We'll always have Paris?

From the BBC comes this sad report on the decline of the Catholic Church in France:

The way Fr Bouzou picks his way between the stalls selling duck confit and local honey, kissing some of the stall holders and ruffling their children's hair, makes it seem that the Church still occupies a central role in people's lives.

But priests are scarce in the Lot valley now, so scarce that Fr Bouzou has no fewer than 40 churches to look after. It would be a virtually impossible task, but for the fact that many of them have almost no congregation.

There are just a handful of worshippers for Fr Bouzou's mass at St Laurent Lolmie.

Outside, the little churchyard is crowded with the tombs of past generations of the faithful. Inside are just the former mayor (baptised in this church 84 years ago), two elderly women and three nuns.

They can all remember when every church like this had its own priest.

At 63, Father Bouzou is actually one of the younger priests in the Cahors diocese (average age: 68). Some estimates have half of all French priests dying in the next eight years, and the replacements are few and far between. According to BBC correspondent Robert Pigott, "only 150 men completed their training as priests last year, for the whole of France."

This can be mitigated by shipping in priests from Africa, but the real problem is the role of the Catholic religion in France -- or, really, the lack thereof. Everybody has their pet theory for why the Church is on the outs.

One unnamed nun blames materialism and the thinning of communal ties. Father Bouzou says the younger people in his jurisdiction "don't want to belong to an institution." An African stopgap priest blames the material wealth of the French people.

My own pet theory to explain French secularization would center on how France chose to deal with issues of church and state.

The United States opted for an effective separation of the two institutions, and though the U.S. is wealthy, fairly rootless, and has a hard time fielding enough priests, nobody would argue that the U.S. Catholic Church is on the brink of extinction.

France, on the other hand, has often chosen to suppress religion as an enemy of national unity. Witness the recent ban on Muslims wearing veils at public schools. This approach has led to a worst of both worlds: religious types had a hard time securing freedom to live as they saw fit, and those who do secure such rights are at the very least suspected of corruption -- compromising to secure the toleration of the state.

As GetReligion's designated papist, I probably should gripe about the predictable bit at the end of the BBC piece, where Pigott toys with the idea of ending priestly celibacy. But I just can't. In the wider context of this mournful report, it's more of a throwaway line than a serious suggestion.

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