On January 29, 2019, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, then president of the doctrinal commission for the French bishops’ conference, and as of April 3, president of the French bishops’ conference, published an opinion piece on the French bishops’ website.
Recalling the “necessity of in-depth doctrinal discussions with the Society of Saint Pius X,” he stated what he thought ought to be at the heart of these doctrinal discussions: “The issues at stake are not mere details. It does not suffice to insist on the sacrificial reality of the Eucharist; it must be defined what this sacrifice is, which, under the Christian law, cannot be a prolongation of sacrifices of paganism or even the sacrifices of the Temple; it does not suffice to call oneself an adherent of Tradition, but it must be made clear what is the Tradition of Christ to His apostles, which cannot be only the weight of past imposing itself on every generation; it does not suffice to affirm that the Catholic religion is the only true one, but it must be explained how this exclusive truth honours the salvific power of Christ, who has acquired the power to spread His Holy Spirit in all men to attract all men.”
To comprehend this commentary, where Tradition is thrice identified with insufficiency (“it does not suffice to…”), the April-June 2019 issue of the Nouvelle Revue theologique (Vol. 14, no. 2), a theological journal in which Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort explains how, in his opinion, the Church ought to face the challenges of the 21st century.
Starting from Guillaume Cuchet’s book Comment notre monde a cessé d’être chrétien, anatomie d’un effondrement [How our world ceased to be Christian: the anatomy of a collapse] (Seuil, 2018), the archbishop of Reims easily identifies the vertiginous collapse of vocations and sacramental practice: “It is easy to find numbers that show the numerical collapse we are experiencing: 114 priestly ordinations in 2018 (82 priests and 20 monks [in reality, 32 monks—Ed.]; 135 in 2017. A study that needs confirmation but which is no doubt mainly correct indicates 170,000 priests and religious before the Revolution; 213,000 in 1880; 177,000 in 1950. In 1880, a quarter of Frenchwomen were nuns [in reality, 7%--Ed.] and in 1950 half the Catholic missionaries in the world were French.
“In the mid-‘60s, 94% of French children were baptized within two months of birth [in reality, within 3 months—Ed.] and 25% of the French went to Mass every Sunday; in our day, around 2% attend Sunday Mass and only 30% of children under 7 years are baptized.”
Teilhard de Chardin’s Change in the Anima Religiosa
The new president of the French bishops’ conference says we are witnessing a crisis that was analyzed already in the interwar period: “In fact, already in 1924, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote that humanity was living through a "crisis," and he explained this by saying that "already for some time, in accelerated rhythm, something was happening in the structure of human consciousness. It is another kind of life that is beginning." Within this crisis, "the very foundations of the human anima religiosa, on which the Church has built for the last 2000 years, are changing in dimension and nature.’ (…)” Let us note in passing that Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort is quoting here Teilhard de Chardin, who is quoted by Fr. Henri de Lubac (in The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin (Desclee, 1967) and Teilhard et notre temps [Teilhard and our time] (Aubier-Montaigne, 1968)), about whom he is an expert—two Jesuits whose teachings on the relationship between nature and grace are far from orthodox.
According to the Archbishop of Reims, what characterizes this change in the human anima religiosa in our own time is the search for self-fulfillment, the appearance of a society of abundance and of individuality: “Ever since the ‘60s, even before May 1968—although the May Revolution emphasized the phenomenon, of course—the actions of individuals are directed at pleasure and self-fulfillment. ‘I choose to do this or that because it pleases me, because it will give me pleasure, because I think doing this will be fulfilling.’
“Then, beginning in the middle of the 19th century, slowly at first and then with phases of formidable acceleration, Western societies became societies of abundance. (…) In a society of abundance, we live without lacking anything and without suffering. This can only be a matter for rejoicing. But what hope do we then nourish, and why would we need a Saviour from above? (…)
“From the joint influence of the factors I have described emerged contemporary Western society. Its center is individuality (I am deliberately avoiding the word "individualism," overused and easily stigmatized). The promotion of individuality is not an evil in itself, even from a Christian perspective. Our societies are no longer traditional societies in which the greater part of life consists in reproducing what has already been done. Of itself, this allows each person to seek above all his own personal fulfillment. Children do not have to build on what their parents accomplished, but choose to employ their talents in their own way. In Christian terms, each person is freer to hear the call of his own vocation and to respond in a unique way. Taken in itself, this state corresponds with the spiritual freedom brought by the Lord Jesus. However, the result is that each person must advance for the most part alone; no one can simply follow the paths travelled by others.” [With regard to this refusal of all tradition and this presentation of modern individualism, which is said to correspond to the spiritual freedom willed by Christ, see below.]
“Western societies,” Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort continues, “are societies of freedom, and this is very good. Only, they are societies that have renounced the custom of telling their citizens what is good and what is evil, and instead, promise, more or less explicitly, to preserve them from all frustration and pain. Each person is free to choose to live for the greatest good, but he must constantly remind himself of the reasons for his choice; he must have somewhere from which he can draw the resources of light of reason and the energy of will to make him capable of choosing the good and sticking to it, surrounded as he is by the possibly contrary behaviour of many around him. And he must do this in a cultural universe where frustration and pain have no place, and where he will be reproached for causing frustration and pain around him.
