Catholicism is the majority religion in France, though small numbers—roughly 4.5% of Catholics—attend mass and overall, adherence to Catholicism is declining. Roman Catholicism was the state religion of France beginning with the conversion of King Clovis I (d. 511) until the French Revolution, when the Church’s relationship with the state was radically redefined.
The close connection between the French monarchy and the Catholic Church began during the reign of Charlemagne (d. 814), who was the first to receive a papal coronation in the year 800. Through the coming centuries, the Church became the largest landowner in France and oversaw hospitals, primary, and secondary education. The upper echelons of the Church were populated by noblemen who cemented close political and power relations, and the Church itself was immensely wealthy. The Church and its political allies persecuted French Protestants (Huguenots) during the Protestant Reformation and French Wars of Religion (16th century), which resumed in 1685 under Louis XIV. These various factors—the mutual dependency between Church and nobility, the exclusion and persecution of religious minorities, and the monopoly of the Church over various institutions—fueled the intense animosity towards the Catholic Church during the French Revolution (1789) and its aftermath.
During the Revolution, the Church was stripped of its land and other properties, clerical privileges were eliminated, the Church was reorganized, the process of selecting upper clergy through election was instituted and the clergy became state employees, ties with Rome were severed, and the Church became secondary to—and reliant on—the secular state. The Church was split between those who gave their allegiance to the new Republic and those who refused to do so, and subsequent violence between revolutionaries and clergy members saw widespread bloodshed and the destruction of Catholic sites.
Over the coming century, the Church and its supporters allied with the political faction of monarchists who sought the return of absolute monarchy, and made various attempts to reassert its former power, for example, by lobbying to once again become the state religion. Napoléon Bonaparte oversaw the reconciliation of the Church under the Concordat of 1801, which established the Catholic Church as the French Church, albeit unofficially. Nonetheless, France was on a trajectory towards expansive secularism, and with the 1905 Law on the Separation of Church and State all ties between Rome and the French government were cut.
Though various groups continued to push for a return of the monarchy, the experiences of World War I and World War II signified a deep trauma for many that altered the political environment and ended the competition between Royalists and Republicans. Many Catholic leaders and institutions had been vocally anti-Semitic in the decades leading up to the World War II and many—though not all—supported the Vichy Regime, which collaborated with the Nazi government and was culpable in the deaths of roughly 75,000 French Jews. The Church that emerged in the wake of the two wars was notably more liberal, with a cadre of priests and Catholic public intellectuals inclined towards social justice. Some of these became “worker-priests” who lived among their parishioners and worked alongside them, and were represented by organizations such as the Catholic Labor Union and Mission de France.
Politically, the French Catholic Church today leans to the left—a legacy of Vatican II—though clergy and lay Catholics are hardly uniform and some conservative Catholics support French nationalist parties such as Le Front National. However, the most notable trend is that fewer and fewer French citizens identify as practicing Catholics, or as Catholics at all, as atheism becomes more prevalent. According to a 2012 poll, nearly a third of the French population considers itself atheist, which calls into question religious demographics that place the Catholic population at as high as 88%.
“ANALYSE: Le catholicism en France en 2009,” IFOP (July 2009), accessed March 27, 2014.
Oscar Cole-Arnal, “The Témoignage of the Worker Priests. Contextual Layers of the Pioneer Epoch (1941-1955), Left Catholicism 1943-1955: Catholics and Society in Western Europe at the Point of Liberation, eds. Gerd-Rainer Horn and Emmanuel Gerard (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2001), pp. 118-141.
Nicholas Atkin, “Rallies and resistants: Catholics in Vichy France, 1940-44,” Catholicism, Politics and Society in Twentieth-century France, ed. Kay Chadwick (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), pp. 97-118.
“France,” CIA Factbook, March 31, 2014, accessed April 7, 2014.
“France: Religion and Politics until the French Revolution,” Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, April 6, 2014, accessed April 7, 2014.
“Global Index of Religion and Atheism,” WIN-Gallup International (2012), accessed April 7, 2014.