France: Senate Report Takes Stock of the Country’s Religious Heritage

July 26, 2022
Chapel of St. Appolonie-Les-Assions

With church attendance down and priests absent from many of the country's 36,000 parishes, local government officials have repeatedly complained that the obligation to maintain churches imposes impossible to assume financial burdens.

Like other Western nations, France faces questions about the future of its religious heritage due to increasing secularization.

The report notes that the French religious heritage is rich: it is the most important in Europe after that of Italy. Thus there could still be 100,000 places of worship still active or not on the soil of the country. But a significant part of this heritage belongs to public authorities since the spoliation of the property of the clergy by the State, by the of November 2, 1789 law.

If all these buildings do not have a heritage dimension, more than 40,000 predate the 20th century and 14,000 of them are protected as historical monuments. The report recognizes their religious value, but also their historical, cultural, artistic, and architectural value, which must be preserved.

It seems that, from an overall point of view, this heritage is not in such bad condition, but it suffers from a maintenance deficit, or from too irregular maintenance. This is particularly true for buildings that are not listed, and for those in rural areas.

Three threats weigh particularly heavily on unprotected buildings located in rural areas: increasing secularization, combined with the desertification of certain geographical areas; the budgetary constraints of the municipalities, responsible for maintenance; parish groupings, mergers of municipalities and the development of inter-municipalities.

There are 500 closed buildings in which worship is no longer celebrated. And 2,500 to 5,000 buildings are threatened with being abandoned, sold, or destroyed by 2030 according to the Observatory of Religious Heritage. This threat weighs especially on buildings of mediocre quality or whose architectural value is less appreciated, such as those dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The risk is not so much that these buildings may become private property, but that they will cease to be properly used and maintained to the point that their demolition becomes inevitable,” the report notes.

As church attendance declines and priests are absent from many parishes across the country, local government officials have repeatedly complained that the obligation to maintain churches imposes financial burdens that are impossible to bear .

Among its nine recommendations, the report calls for a comprehensive national inventory identifying churches of particular concern, measures to prevent the illegal trafficking of religious objects, and efforts to counter the “general indifference” by “re-socializing” places of worship.

“It is only by allowing these buildings to regain meaning and usefulness for a large part of the population that the safeguarding of religious heritage can be guaranteed,” the report states.

This is what the ninth recommendation proposes to “promote the shared use of places of worship by clarifying, through standard conventions, the relationship between the mayor, the assigned priest, and the diocese.”

The report justifies this proposal as follows: “Transforming religious buildings into communal houses does not contradict their religious vocation, but signifies a return to basics. Until the French Revolution, religious and human activities coexisted in churches.”

The authors indicate that the Conference of Catholic Bishops of France is in favor of a greater “shared use of churches for non-religious activities compatible with their religious character, in order to safeguard and enhance the Christian heritage.”

Note the laudable concern of this report for the state of religious heritage, and the proposals made to try to preserve it as well as possible.

Indeed, society was impregnated by Catholicism, and the human activities in question naturally fit into this Christian fabric: the church housed social life, because it was enlivened by religion, and their union was quite natural. Which is not really the case today.

It remains that all that can help to preserve them, by maintaining the religious character of the churches, will be welcome, while waiting for the practice—the fall of which was caused by not only secularization, but also the terrible crisis that has shaken the Church since Vatican II—to resume under the impulse of holy apostles, raised up by God, to give new youth to the Church of France.