News Analysis

The French Church after Cardinal Barbarin

Cardinal Barbarin: larger than life (Getty)

The conviction of Lyon’s archbishop, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, by a French court on March 7 for failing to report alleged sexual abuse by a priest of his archdiocese has further fuelled the sense that the Church faces one of its most serious crises since the Reformation. Barbarin is the first cardinal to be convicted by a civil court for such a crime.

Barbarin is appealing the conviction. He is nonetheless offering his resignation as archbishop to Pope Francis on the basis that, even if his appeal succeeds, the French Church needs a fresh approach – and leadership – if its efforts to address the sex abuse scourge are to be considered credible.

That particularly means a new face in Lyon. Not only is Lyon one of the world’s oldest Catholic dioceses; its archbishop also enjoys the title “Primat des Gaules”, underscoring the archdiocese’s ancient prestige from its association with Church Fathers like St Irenaeus. Its occupants are also expected to play a prominent role in French religious and public life.

Previous archbishops of Lyon have included members of the Richelieu family, Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot (who served as Secretary of State to Paul VI and, briefly, John Paul II), and Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier. A former army officer, Gerlier is famous for publically condemning the deportation of French Jews to death camps during World War II and arranging to protect Jewish children from round-ups. Yad Vashem posthumously declared him a “Righteous among the Nations” in 1981.

Barbarin himself has been a larger-than-life figure in French Catholicism. Gifted in languages, an engaging public speaker, a missionary in Madagascar, and a marathon runner, he publicly associated himself with causes ranging from the pro-life movement to Catholic-Jewish dialogue and protecting Christians in the Middle East.

Barbarin’s departure leaves Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris as the French Church’s most prominent face. Thus far, Aupetit is considered to have “clean hands” concerning the sex abuse problems bubbling to the surface in French Catholicism. This, combined with his outgoing, non-defensive style, will be crucial if the French Church is to weather the storm and render justice to the victims.

Similar qualities will surely be sought in Barbarin’s successor. Complicating matters is the fact that the papal nuncio, Archbishop Luigi Ventura, has himself been accused of sexual assault (he has declined to comment on the accusations). This suggests that Aupetit, as a member of the Congregation of Bishops since late 2018, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, as the prefect of the same Congregation and who knows the Francophone world extremely well, will play even larger roles in selecting Lyon’s new archbishop.

The stakes associated with this appointment are high. May they – and Pope Francis – choose wisely.