We all know that faith can move mountains, but can it also halt gay marriage? That’s what French Catholics are waiting to find out today, after millions of them duly delivered a prayer to the Virgin Mary asking for her intercession against a new law that will soon be put up for debate in their nation’s National Assembly.
As I wrote in this space last week, the Archbishop of Paris, André Vingt-Trois, recently issued a special prayer to be read out in French churches on August 15, the day of the Assumption of the Virgin. The Archbishop’s new version of the prayer, which in its basic drift dates back to the seventeenth century king Louis XIII and largely fell out of use after the Second World War, calls among other things for the protection of the traditional family. The faithful were to request of Mary that children may “cease to be objects of the desires and conflicts of adults and fully benefit from the love of a father and a mother.”
Archbishop André Vingt-Trois of Paris
The Archbishop’s gambit is quixotic to say the least. France is a strongly anti-clerical country where the strict separation of Church and State is firmly anchored in its constitution. Moreover, the French themselves pride themselves on being a progressive nation. In fact, a recent poll of 2,000 citizens age eighteen and older by the French IFOP institute showed that a whopping 65% of French people support the notion of gay marriage, and 53% favor full adoption rights by gay couples. Even among practicing Catholics, 45% go for marriage and 36% accept adoption.
What’s more, France’s new socialist president, François Hollande, has promised he would introduce legislation allowing full gay marriage by the spring of 2013. With a solid majority backing the proposal, a corresponding measure is likely to become law before the end of next year.
But the French Catholic Church is adamant. One almost has to admire the serenity with which it has weighed anchor in these mined waters – just as one can’t help but marvel at the sense of panic that appears to be motivating this extreme measure, as if modern society had finally reached its nadir and the last trump were about to be sounded. In an interview to Le Figaro on August 14, Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon stated:
Yes, the hour is grave. It means a rupture of civilization to want to pervert marriage, which has always been a marvelous and fragile reality. All you have to do is look at how often Jesus is asked about it in the Gospels. People have blamed the Church for its silence at other times. But its mission is that of prayer, and I hope it will acquit itself loyally, (and) it must speak about the issues that cross public opinion. This is the last instruction that Jesus gave us before he left us, promising us the strength of the Holy Spirit: “You are my witnesses… to the ends of the earth!”
In fact, the French Catholic Church enjoys a positive reputation on many issues, particularly in regard to the treatment of Gypsies, where it is practically alone in calling for the fair treatment of this widely hated minority. But it loses support every time it makes a pronouncement on homosexuality. France’s secular majority is having none of the current intervention. As a spokesman for the Radical Party of the Left put it, “the Church has no democratic legitimacy for inserting itself in the political debate in France.”
"They have said yes!" Presidents Obama and Hollande grace the front page of the daily La Liberation in May of 2012
So why is the Church intervening in public affairs in such a blatant and risky way? On the one hand, it is trying to take advantage of a split right down the French Right on this issue. Perhaps the mobilization of ordinary Catholic voters – and a little divine intervention as well – could tip the scales when it comes to slowing down the proposed legislation next year. At the same time, it looks as if the official Catholic Church is trying to hold onto its dwindling influence on conservative French citizens, as other, more reactionary Catholic organizations make the preservation of the traditional family their own issue at the expense of the Rome-led hierarchy.
The issue is much more complex than it might appear at first glance. Contrary to widespread opinion, the Catholic Church doesn't just generate doctrine on its own. The Catholic faith - in both its progressive and reactionary, entirely off-the-wall tenets - is a reality, whatever influence the Vatican endeavors to exert on it. You see, it's not as if the LGBT issue would simply disappear if the Pope issued a corresponding encyclical. The Catholic Church stands above over a billion cantankerous, often fanatical, and generally homophobic believers. Much of the time, it does its best to grab hold of whatever spirit is haunting its membership and hold on for dear life.
But what influence can the French Church hope to have on this sensitive issue? The traditional family is in a bad enough state as it is without the alleged threat of full-fledged gay marriage: At this moment, only about 44% of French people are married and 2% live in “registered partnerships,” the country’s compromise for LGBT people who want to share partnerships rights since 1999. France’s straight divorce rate is at 38%. It will likely take more than a ban on gay marriage to turn that figure around.
In the same interview, Cardinal Barbarin complained that
The Church tends to be a doormat upon which people wipe their feet. What gives one pause with these reactions – and what causes one to rejoice, paradoxically – is that some people seem to be afraid of prayer. It’s powerful, after all!
But that’s just the problem. It’s not just that attendance was spotty at the official prayer services, which were held in mid-week, but to make things worse, not all French churches read the same prayer today. As of this writing it's still not clear how many either ignored or modified the prayer, since that represents an act of open subordination to Church authority. One of the few congregations that has been willing to make an issue of the matter, the church of Saint-Merri in Paris’s trendy Marais district, said in advance that it would drop the prayer entirely from the Assumption Day mass. Speaking of his parishioners, Rev. Jacques Mérienne told Le Monde that “homosexuals are welcome to our church as themselves, just like other groups, in a spirit of perfect hospitality.” As he puts it, "Jesus did the same... After all, it's not up to us to judge how people live their lives." Overall, however, Saint-Merri “isn’t a ‘gay church’ in the American style, solely reserved for homosexuals. The church is open to everyone, including those who are reticent toward homosexuality. In our parish, we’ve got Islamophobes, homophobes, people who oppose immigration, all living cheek by jowl; that leads to debate.”
If France’s Catholic Church wishes to be a part of this debate, and not just the butt of standup jokes, it will have to open itself up to the majority of the French population that is rejecting its message on this important issue. True, the Holy Virgin may yet intercede on its behalf, but come next spring Archbishop Vingt-Trois may want to start looking for a Plan B.
Photos: www.notredamedeparis.fr; www.worldmeets.us