Some 40-odd groups in the French Church are organising and coordinating themselves to push for a path of Catholic reform.

– A groundswell for change

‘Promesses d’Eglise’ is the name of the new Catholic reform movement making waves in the French Church. It has put together a “letter of intent” – not yet made public – with a series of demands in terms of the reformation of Catholic life today, as Settimana News reports.

The need for deep changes in the French Church has long been recognised.

For example, a number of prominent French Catholics including world-renowed economist and former managing director of the International Monetary Fund and ex-member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Michel Camdessus wrote a letter this July urging the French Bishops to commit more strongly to Pope Francis’ reforms. In June a number of Catholic women in the country also called for a German-style ‘synodal path’ renewal process.

What makes Promesses d’Eglise different, however, is that it is far more numerous, is corporate instead of individual and is also attempting to bring together very different sectors of the Church, along with Church groups engaged in social activities, into a common plea for Catholic rejuvenation.

– A response to Pope’s call for Church “conversion” from the “active participation of all the members of God’s People”

The journey of Promesses d’Eglise dates back to August 2018, when Pope Francis wrote an impassioned ‘letter to the People of God’ on the clergy sex abuse crisis and called for deep Church “conversion” branching out from the “active participation of all the members of God’s People”.

A small, informal group of French Catholics met at that point to discuss the Pope’s letter. They subsequently organised a first meeting on reform in the French Church in May 2019, with the involvement of around thirty ecclesial groups including the Emmanuel Community, the Chemin Neuf Community and the social justice groups CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Semaines Sociales, the Délégation Catholique pour la Coopération and Secours Catholique.

Further meetings in June and September 2019 attested to the growth of the Catholic reform movement, with about 70 people representing more than 40 groups joining in to take part in the discussions.

A high point came in November last year, when Promesses d’Eglise presented a draft project to an assembly of the French Bishops and there gained the active support of two of them, Bishop of Belfort-Montbéliard Dominique Blanchet and Bishop of Rodez François Fonlupt.

– The equal dignity of the baptised and more democracy in Church, among demands

In its two years of activity to date, the French Catholic reform movement has been through a number of changes of name, from ‘Gouvernance en Eglise’ – with a focus on holding the Church machinery of governance accountable – to ‘Synodalité’ and now ‘Promesses d’Eglise’, with the latest incorporations of Catholic youth movements into its fold.

Even if the label is different, the priorities of the reformers have been consistent.

Their goals include the recognition of the equal dignity of the baptised; the need for a relationship of trust between laypeople, priests and bishops; more democracy in Church governance; a guarantee of gender equality in the Church; changes to the education of seminarians and clergy; justice for abuse survivors; and the full protection of children and other vulnerable people in the Church.

– What’s next?

The Catholics behind Promesses d’Eglise have been keen to point out that their movement “is not a lobby, but a platform where a synodal experience is possible”.

True to that goal, and even though they already have some priorities fixed, for the moment organisers are keeping their list of demands open, preferring instead to listen to the desires of a cross-section of very different Catholic sensibilities and allow for even more to identify with the push for change and join in.

Promesses d’Eglise is also holding off, for the moment, on demands on the French Bishops to implement a clone of the German Church’s synodal path, which is characterised, among other things, by a centralised committee of bishops and laypeople charged with “the preparation and follow-up” of the reform discussions.

That hesitation comes down to the desire of the conveners of Promesses d’Eglise to preserve the movement’s grassroots structure and to capitalise on its diverse expertise and closeness, though not servility, to bishops.

Even though the French Catholic reform movement is yet to coalesce into a definable and definitive structure, observers are predicting big things.

Bishop Blanchet, for example, has acknowledged that “it would not be surprising if the national leaders of the movements raise the question of a national synod”, even if for the prelate himself such a summit should not be the be-all and end-all of Church reform, and in his eyes “it would be much more important to promote a culture of synodality”.

More demands for Catholic reform, on Novena:

Young Catholic leader denounces “extremely dangerous” Church “premise of entitlement and control”

Chair of Austria’s Catholic women’s movement denounces “structural sin” of Church misogyny

French Catholic feminist ‘apostles’ express “perplexity and immense disappointment” with new Archbishop of Lyon

Swiss Benedictine calls for Catholic reform: “People have moved away from the Church because the Church has moved away from them”

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.