06 April 2023, The Tablet

French bishops take cautious approach to reform proposals

“Like Notre Dame, the French Church is under construction,” the Paris daily Le Figaro commented.

French bishops take cautious approach to reform proposals

The Archbishop of Rheims, Éric de Moulins-Beaufort (pictured in 2021) insisted that the reform proposals were not dead.
Independent Photo Agency SRL/Alamy

France’s bishops, faced with reform proposals sparked by a 2021 report on widespread sexual abuse in the Church, were defensive at their spring plenary in Lourdes last week.

They voted on a few proposals but passed the most controversial to their dioceses or for further study.

The Archbishop of Rheims, Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, who heads the conference, admitted some votes on the proposals meant to “free the Church from the weight of sexual violence and aggression” had been delayed. But he insisted that did not mean they were dead.

Nine working groups set up after the shocking Sauvé report made 60 proposals, including asking the Vatican for women deacons and to experiment with priestly ordination for older laymen, the so-called viri probati.

The plenary in Lourdes asked the conference’s doctrinal commission to “scrutinise their work” on those issues.

Among the proposals the plenary did approve were better preparation for newly-ordained bishops, a wider role for lay Catholics, especially women, in diocesan decisions and synod-style national plenaries with lay delegates every three years.

They also approved tighter controls on the “new communities” that have been involved in some of the most scandalous sexual abuse cases uncovered in recent years.

The plenary came at a confusing time for national Churches reacting to the abuse crisis. The Vatican has openly criticised the German bishops’ synodal path but quietly accepted similar reform ideas in Belgium.

The French bishops were expected to come up with a more confident compromise.

“Some may be disappointed. We pass the responsibility to others on many topics … but this is not meant to get rid of them,” Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort insisted in his closing speech.

“Like Notre Dame, the French Church is under construction,” the Paris daily Le Figaro commented laconically, comparing reform ideas to the years-long repair of the capital’s iconic cathedral.

The archbishop, who has accepted and supported the Sauvé report, said the conference voted on issues within its competence.

It could not impose decisions on individual bishops, he said, and therefore needed more discussion before the next review of the proposals in 2025. 

“Some people would like immediate results, but we’re working in the long term,” said The Bishop of Créteil, Dominique Blanchet.

The bishops also agreed to slim down their conference in view of both new measures, especially against clerical sexual abuse, and the Church’s dwindling finances. Central services will be downsized, leaving more scope for cooperation among Church provinces, and lay support staffs reduced.

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