Pope lays down the law to French Catholic bishops

September 15, 2008

Pope Benedict in Lourdes, 15 Sept 2008/Regis DuvignauPope Benedict’s speech to France’s bishops at Lourdes was a classic example of an “iron first in a velvet glove” address. Delivered calmly and in elegant French, it basically laid down the law to a group that has been among the most critical in the Church of his turn towards traditional Catholicism. It was billed as a meeting but was in fact a monologue. He read it out without hardly ever looking at the 170 cardinals and bishops before him and left right after finishing the text.

“Benedict XVI gave the bishops a veritable road map to help them trace the paths of the future for the church in France,” wrote Jean-Marie Guénois, religion correspondent of Le Figaro. “He wanted this meeting. It’s the only one he imposed on the organisers. Which shows the importance, in his eyes, of what he wanted to tell them.”

The most striking part was his call to the bishops to make more place for traditionalists. The French bishops lobbied the Vatican last year before Benedict liberalised the use of the Tridentine Latin Mass, arguing that giving the traditionalists too much leeway would undermine the authority of the bishops. The “tradis” are especially strong in France, both in the form of those loyal to Rome and those who have broken with it. The culture war between them and the majority church is deeply rooted and mutual suspicion is strong. Bishops worry that traditionalists want to form a “church within a church” if given the slightest chance. Among mainstream Catholics, that can translate into a high sensitivity to anything seen as rolling back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

“I am aware of your difficulties, but I do not doubt that, within a reasonable time, you can find solutions satisfactory for all, lest the seamless tunic of Christ be further torn,” the pope said while talking about the Tridentine mass. “Everyone has a place in the Church. Every person, without exception, should be able to feel at home, and never rejected.”

French cardinals and bishops at Lourdes, 14 Sept 2008/poolTo bishops faced with serious priest shortages, Benedict warned the bishops not to rely too much on the lay people who now replace missing priests in many functions. He urged them to continue to try to encourage vocations instead. “Where their specific missions are concerned, priests cannot delegate their functions to the faithful,” he said.

With a growing number of Catholics divorcing and then remarrying outside the Church, bishops in several developed countries have asked whether the Vatican could relax the marriage laws that require an annulment before a divorced Catholic can remarry in the Church. Benedict recognised that “a particularly painful situation concerns those who are divorced and remarried.” But he said he could not change Church teaching: “The Church, which cannot oppose the will of Christ, firmly maintains the principle of the indissolubility of marriage, while surrounding with the greatest affection those men and women who, for a variety of reasons, fail to respect it. Hence initiatives aimed at blessing irregular unions cannot be admitted”

Benedict also encouraged the bishops to remind the French of their country’s Christian roots now that President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he wants to take a more flexible approach to laïcité, the traditionally rigid separation of church and state. He said: “Drawing attention to France’s Christian roots will permit each inhabitant of the country to come to a better understanding of his or her origin and destiny. Consequently, within the current institutional framework and with the utmost respect for the laws that are in force, it is necessary to find a new path, in order to interpret and live from day to day the fundamental values on which the Nation’s identity is built. Your President has intimated that this is possible. The social and political presuppositions of past mistrust or even hostility are gradually disappearing.”

Pope Benedict and President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, 12 Sept 2008/poolThings are changing, but this is still a touchy issue in France, where many Catholics are wary about reopening the debate on laïcité. One of them, for example, is François Bayrou, a prominent centrist politician and practicing Catholic who boycotted Benedict’s speech at the Elysée Palace because he thought it violated the separation of church and state. But he was here in Lourdes for the pope’s mass on Sunday, as a private citizen. Another issue is whether the bishops want to be seen to be so close to Sarkozy himself. “Speedy Sarko” was quite close to France’s Muslims a few years ago, before they fell out in a big way. He has made pitches to the Jewish community with mixed success. The Catholics are the focus at the moment, but you never know with Sarko when his attention will shift elsewhere.

