The Gospel of Christ was preached in France (Gaul) during the first century, not long after the 3,000 were saved during Pentecost in Jerusalem after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41). During the second century, one of the most notable Early Church Fathers was Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (Lugdunum, Gaul) France. Gaul remained was under the Roman Empire for centuries; and the bishop of Rome had gained power by the 4th century. In 313, Emperor Constantine proclaimed toleration for Christians; and in 496, Clovis, king of the Franks, converted to Christianity. By about 800, under King Charlemagne, the Catholic Church and the French monarchy remained protectors of each other.
By 1066 when William the Conqueror of Normandy, France invaded England, the French were strong Catholics and brought to England the French language and Catholicism that would last for centuries. From 1309 to 1377 Avignon, France served as the papal seat for the Roman Catholic Church. No Frenchman has served as Pope since then. Pope Gregory XI moved the Papal court back to Rome just before his death in 1378.
The Reformation led by Wycliffe, Luther, Hus, Tyndale, Calvin, Knox and others (between 1370s to 1540s) would bring the Bible in many languages, as well as new denominations. This movement not only paved the way for the Lutherans (1525), Anabaptist (1525), Baptist (1608), the King James Bible (1611); but also gave France a French bible (1523-30, Lefevre), a Protestant liturgy in French (1528, Farel), and a fight against abuses in the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1534 John Calvin met with Lefevre and in 1536 Calvin published his Institutes of the Christian Religion – though he would work on it most of his life. That year Farel convinced Calvin to flee to Geneva. In 1538 Calvin and Farel were banished from Geneva to Strasbourg, France. Catholic Cardinal Sadeleto and many Catholic bishops opposed Calvin and all Protestants. It was not until 34 years after Calvin’s death, that in 1598 the Edict of Nantes was signed allowing Protestants to practice their Christian faith and ended the French Wars of Religion.
In 1685, the Edict of Nantes was revoked by King Louis XIV of France. In 1689, England passed the Act of Toleration which gave Christians outside the Church of England freedoms. Yet, by that time many French Protestants (Huguenots/Calvinists) had been killed and many fled from persecution in France and England to America.
The Catholic Church and Catholic French nobles continued to dominate in France until after the French Revolution in the late 1700s. In 1787, Louis XVI proclaimed the Edit of Tolerance for Protestants in France. After the French Revolution the people gained their first French Republic in 1792. Napoleon Bonaparte oversaw the state of the Church under the Concordat of 1801 – which made the Catholic Church the state church of France. In 1905, a French law separated the churches (Catholic churches were subsidized) and state and in granting freedom of religion to all religions and denominations made France a secular state. Over the next 100 years the Catholic majority in France would fail and thus, France would not be a Christian nation.
The Telegraph in January 2007 announced, ‘France: no longer a Catholic country.’ It stated a Poll published in Le Monde des Religions showed the number of self-declared French Catholics had dropped from 80 per cent in the early 1990s and 67 per cent in 2000 and to 51 per cent today. The number of atheists has risen sharply to 31 per cent from 23 per cent in 1994.
According to a 2015 demographic survey in the CIA World Factbook, about 65% of France’s 66.8 million people are Christians, 8% Muslims and 27% having no religion. A 2010 Pew Research Center, ‘Religious Composition Country,’ had 63% of the population Christian, 7.5% Muslim and 28% unaffiliated. But the 2012 Special Eurobarometer 393 Report, Discrimination in the EU in 2012, revealed that 54% stated they were Catholic, 16% atheist, 21% agnostic/non-believer and 4% Protestant or other Christian. And the French Institute of Demographic Studies (INED) 2009 study, in their Documents de Travail 168 (2010), Enquête sur la diversité des populations en France, found that only 45.5% of the population were Christian and 45% had no religious practice; 8% were reported Islam.
These were the same figures supported in the 2014, International Religious Freedom Report by the United States Department of State. The 2014 Report stated, “the constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change and practice their religion.”
In 2004, a French law banned state school students from wearing “conspicuous” religious apparel: Jewish skullcaps (yarmulkes), Sikh turbans and large Christian crosses. Muslim headscarves were included and a focus in order to preserve French culture. Then President Jacques Chirac stated, “… People are still free to observe their faith at home, but wearing conspicuous religious symbols that can publicly identify someone as belonging to a certain religion only threatens the unity of French society. To maintain the secularity of the country, religious symbols should be displayed only in the private sphere, not in state buildings.”
