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A Crisis of the Four Last Things

NOR readers will be familiar with the stark reality that much of Europe is no longer Christian. That goes, too, for the eldest daughter of the Church, France, which boasts hundreds of renowned Gothic churches visited by the thousands each week, most not for purposes of religion. Think Notre Dame in Paris, or the cathedrals in Chartres, Rheims, Amiens, Strasbourg, and Beauvais. The list goes on and on. If only these churches were still honest representatives of a Catholic culture in France. If only that culture were as strong as the flying buttresses of its sacred houses. Alas, each of these cathedrals at this point in its history is little more than a monument to times past, a sepulcher for a once-flourishing religion and way of life. It is instructive to note that only 1.7 percent of Catholics regularly attend Mass in France — and according to Guillaume Cuchet, a professor at the University of Paris-Est Créteil who specializes in contemporary Church history, “regularly” isn’t even defined as meeting the Sunday obligation; it merely means “at least once a month.” Thousands of old French churches are no longer active places of worship; priests often have the care of 20 to 30 parishes and only celebrate regional Masses each week — and even those are attended by few. When Catholics die in France, chances are slim that a priest will be around to bury them.

There is certainly no shortage of hypotheses for the causes of the demise of the Church — the disappearance of Christians and the decline of the traditional Catholic way of life — in France. Popular fingers point to the old French Revolution, the newer sexual revolution, and the increasing influence of scientism, moral relativism, and other personal philosophies of life that have eclipsed the idea that piety, tradition, and doctrine provide a natural compass for faith and morals.

Recently, French Orthodox writer Jean-Claude Larchet reviewed Cuchet’s new book, How Our World Stopped Being Christian: Anatomy of a Collapse (OrthoChristian.com, May 29), a penetrating look at the spectacular decline of Catholicism in France. Some — though likely not most NOR readers — might be surprised at what Cuchet identifies as the root cause of this decline. Catholicism itself, says he, bears the heaviest responsibility in the de-Christianization of France. And yep, he specifically identifies the Second Vatican Council as the primary catalyst of it all. The Council, writes Larchet in his review, “proposed to face the challenges of the modern world,” and yet it “did nothing but adapt itself to the latter; thinking to bring the world to its side, it ended up giving in to the world, and despite wanting to be heard in the secular sphere, Catholicism has instead become secularized.” In other words, the Church in France (and elsewhere, of course) became impotent by its own hand.

Though this assertion is hardly groundbreaking, Cuchet gets into specifics that are worthy of serious consideration. This rupture in the Church, which he traces back to 1965, the year the Council closed, can be identified with the liturgical reforms, yes, but more precisely with the changing attitudes toward sin occasioned by both the Council and its liturgical reforms. In the area of piety, the abandonment of Latin and the change toward the reception of Communion in the hand played an important role, but Cuchet focuses more on the promulgation of a religious relativism that, if not written straight up in the documents of Vatican II, was the result of willful misinterpretation or misapplication of these summary documents. The Council’s documents seem to have been designed to allow for liberal interpretations, the kind that led to the secularization of Catholicism throughout France — a secularization that happened almost overnight. “A whole series of ‘truths’ suddenly fell into oblivion,” writes Larchet, “as if the clergy themselves had ceased to believe in them or did not know what to say about them after having spoken of them for so long as something essential.” More importantly, writes Cuchet in his book, “the Council paved the way for what might be called ‘a collective exit from the obligatory practice on pain of mortal sin.'”

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