A new Catholic counter-revolution is under way in Europe


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Last week, hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from around the world converged on the Portuguese capital Lisbon for World Youth Day, an international religious gathering that first took place in Rome in 1986. In a sermon delivered in the city on August 3, Pope Francis reminded those present that “in the Church there is room for everyone”.

More than 42,000 of the 354,000 pilgrims were from France (the fourth-largest national contingent after Spaniards, Italians and Portuguese). And a poll of young French Catholics planning to travel to Lisbon published in May, in the religious newspaper La Croix, suggests that they might not have been especially receptive to Francis’s expansive ecclesiastical vision.

While church attendance in France continues to scrape along at levels that are a tiny fraction of those seen in the 1950s, the poll suggests that young French Catholics today are highly observant and favour the most traditional forms of ritual, including the Latin mass. And according to the political scientist Yann Raison du Cleuziou, this group, which wields an influence out of all proportion to its size (thanks to social media and other network effects), is at the heart of the re-emergence of conservative Catholicism as a political, as well as religious, force.

Nor is the fusion of Catholic identity politics with nativist and “sovereigntist” populism that Raison du Cleuziou describes peculiar to France. The electoral success of parties such as Vox in Spain and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, the largest party in the ruling Italian coalition, testifies to that.

The results of the French survey point to a conception of the relationship between religious authority and temporal political power at odds with what Francis himself has identified as a “healthy secularism” in which “God and Caesar remain distinct but not opposed”. In the La Croix poll, 59 per cent see the church as a “beacon which shows the way through the darkness” of secular modernity.

Raison du Cleuziou argues that the notion that democratic politicians don’t have the right to interfere with the “natural order” of things is central to a contemporary “Catholic counter-revolution”. And for him the origins of this revanchism in France lie in the “Manif pour tous” (“Demo for all”) movement which, in 2012-14, brought thousands on to the streets to protest against gay marriage.

In Italy, “family day” protests against equal marriage mobilised hundreds of thousands in Rome in 2016. This year Meloni’s government instructed city mayors not to issue birth certificates which recognise same-sex couples as children’s legal parents.

In 2016, one of the offshoots of Manif pour tous, a group called Sens Commun, played a key role in securing the French centre-right presidential nomination for François Fillon. Parading his own faith, Fillon, whose campaign later crashed amid financial scandal, made a successful pitch to what the social scientists Hervé Le Bras and Emmanuel Todd have memorably called “zombie Catholicism” — a “structuring agent in education and politics” that continues to wield influence despite the dramatic decline of religion in its “ritual dimension”.

Similarly, Vox’s electoral inroads in Spain — which remain significant at regional and municipal level, despite the party’s underwhelming showing in July’s parliamentary elections — cannot be properly understood without paying attention to the religious (specifically Catholic) aspect.

When Vox first entered the European parliament in 2019, for example, it did not join the Identity and Democracy grouping, to which France’s far-right Rassemblement National and Italy’s League belong. Instead, it joined the Brothers of Italy in the European Conservatives and Reformists bloc, alongside Poland’s ruling Catholic-nationalist Law and Justice party.

The ECR’s declaration of principles and values includes a commitment to the “importance of the family” and to the “sovereign integrity of the nation state, opposition to EU federalism and a renewed respect for true subsidiarity”.

Keen students of 20th-century European political history will note a rich irony here. “Subsidiarity” — the idea that power should be distributed downwards, to local and regional authorities, and upwards, to supranational organisations — was one of the key values of postwar Christian Democracy. And this was a political ideology that sought to reconcile Christianity (particularly Catholicism) with liberal democracy, not stand in opposition to it, and which did more than any other to shape the project of European integration that Catholic identitarians now anathematise.

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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