An angel and a devil on Notre-Dame Cathedral

What do French Catholics fear the most? The far right

Henri Tincq, La grande peur des Catholiques de France. Paris: Editions Grasset, 2018.

The great fear of a liberal French Catholic intellectual is that the (Far) Right will rule over French Catholicism.

Henri Tincq, the erstwhile journalist of religion of Slate.fr and Le Monde des Religions, in his 2018 book La Grande peur des Catholiques de France[i] seeks to describe what he understands as the betrayal by the French Catholic Church of its humanist and progressive tradition, and the espousal of a right-wing, identitarian and retrograde world view.

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He begins with an evocative description of the religious experiences of his childhood when he could not find fault with the Church, ignoring the many dark spots on its historical record and considering the enemies of the Church – such as atheistic Communism – as his enemies as well.

Exposure and adulthood made him reconsider the inherited truths he received as a child and develop a more nuanced appreciation of reality.

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The first chapter dissects the electoral preferences of French Catholics both during the two rounds of the preliminary elections of the Right and Centre as well as in the two rounds of the presidential elections.

The interesting finding consists in the loyalty of practicing Catholics to the candidacy of François Fillon, even after the scandals regarding the fictional employment of his wife and children were made public.

The lukewarm Catholics and the rest of the voters abandoned Fillon: that’s why he did not pass to the second round of the presidential election.

But a hard core of practicing Catholics remained loyal, because of his pious profile and despite the emphasis of Catholicism on moral behavior and the fact that he didn’t do as he preached.

The other disappointing aspect, in Tincq’s view, was the reluctance of the French Catholic hierarchy as a collective entity – despite individual exceptions – to issue a clear-cut disapproval of the candidacy of Marine Le Pen in the final round of the presidential election.

While the most highly-placed Jews, Protestants and Muslims issued a common declaration backing Macron and appealing to the people “for the triumph of a generous, tolerant and open-to-the-world France”, the Catholic bishops didn’t find necessary the creation of a common front of religions against Le Pen in the political domain.

The elections for the European parliament were posterior to the publication of the book. Their result somewhat challenges the assumption of a definitely right-wing tendency of the Catholic electorate, given its preference for the Centrist party of Macron (LREM) over the more rightist Les Républicains. This despite the fact that the latter had as head of their electoral list François-Xavier Bellamy, a young intellectual with impeccable Catholic credentials.[ii]

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The second chapter is a description of the galaxy of groups, personalities, networks and websites that constitute the hard core of the Catholic Identitarian Right.

There is mention of the young abbé Pierre-Hervé Grosjean, whose popular Padreblog gives him a following and a public legitimacy stronger than his bishop, who is his nominal superior in Church hierarchy.

There is mention too of Frigide Barjot, who became the spokesperson of Manif pour tous, not because she was fluent in theology but due to her charisma in communication.

The point is that the logic of the new means of communication and the social media creates new channels through which the discourse of the Church reaches a mass audience, especially the young. By this process the traditional mediators between institutional Catholicism and society are sidestepped and new groupings and actors emerge as the public face of the “Church”.

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An armada of sites and blogs such as Riposte catholique, Chrétienté-Info, Tradinews, Réinformation TV, Médias-Press-Info and Salon beige express and propagate traditionalist and identitarian opinion and commentary.

They castigate social practices and trends they perceive as the evils of modern society, such as the dilapidation by the political class (both Left and Right) of the spiritual and moral heritage of France, the deviations of the modernist Church, catholic-phobia, the vindication of the LGBTQI community, abortion and the open and welcoming attitude towards refugees encouraged by Pope Francis – to name but a few.

The author has compiled an anthology of statements pronounced by Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the even more right-wing niece of Marine Le Pen, to manifest the ideological atmosphere reigning in such outlets.

The young deputy (it  was before she resigned) says that she personally fights relativism under the pretext of which the French bishops fail to pronounce Catholic superiority.

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A relativism “that wants no objective truth, that accepts that anything goes and considers that believing in the Coran, the Torah, in the Bible is equally valid provided one believes.

“The major error of the Catholic Church is to put everything on the same footing, to allow the understanding that there is no absolute truth. If there is no truth there is no good, no evil, therefore nothing has meaning”.

Of course it would be impossible to speak about sites, blogs and politicians and leave out of the picture the actual ecclesiastics who embody those ultraconservative tendencies.

The author chooses two French bishops and two Vatican cardinals for closer examination.

The bishops have become a sort of stars in blogs and journals of the Right such as Famille Chrétienne, Valeurs actuelles or Le Figaro Magazine.

Marc Aillet, bishop of Bayonne, and Dominique Rey, bishop of Fréjus-Toulon, are targeted by the author who treats the reader with a collection of their most outlandish – by the criteria of the modern liberal intelligentsia – statements.

As a Greek citizen, living in a country where religious dignitaries of the established religion are freer to express their opinions than in the secularized West, my level of astonishment is much lower than that of a French or British reader.

