Grassroots French Catholics are pushing their bishops to speak up on controversial pension reforms, while the episcopate seems determined to maintain a position of careful neutrality.

Driving the news

Over 450,000 people turned out in France January 9 for the first anti-pension reform strike of this year, with 56,000 thronging Paris streets, the Interior Ministry said.

Trade unions estimated that more than 1.2 million people packed streets across the country, according to figures published by Le Monde newspaper. They counted 37,000 people in Paris.

Vast crowds reportedly marched through Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes and Rouen.

Paris and Nantes saw clashes between police and protesters. In the capital, 27 people were arrested, according to the police. Sixteen officers were reportedly hurt.

The nationwide turnout was lower than 615,000 seen last month at the first demonstration against a universal pension scheme.

President Emmanuel Macron vowed to press ahead with the reform, which includes a a two-year-extension of the working period necessary to earn a full pension and the abolition of 42 different pension systems to create one universal points-based system.

Go deeper

But what has been the French Bishops response to the pensions protests, now entering their second month with no truce in sight?

“The Church is not above the fray, but it is not in the middle either”, Father Thierry Magnin, secretary general of the conference of bishops of France (CEF), told La Croix January 7.

“The Church does not have to speak for or against the reform of the government”, added Jesuit Grégoire Catta, director of the family and society service of the CEF.

“So what type of word can it speak? It’s complicated, especially since a position that doesn’t fit into the cleavage for or against necessarily has less resonance”, explained Catta.

That position of studied neutrality of the episcopate on the pensions reform contrasts sharply with its more active campaigning on other social issues in France, such as migration, Islamophobia or the bioethics debates.

Why it matters

“We must always seek social cohesion and help bring together. On the reform, Church movements are better placed because they work on these issues”, Magnin went on to explain.

And in fact, before the start of the pensions strike, a meeting of several of those movements was held at the CEF.

The result of that meeting was a statement – “The pension reform as seen by the social doctrine of the Church” – that was sent to all the French bishops.

Only a handful of prelates took notice of the Catholic social movements’ note, though.

including Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, Archbishop of Reims and President of the CEF, who spoke at Christmas of those who “are worried about being deprived of the means to live their retirement without material worry”.

That’s led some voices in the French Church – including that of Stéphane Haar, diocesan delegate of the Lille Workers’ Mission, to believe that “the Church – the bishops in particular – must dare to speak more courageously and enter the public debate”.

All the more, according to Haar, since retired people are the Catholics keeping parishes and Church movements alive.

“Economic reforms have considerably weakened social dialogue”, Haar deplored.

“The Church cannot focus on a few big issues and consider the rest to be too thorny. There is a strong sense of abandonment among the losers of globalisation”.

For the record

The French Catholic consensus is that the Church isn’t and shouldn’t become a union itself, for as Haar explained, the Church “is not there to enter the technical debate but to recall major principles such as social justice”.

“It is regrettable that the episcopate does not have a stronger voice, but it is also up to the Church movements to play their role”, argued secretary general of the Catholic Workers’ Action, Sylvain Knittel.

That role of being leaven in the bread is exactly what the Catholic social movements will continue to do in another meeting at the CEF later this month.

Jesuit Catta praised that coming meeting as an “example” of the dialogue needed in wider society, even as he admitted the Church’s contribution to the debate still seems too modest for some Catholics, especially proponents of social justice.

(With reporting by Sputnik)

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