"A Crisis of the Four Last Things" (New Oxford Notes, July-August 2018)
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 Thousands of old French churches are no longer active places of worship; priests often have the care of 20 to 30 parishes and only celebrate regional Masses each week — and even those are attended by few.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.’”
Cuchet traces almost all the official and unofficial conciliar reforms to two fundamental crises: the crisis of the Sacrament of Penance and the crisis of not preaching on the Last Things. According to Cuchet, the massive abandonment in just a few years of the practice of confession had a profound impact on Catholic attitudes toward sin, and toward life in general. In 1952 51 percent of French Catholics went to confession at least the obligatory once per year. By 1983 that was down to just 14 percent. The concept of a personal conscience, misunderstood as it universally was, led to most Catholics rationalizing away the sins they had committed. Not only that, says Cuchet, the French clergy allowed them to do so. They abandoned the practice of confession (that is, hearing confessions frequently) just as had the so-called faithful.
Cuchet, in fact, lays most of the blame at the feet of the French clergy. They failed, he says, in their duty to preach about sin, to preach properly on the work of a well-formed conscience, and to preach about the importance of confession and penance. Thus, the usefulness of confession became less obvious, as did the connection between confession and Holy Communion. In a word, Communion was trivialized and confession nearly non-existent.
Cuchet also claims that the French clergy stopped preaching about the Four Last Things — death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell — “as if they had stopped believing in it themselves.” French priests, he says, in effect “paved the way to Heaven.” They gave the distinct impression that the path was no longer narrow and steep, but was now a wide, well-travelled thoroughfare. In a sense, wonders Cuchet, doesn’t that essentially mean the end of salvation? If one does not believe in sin, why the need for salvation? If there’s no need for salvation, why bother with Jesus Christ? If we needn’t bother with Jesus the Savior, why go to Mass? Why belong to the Church? Why identify as Christian? The rhetorical answer to those questions leads back to the astounding statistic that only 1.7 percent of French Catholics attend Mass even once a month.
Though Cuchet doesn’t provide a way out of the decline explicitly (and that is not his purpose as a historian), one can easily see the implicit solution: a strong Church made up of vibrant, faithful clergy who are not afraid to preach on sin or the effects of sin, and who promote the myriad spiritual, physical, and communal advantages of being a practicing member of the Church.
The foregoing article, "A Crisis of the Four Last Things" was originally published in the July-August 2018 issue of the New Oxford Review and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.