‘You have a duty to disobey to the ecclesial authorities on temporal matters!” You might assume that the man saying these words, standing in a café in Paris and addressing some 30 young people, is a secular bigot of the kind we have in France, thanks to our laïcité, or state secularism. But you would be wrong. The man wears a cassock. He is a priest of the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, a traditionalist society of apostolic life in communion with the Holy See.
It is late January and the priest is giving a conference to the small far-right group Dextra. According to him, “the Church is trying to demolish the uncompromising Catholics, as it did in the time of Maurras”. He is referring to the Action française crisis. Back in the 1920s, Charles Maurras, a journalist and author, led the fierce monarchist movement Action française. He was an agnostic and a virulent critic of Christianity, describing the four Evangelists as “obscure Jews”. Nevertheless, he believed that the Church was a vital tool for national unity.
But in 1926, just as Maurras was rallying French Catholics, Pope Pius XI condemned his movement. “The same thing is happening today, because of this book,” the priest fulminates.
Which book is he talking about? Earlier this month Erwan Le Morhedec, a lawyer and Catholic blogger, known by his pen name Koz Toujours (“Keep saying” in French), published Identity: the Evil Genius of Christianity. The book warns French Catholics against the temptation of fraternising with nationalists.
Le Morhedec denounces the prevailing cultural atmosphere. In an uneasy France, fearful of the migrant crisis and terrorist attacks, many Catholics are angry. They feel despised by the political establishment more than ever since the 2013 same-sex marriage controversies. Many of them are hardening in their speech, even against Pope Francis and the French bishops, whom they regard as soft on Islam.
Le Morhedec urges his brothers and sisters in faith not to give in to the nationalist temptation. “Will we endorse the fragmentation of the country by such a posture?” he asks. He argues that the faith is being exploited by secular nationalists, many within the Front National led by Marine Le Pen. They defend the “Christian identity” of France, but you won’t find them at Mass. Without the faith, defending Christianity as a culture is pointless, Le Morhedec says. “In all the cathedrals we could erect, it is not so much the old stones that must be admired but rather the faith of the builders that must be restored.”
But there is another book, also published recently, that is competing for attention. In Church and Immigration: The Great Malaise, Laurent Dandrieu, Catholic editor of the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles, accuses the Catholic hierarchy of being naïve on the migrant issue. His thesis is that popes since John XXIII have a utopian and idealistic vision of immigration. “The Church seems to be the last to cling to this fiction of believing that the integration of millions of migrants is possible without clashes or irreversible damage,” he writes. He also argues that the Church has an “appeasing discourse” on Islam.
France is a literary country. We love battles of the books. Not surprisingly, the two authors and their supporters are clashing. Although the quarrel is taking place mostly in Paris, the city sets the intellectual tone for the rest of France.
This debate is real. It shows the division of French Catholics around issues as central as national identity and immigration. These matters are not easy to resolve. But they certainly won’t be solved by an appeal to the discredited ideas of Charles Maurras.
Pierre Jova is a French journalist
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