“This challenge, the challenge of determining for oneself what is good in almost every domain, and adhering to it without social support, is the challenge of all our advanced liberal societies, the challenge they present to all their members. It is not surprising that many prefer to avoid this challenge, seek to deny it or refuse to acknowledge it. We must make the good news of salvation resound (and therefore announce that salvation is necessary) and the news of the spiritual liberty that Christ has brought to this universe, in its cultural, social and spiritual aspects.”
It is to say the least surprising that the new president of the French bishops’ conference describes dechristianized Western society without ever addressing the question of the clergy’s responsibility faced with this secularization. He analyzes the facts, without considering that they could be the consequences of causes in which the clergy have played a definite role. The ‘silent apostasy’ of the West is only silent because it is silenced. It is true that addressing the causes would mean questioning some doctrinal and moral teachings, some pastoral practices, and an uncertain liturgy…
Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort is content to observe and to propose confidence in divine grace, without a preliminary examination of conscience: “Here is a summary description of the setting in which the Church in France must accomplish its mission. I would like to insist on the fact that the changes I have described, some of which are specific to France or to the Western world, and some of which are spreading more or less rapidly across the entire world, are not only catastrophic. They are reshaping the human soul on a fundamental level, at least the anima religiosa. My conviction is that Christianity, through the grace of Christ and the Holy Spirit, has unexpected capacities to meet this transformed soul and bring it the light, the peace, and the strength it needs. Only, the capacity for resistance is strong as well.”
For the archbishop of Reims, this capacity to resist grace is manifested by an illusory desire for restoration: “Attempts at theological or spiritual comprehension of our times are not very numerous. Bishops themselves do not risk making them. Some of those who consider them, bishops or not, think in terms of restoration. More orthodox preaching, more regulated liturgy would reach hearts and minds and bring them to Christ. The illusion in this point of view is that it neglects the fundamental change in the anima religiosa that we have tried to describe. Preaching without anxiety will surely awaken a few sleepers. But it does not suffice to reach those who have chosen completely different modes of engagement.”
A Mission “To Serve the Lives of Others”
The solution, according to Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort, is to be found in Vatican II: “Others, more subtle, perhaps also more lucid [than supporters of restoration] propose an interpretation founded in the Second Vatican Council.” He names one such thinker: “The most important francophone author on this topic is without doubt Jesuit Christoph Theobald. In particular, he published in 2017 a book called Urgences pastorals [Pastoral urgencies] (Bayard).”
Here is the proposal of this author, considered significant by Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort: “While the Church and the world seem to be moving inevitably apart, Fr. Theobald establishes a possible point of convergency or meeting, in an “elementary faith, attached to the fundamental goodness of life,” the deployment of which is necessary to the pursuit of each individual existence, a faith whose appearance is never guaranteed in trials, and from there he tries to understand the mission of the Church. After a considerable work of evaluation and examination of the concept of "mission," he proposes that "mission" should be understood as "service to the lives of others," "humble hospitality," making available to everyone the riches of Christ, without a spirit of recuperation.
We are far from the mission on which Jesus Christ sent His disciples: “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Mt. 28: 19 – 20).
This apostolic timidity of Archbishop de Moulins-Beaufort reflects the attitude of many bishops in France; it is expressed in this article in the journal Nouvelle revue théologique with infinite precaution: hypotheses, euphemisms, understatements… There must not be any statements that are too clear-cut! Nothing is catastrophic; everything is a “challenge!” So it goes for Islam: “We must understand that France has always been more diverse than the French knew or felt. Islam adds another complication. It seems to me that, in a country like ours, we face a double challenge:
“Can Islam nourish fraternal relations, even among jealousy and competitiveness, without necessarily aiming at the absorption of everyone? [As Moliere says in The Misanthrope, Act I, scene ii: “Ah! In what gallant terms these things are phrased!”
“Can Islam nourish the experience of liberty in the personal dignity that is the best of our lived experience in our countries, and that is the chief quality of fervent Catholics? [In other words, when will Islam carry out its conciliar aggiornamento by adopting Dignitatis Humanae?]
What is the message?
Under cover of a sociological and almost clinical analysis of our secularized societies, forgetful of God, ignorant of His law and His commandments, the new president of the French bishops’ conference seeks to reconcile the Gospel and the Revolution.
Our modern societies, especially since May ’68, have not ceased to disintegrate into a gigantic anthill of disorganized activity—what Marcel De Corte called dissociété, a society defined by its lack of cohesion. They exalt individual liberty and the primacy of the individual conscience above all law and all authority. Heirs to the Enlightenment and the Revolution, they refuse all tradition and deny the political and social nature of man. The claim that the spiritual liberty brought by Christ can flout the natural foundations of the state, the family and society in order to accommodate this state of affairs, shows—once again—how the Church has turned to the world to adapt to it, instead of teaching the world to raise it back up.