The bishops gave Benedict a standing ovation at the end of his address, which is probably to be expected during a papal visit. It remains to be seen how much of his road map they follow.


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Actually a Roman Catholic doesn’t necesarily need an annullment beofre being able to remarry in Church. I was quite shocked when I started my (Protestant)ministry in France to discover that a Roman Catholic who marries first time around in a a non-Roman Catholic church can be treated as a first time marrier for their second marriage. this from a church that claims to be pro family and marriage.
I would sometimes try to get mixed mariages taking place in a Protestant church written into the diocesan records but it’s quite a long process and normally relies on their being a pro-Vatican II priest willing to do the paperwork. Of course Protestant marriage is not a sacrament but it is still a marriage …

Posted by jane | Report as abusive

Thanks for this comment. Very interesting … first I’ve heard of this. Are there any other readers out there who have come across the same thing?

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive


The Catholic Church teaches (see decree on marriage, Council of Trent) that Christian marriage, when validly transacted, is a sacrament, among Protestants as well as Catholics. No priest celebrates the sacrament, since the celebrants are the couple marrying. Hence, valid sacramental marriage is posible among Protestants even in the absence of what the Catholic Church would recognize as a sacramental priesthood.

But the Catholic Church claims the right, under the power of the keys granted to Peter and the Apostles, to put conditions on the validity of marriages celebrated by Catholic Christians in full communion with the see of Peter. Since the Council of Trent, the Church has required that Catholics celebrate their marriage in the presence of a Catholic priest as witness (not as celebrant), unless specific permission has been given to celebrate the marriage otherwise. A Catholic who marries before a Protestant minister without having bothered to get such permission (which permission they actually can apply for and obtain – but need to do so) will simply not contract a valid marriage, end of story.

The point of putting this condition on validity? So the Catholic Church has some public record coming from authorities it trusts and regulates, its own priesthood, of who is marrying whom, and some ability to ensure and enforce adequate marriage preparation in a form that it can be happy with and recognize. In the middle ages, Catholics could marry without a priest, before lay witnesses only, allowing casual and unprepared celebrations, and making it far easier to manufacture fraudulent claims of marriages that never actually happened. This caused huge problems, obviously.

These conditions are not enforced on Protestants marrying Protestants. But you can forgive the Catholic Church for having some concern for the spiritual good of those Christians who are fully in communion with it and who are very directly its responsibility and who, nominally at least, accept its jurisdiction. This shows a concern for Catholics, not a disrespect for non-Catholics, or for Christian marriage between non-Catholics. If Catholics marry Protestants, they can do so, validly, and in a Protestant Church. But they do have to follow the rules and get permission – which, when asked for, will ordinarily be given.

Posted by Tom | Report as abusive

The shortage of priest in France,the lack of the faithfull attending Sunday Mass,nothing at all to do to the French Bishops ,Vactican 2 ,liturgical abuses,excuses in sin,and so on !! I wonder how these treachourous clergy sleep in theur beds at night.This is not just France though,its the same here in England and my parish ot St.John the Baptist Norwich The Cathedral church of the diocese of East Anglia

Posted by Albert Cooper | Report as abusive

Why do the bishops have issues with traditionalists. I am a maronite catholic living in Australia and the maronite youths are flocking to parishes that have conservative priests.
the Churches are empty these days, not because of traditionalists, on the contrary it is because of the liberalism that has crept into the church in the last few decades.
People will come back to the church if our priests and bishops show leadership and don’t undermine the church’s teachings.
Thanks be to god for giving us Pope Bennedict

Posted by Charbel | Report as abusive

Pope Benedict also made comments on the plane over to France about the Motu Proprio and this is what I wrote on CTNGreg in reponse to Prof Perrin of the University of Strasbourg.

AMDG Sentire cum Ecclesia…. The Motu Proprio is the Law. The comments of the Holy Father on a plane are not direct quotations and I wonder whether the journalist has interpreted what the Holy Father said through the prism of his own liturgical lenses.