Bishop Rey’s observation in an interview in Le Monde – “We are dying by our moderation. We are dying by being ‘light’ Christians – may sound like a simple realization of the ultimate result of the ‘cafeteria Catholic’ attitudes of the faithful, to use the apt American terminology.

Vatican cardinals – perhaps because they are cardinals and not just bishops – are even more outspoken: “Gender ideology, democratic liberties without measure and without limits and the Islamic State all have the same satanic origins”, proclaimed the African Cardinal Robert Sarah before an audience of 1,200 scouts in 2016 during one of his many sojourns in France.

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The other star of the ultraconservative firmament quoted in Tincq’s book is the American cardinal Raymond Burke.

In an interview given to France Télévisions, Burke said about couples not married in church: “their irregular union constitutes adultery”.[iii]

Henri Tincq points out that the conservative revolution which takes place in the world has in France, to a greater extent than in other countries, a Catholic constituency.

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In the next chapter the journalist draws a parallel between the intransigent  Catholicism of the 19th century exemplified by the Syllabus Errorum issued by Pope Pius IX as an annex to the Quanta cura encyclical.

This papal text enumerates and fulminates against such “monstrous errors” of modern society as rationalism, socialism, freedom of the press, conscience and association.

The ideological successors of the Syllabus today have as a forerunner Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who vehemently opposed the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Lefebvre was against the recognition of religious freedom for every human being, ecumenism, dialogue with other religions and collegiality among bishops.

I will not repeat here the tumultuous history of the integrist schism, the outline of which I assume the readers of Novena News to be familiar. I will just repeat the observation of Henri Tincq about the indulgent and conciliatory mood of Benedict XVI and Francis in their approach towards the integrists, which remains unrequited.

In France the integrists run popular seminaries and attract candidates for the priesthood in a time of dearth in sacerdotal vocations.

Tincq is against the strategy of the Church to woe them with the ulterior motive that their fervor, dynamism and numbers  might change the fortunes of an institution in decline.

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In the fourth chapter there is a focus on the moral dilemmas created by the changes in the structure of the traditional family and the advances in the science of genetics that pose new bioethical questions.

Sometimes these changes lead to moral panics, an expression of which was, according to Tincq, La Manif pour tous, whose strong connections with the Catholic Right he amply analyses.

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The author deals in the following chapter with the perception of Islam in French Catholic opinion. The terrorist acts perpetrated by Islamic terrorists on French soil, which Tincq enumerates, and the atrocious treatment of the Christians of the East (Middle-East actually) by the Islamic State darken the image of Islam among French Catholics.

The most fervent among the Catholic faithful try to mobilise national opinion through the invocation of  “the role of France as Protector of the Christians of the Orient” and the “Christian roots” of their country and Europe. 

According to Tincq, civilisations do not have fixed and permanent identities and even if “Christendom” was once the dominant political reality in France and Europe, this is no longer true in our time.[iv]

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A detailed description of  two theatrical productions and a photograph that were deemed blasphemous by Catholic conservatives follows, along with the description of the violent reactions of the latter.

Adding to the above, the judicial efforts of secularists to prohibit Christmas cribs from municipal buildings and the ringing of church bells in public has formed an impression among practicing Catholics that laicité results not in a neutral but in an anti-Christian French state.

The author brings forward two characteristic quotes from interviews of conservative intellectuals to the powerhouse of conservative opinion, Le Figaro-Vox (the opinion section of the daily paper Le Figaro).

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First from the French-Israeli Giles-William Golnadel, who revolts against the retreat of France before Islam. He defends the maintenance of Christian symbols against a new ostracism which pretends that “the religion of the natives should not benefit from the same cajoling attentions as that of the newcomers, from the veil to the burkini”.

Then the Catholic philosopher, Rémi Brague: “Certain fanatical secularists (laicards in French) dream of finishing Christianity off by giving it the coup de grace they have so long awaited since the 18th century. They exploit the fear that many people have of Islam to chase from the public space every trace of the Christian religion, which is justifiably the one against whom Islam, since the beginning, defined its dogma”.

Tincq confesses: “Secularist France is situated miles away from the Anglo-Saxon countries where the affirmation of religious identity is a part of the elementary rules of social interaction”.

He summarizes the controversy in France concerning the inclusion of the “Christian roots” in the preamble of the European Constitutional Treaty in 2003 and the negative stance of the French leadership.

He accepts laicité as an irreversible acquis of modern times while waxing lyrical about the Catholic heritage of France.

The chapter closes with the warning that if ultraconservative Catholics win the day, the fanatical secularists will conjure up phantoms of obscurantism and the cause of Catholicism will lose.

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In the seventh chapter, the author heaps eulogies on the Catholics of the Left (Cathos de gauche); first on their 19th century precursors, the liberal and social Catholics such as Lacordaire, Montalembert and Lamennais or later Ernest Renan and Alfred Loisy, who tried to reconcile the scientific and social innovations of their time with the rigidity of official Catholic doctrine and suffered the ire of the hierarchy, an unenlightened public opinion and the political authorities.

