A century of episcopal coordination bodies in France


One Hundred Years of Catholic Church Government in France. From the Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops to the Conference of Bishops (1919-2019)

Under the direction of Valentin Favrie, Charles Mercier and Christian Sorrel

University Presses of Rennes, coll. “History”, 300 pages, €25

This book is the result of a symposium held at the home of the Conference of Bishops of France (CEF) in March 2019, the year of the centenary of the creation of the Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops (ACA), ancestor of the current CEF. A creation made possible after the separation of Church and State (1905), any attempt at national structuring being in fact prohibited during the Concordat period (1801-1905).

This book fills a gap in the historiography of national Catholicism. It also makes it possible to resituate current questions about the governance of the Church by placing them in the long term. It indeed highlights that the tensions within the Catholic hierarchy, the conflicts with groups of priests or even the difficulties in reforming the institution are not new.

Distrust of Rome

The work begins by drawing the general picture of the history of episcopal coordination in France, since the creation of the ACA motivated to respond to the urgent problems of the post-war period. The beginnings of this assembly were laborious, due to disagreements between its members but also due to Rome’s distrust of an institution ignored by the code of canon law of 1917, then by the crisis of Action French, a movement which divided the Church of France and which Pope Pius XI condemned in 1926.

Two years later, the Vatican validated the regulations of the ACA, which reinforced the authority of the institution and made further structuring possible. From 1951, and with the authorization of Rome, the ACA invites all the French bishops to plenary assemblies on a triennial basis. This evolution led to the creation of the French Episcopal Conference in 1964, the year of the promulgation of the dogmatic constitution on the Church. Lumen Gentiumwhich recognizes episcopal conferences. « From now on, there are no longer just bishops but also an episcopate », notes Jacques Palard, emeritus research director at the CNRS.

Internal organization difficulties

The change of scale (which is also reflected in an increase in the number of permanent staff and in financial needs) is accompanied by the creation of new structures (councils, commissions, etc.). But “this dynamic goes hand in hand with internal organizational difficulties which the reform projects only imperfectly remedy”, point out Charles Mercier and Christian Sorrel in their introduction. This does not prevent the CEF from imposing itself little by little as a central player in Catholicism and as an interlocutor of the public authorities.

This history of the governance of the Church for a century also puts the focus on different issues: the secular question; the France-Latin America episcopal committee; positions taken on social issues from 1940 to 1970; liturgical reform; catechesis; the WYD of 1987… These various themes illustrate how, after Vatican II, the episcopate moved from an intransigent line to a more peaceful attitude towards the modern world, even if tensions may arise here or there, as in the face of the commitment of many Christians, including priests, in socialist or communist formations, or in the catechetical field in the 1970s and 1980s.


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