However the Law is the Law and extra-Judicial comments by a nomothete do not change the words of the Law; even if the comments appear to contradict the Law. The Law-giver must respect the Law – the Motu Proprio – if as M. Perrin says these comments go against the MP or will be of use to those members of the Hierarchy who never really wanted to respect the MP then all the faithful need to do is to remind Msgr XYZ that the MP is the Law regardless of what the Holy Father may or may not have said on an aeroplane.

However even if the comments of the Holy Father have been recorded correctly how could anyone disagree with his comment: But I would humbly like to suggest the the Holy Father’s words support the MP and do not, in any way contradict it or undermine the force or stated intention of Sum. Pont.. My Comments on the Holy Father’s remarks are in brackets with asterixes *** This ‘motu proprio’ is simply an act ( ***A motu proprio – a judicial act of the Sovreign Pontiff – saying that the Pian Missal was never abrogated***)

of tolerance ( ***this is a two-edged sword – the Trads are asked to stop their hectoring of the Novus Ordo and the other blade of the sword is that the Novus Ordo hierarchy and priests are asked to tolerate, ie permit without hindering or resenting those who love the Pian Missal – the Extra-ordinary Rite***)

with a pastoral objective, ( ***Yes, he’s right again, the Pastoral Objective, like Pope John Paul II opm in his Ecclesia Dei Afflicata was to show that the Pian Missal – now Extraoridnary Use was to be permitted for those who preferred it in rder that their leigtimate and licit desires for the Sacrifice and the Sacraments according to the Missale Romanum of 1962 could be met inthe Roman Catholic Church and that they would not be tempted to join together with groups who although not in formal SCHISM have elements in their preaching and praxis which do indicate that they have SCHISMATIC tendancies***) for people who have been formed in this liturgy, who love it, know it and want to live with this liturgy.

It is a small group, given that it presupposes a formation in Latin, ( ***Yes the Holy Father is right again, we know we are a small group – and we all need to put away the Rosary beads at Mass and follow the Mass with the priest in Latin, not in French or English***)

a formation in a certain culture ( ***Indeed and I believe he means by this a Roman Catholic culture – Tradisti quod accepivisti? (*** Do you pass on the Faith in its entirely to others, the True Faith of the Catholic Church founded by DNJC to others? or are we simply going to sulk and gripe and complain?***)

But it seems to me a normal demand of faith and pastoral concern for a bishop of our Church to have love and tolerance for these people and permit them to live with this liturgy. (*** Indeed and by adopting the Ignatian method of sentire cum Ecclesia and interpreting the actions of all, including the Holy Father, in the most charitable way possible, we can only interpret these comments on the Motu Proprio as a huge philip and boost to the Traditional Communities – Vivat Papa Bendictus!***)

In caritate Xp.,
Bryan Dunne
Our Lady of the 7 Dolours opn.

Posted by Bryan Dunne | Report as abusive

I’m a practicing Catholic. I attend mass weekly. And I’m going through a divorce.

And I’m tired of feeling like I’m not welcome in The Church. My ex-wife did not go to church. She was critical of my faith. I’m not without fault in the failure of my marriage, but my former wife thought nothing of staying out until 3am on a Friday with her friends.I was the one who was home every night. And she was the one who said “I want to be alone.”

I don’t list my tale of woe, to garner sympathy. But while my divorce drags on, I have to put my love life on hold. My ex and I have been separated for 14 months, the divorce proceedings are 12 months long and she seems to be in no rush to get the divorce behind us.

And I need permission for someone to tell me it’s all right to pursue another relationship? In my opinion, and I could be wrong, I am being held hostage by her, through the Church’s teachings, the Church that she hates.

I made a poor choice of a spouse. I was not an easy guy to live with. Plenty of blame to go around in my marriage. The most I can say is that I was not unfaithful.

And I can’t even apply for an annulment until my divorce is final? How long do I wait for my life to begin?

I met a woman who is a Eucharistic Minister, an active Catholic. But we wait. For what?

I don’t get it.

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive