olivier Roy, a scholar of religion who recently published a book on the subject, said in an interview. “They defend Europe’s Christian identity and also support new secular values of individualism and sexual freedom. They don’t defend anything spiritual or any religious convictions, but a religious identity they consider threatened.”

It’s a Christianity that’s identitarian and faithless, often leveraged against immigrants and Muslims. Not all populists invoke it equally. Italy’s Matteo Salvini is hostile to both women’s and LGBT rights; at a campaign rally last year for his right-wing League party, he held up a rosary and a Bible. Despite proposing policies to make crucifixes mandatory in public schools and protect traditional gender roles, however, he’s hardly a man of faith. Defending Italy’s Catholic roots enables him to justify his hard line on immigration.

Geert Wilders, an openly gay Dutch politician and the leader of the far-right, anti-Islam Party of Freedom, takes an approach more similar to Le Pen’s. He contrasts his defense of traditional Christian values with an LGBT-friendly platform pitted against Islam, which he derides as homophobic and misogynistic. “Dutch values,” he has said, “are based on Christianity, on Judaism, on humanism. Islam and freedom are not compatible.”

In a paradoxical twist, populists tend to frame “Judeo-Christian values” as synonymous with Enlightenment ideals. In fact, Enlightenment thought—centered on reason, individual liberties, tolerance and secularism—rejected the dogma of the Catholic Church. “There’s a question raised when populists question Islam’s compatibility with democracy, with Christian values, with Europe,” Roy said. “What are we opposing to Islam? Christianity or the Enlightenment?”

This pseudo-Catholicism is one consequence of Europe’s progressive secularization, he added. The decline in Catholic practice and rise of secular governance—and the opening up of the Church that accompanied Vatican II—helped establish Christianity as an identity more than a religion. That dynamic became more politically expedient amid the rise of Islam in Europe that followed decolonization.

        The Notre-Dame des Doms cathedral in Avignon, France

But if voters have sometimes fallen for populist attempts to exploit Christianity, the Catholic Church hasn’t. Religious authorities have denounced Salvini for his anti-migrant policies, and Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orban has found himself in a similar position. Pope Francis has repeatedly encouraged European countries to accept migrants and refugees, and many organizations that come to their assistance, like Caritas or the Sécours Catholique, are linked to the Church.

Denis, of La Vie, doesn’t think the populist pseudo-Catholicism has gained much traction among French voters. “The National Rally has downplayed its Christianity, and now promotes laïcité.” And Cuchet, the historian, doubts French Catholics will be swayed, which he attributes to their demographics. “They primarily come from a traditional bourgeoisie, are well-educated and often live near major cities,” he said, or “are immigrants, from the Antilles, or elsewhere.” Both groups “have trouble voting for Marine Le Pen,” he said. That said, Bellamy—the “real” Catholic—has also taken a hard line on immigration; Fillon, during his 2017 campaign, did as well.

Even if the far right hasn’t successfully manipulated religion to its advantage so far, Denis finds the trend a worrying—and telling—indicator of Catholicism’s fragile state in Europe. “The recourse to Christian ‘identity,’ or to an ‘identitarian’ Christianity, is one of the repercussions of secularism and multiculturalism,” he said.

Declining practice and belief in the religion, he fears, have created a hollowed-out Christianity that is vulnerable to exploitation. “We don’t need some vague sentimental attachment,” he said. “It’s an illusion to think that we can have a Christianity without Christ, like some sort of crutch, or some sort of shield to protect ourselves from immigration, or from globalization, or who knows what?”

“It doesn’t work, and it’s a trap for Catholics.”

Lead image credit: The Notre-Dame cathedral in flames, April 15, 2019. Photo credit: Olivier Mabelly