REV. MICHEL BRIERE: The eldest daughter of the Church, that’s what we were called. Today, saying you believe in a religion takes a real identification of faith. Today, the number has really diminished.
[DEBORAH] POTTER: Twenty years ago, about 80 percent of French people described themselves as Catholic. Today, it’s just over half and less than 5 percent—most of them older—regularly go to Mass. Father Briere blames a growing culture of consumerism and a Catholic hierarchy that he says has been too rigid, failing to draw young people into the Church. That’s true across Europe, but France is a special case, a country where religion is widely seen as a source of trouble. If France had an official religion it would be laicite or secularism, a principle that’s enshrined in this country’s constitution and reflects its history of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants, as well as the French Revolution, that basically booted the Catholic Church from power.
That history lives on in French movies and classrooms, where students are taught in gory detail about a 16th-century massacre, when thousands of Protestants [Huguenots] were slaughtered by the Catholic forces of the King. And that history still lies on public display in Paris. These are the bones of Catholic priests killed and mutilated by a revolutionary mob in 1792—small wonder that the French concept of separation of church and state is strikingly different from that in the US, says Jocelyne Cesari, a French political scientist and research fellow at Harvard.
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