Then on their 20th century successors, whose political history and actions he describes in length, as well as their difficult search for a modus vivendi with their socialist and communist contemporaries who also wanted to change the world.

I found particularly moving the story of the prêtres-ouvrieres[v], who strived to bring back to the fold the alienated and dechristianised working class only to be condemned by Pius XII in 1954.

His detailed and eulogistic account of the Catholics of the Left does not prevent him from making the pessimistic conclusion that this kind of Christian social and political activism is a thing of the past, although France must be proud to possess such a heritage.

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In the eighth chapter, Tincq points out that today when young French Catholics want to express dissent they do not vote for the Socialists as they did in the seventies, but instead for the Front National (the book was written before this party changed its name to Rassemblement National).

He cites Yann Raison du Cleuziou of the university of Bordeaux:

“For many observant Catholics today, the established order from which they seek to be emancipated is leftist culture, globalization and its corollary – immigration. For them, the field of change is the nationalist and popular Right that conceives France as a Catholic nation”.

Benedict’s plea for the making of a “creative minority” in Europe charmed the Catholics of the Right and the Far Right who frequently cite him in their publications.

Henry Tincq, though, puts his hopes in Pope Francis, who as a good Jesuit  awaits patiently but firmly for the liberal processes he has set in motion to bear fruit.

In the conclusion the author stresses the humanitarian and progressive aspects of Church action and urges French Catholics to abstain from resurrecting their past grievances against the State.

The Catholic Church is a respected institution within the French Republic and no dangerous (Far Right -ed.) paths should lead this venerable institution to perdition.

More analysis on Novena from Greek lawyer and journalist George Karpouzas

‘La Manif pour tous’: the coming-out of French conservatism

Connect with Karpouzas on Twitter and Facebook.


[i] For a very pithy interview with Tincq about his book, see “Cette France qui fait peur aux Catholiques”, interview with Raphael Buisson-Rozensztraugh, Le Monde des Religions, no 91 (Septembre-Octobre 2018), pp. 22-23.

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[ii] For a recent analysis of the changing preferences of the Catholic electorate, see Minh Dréan,”Catholiques: radiographie d’ un vote en mutation”, Le Monde, jeudi 15 Août 2019, p. 9.

[iii] The ultraconservative Greek Orthodox bishop Amvrosios has gone a step further, characterising civil marriage (marriage not taking place in a church) as prostitution.

I have heard many times Professor Emeritus of Constitutional Law Nikos Alivizatos, a pioneer of human rights in Greece, castigating the bishop in public for this characterisation.

For the historical record, bishop Amvrosios announced his resignation during the Sunday service on the 18th of August invoking reasons of age (he is 82, but Orthodox bishops hold their position for life).

The younger should assume responsibilities in the Church in an era “in which our Fatherland is in danger and our Faith suffers persecution”, he said. Because he asked to be pardoned for his errors, some well-meaning and naive souls thought that he was retracting his hard-line views against homosexuals that cost him a condemnation by a Greek appellate court (he had been declared innocent in the court of first instance), as well as walking-back the praises he had heaped on the Far Right Golden Dawn party in the recent past.

The following day the bishop showed his true colours by declaring in a television interview that he sticks to his guns and that Scripture condemns unequivocally homosexual sin. Later he wrote that he regards his judicial condemnation for inciting hate against homosexuals as a badge of honour in the service of Christ.

For the wider implications of the trial and condemnation of bishop Amvrosios as an important development in the culture wars raging in Greece, see my article in Greek in the internet edition of The Books’ Journal: booksjournal.gr/γνώμες/item/2831-prvth-fora-katadikh-mhtropolith

[iv] For an intelligent discussion about the question of the Christian origins and roots of France and Europe with conclusions similar to Henri Tincq’s, it would be useful to read the interview of the historian Paul Veyne to the editor-in-chief of Le Monde des Religions, Virginie Larousse (in French): Entretien avec Paul Veyne “La question des origines chrétiennes de la France est un faux débat”, Le Monde des Religions, no 81 (Janvier-Février 2017), pp. 34-37.

[v] Obviously the place of les prêtres-ouvriers in French history and popular imagination can not be easily  grasped by someone who is not French himself. From my experience of  today’s popular culture, I can refer to the successful and controversial French TV-series Ainsi-soient-ils (English title, “The Churchmen”) which traces the stories of a group of young men of radically different backgrounds who enter a  Catholic seminary in Paris with the prospect of becoming priests.

The most endearing if not faultless character is the director of the seminary Père Fromenger, who is a former prêtre-ouvrier always at odds with his scheming superiors.

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George Karpouzas

George Karpouzas is a Greek lawyer and journalist who lives in Athens. A contributor to the internet and print editions of The Books’ Journal (TBJ) – a monthly magazine covering political, social and literary topics in modern Greece – Karpouzas has a keen interest in the political and social aspects of organised religion, Church-State relations and news.