In 2009, IFOP Department of Opinion and Strategies, in their ANALYSE : Le catholicisme en France, found that only 4.5% of French Roman Catholics (64.4% of the 2006 population) attended church (Mass) every week and 15% regularly. They compared this to 27% of the French population that attended weekly in 1952. In 2015 the CIA World Factbook found less than 3% of Catholics are practicing, while about 4% of Muslims did so.
Though Protestants have grown from 1% in 1987 to 3% in 2009; Atheists and non-religious grew from the small minority before World War II to the significant majority in 2017. A 2015 CORREF survey revealed that only 17% of the French population believes that God’s existence is certain and 21% believe it probable; while 19% of the 1,054 surveyed said that God’s existence is improbable, 21% stated that God does not exist and 22% claimed they did not know; thus, 62% of the French population said religion and God is not important.
Another EU survey reported by humanreligions.info (2017) showed that in 2004, 44% of French citizens surveyed had ‘disbelief in God;’ though in 2010, 63% still identified themselves as ‘Christians.’
A 2016 Study by Bayard Presse (Ipsos), shown in the La Croix International …Catholic Daily news, found of the 53% of the 28,000 French stating they were Catholics only 5% attended Mass regularly. Yet, according to ChurchMilitant.com (2017) “a new sociological (Ipsos/Bayard Group) study conducted in France revealed that only 1.8 percent of the entire French population is practicing Catholics… Results showed that most French Catholics who do go to Church only do so on certain major feast days and for baptisms, marriages or funerals. Just five percent of Catholics in France attend Holy Mass on a regular basis…”
According to FSSPX News/Information and Analysis on the Life of the Church (Catholic), in 1960 80% of young French people were attending catechism and only 30% where in 2004.
Priest Shortage and Churches closings
As the average age of Catholic church-goers increases, so does the age of their priests. In 2014, the average age of priests was said to be 75. Foreign priests from Africa and other nations have filled some vacancies, but the shortage is growing.
In 2013 an IBTimes.com article, The Church in decline: France’s vanishing Catholics quoted Douglas Yates, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Paris and professor at the American Graduate School in Paris, saying “As the priests in France get older, they are being replaced by Africans, particularly in rural areas, a phenomenon that draws not a little attention in the mass media… If the trend continues, the Catholic Church will become a minority religion. Already it is eye-to-eye with agnostic and atheists. Modern France is a secular society.” The article noted that members of France’s own Catholic Church have admitted as such — noting that the number of baptisms has plunged by almost 25 percent since 2000, while the number of Catholic wedding services has dropped by 40 percent over that period.
In the 1960s, there were about 41,000 priests in France. 2010, there are around 15,000. About 800 priests die each year, and only 100 are ordained. 2012 average age of France’s 14,000 priests is 72. The number of newly ordained priests has dropped from 566 in 1966, to 170 in 1975, to 94 in 2006.
The Tablet in April 2005 reported ‘the French Church has closed half of its parishes in recent years with numbers of priests shrinking from 41,000 in 1965 to 20,500 in 2006. Only 100 new priests are ordained each year and numbers of baptisms, confirmations and church marriages are all declining. Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, who is the head of the French bishops’ conference, recently said many French priests had “the feeling of being drawn into a vortex where neither the direction nor the purpose are clear — and still do not see the generation of successors on the horizon.”
The Economist in an August 2010 article, The Void Within reported, “…that in the diocese of Evreux, Christianity has been part of the fabric of life for 15 centuries. Of its 600,000 inhabitants, about 400,000 might call themselves, at least loosely, Catholic. But the number of priests under the age of 70 is a mere 39, and only seven of those are under 40. That is just a bit worse than average in a country that, as recently as the 1950s, boasted 40,000 active priests; in a few years, the number under 65 will be a tenth of that. This suggests a body that is not so much shrinking as dying.
According to a report of the French senate, 2.800 churches across the country, many of them centuries old, will be demolished as restoration costs exceed the cost of demolitions over the next years. This church, Église Saint-Jacques d’Abbeville, a Neo-Gothic masterpiece in Abbeville, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie dating back to 1868, was demolished for a total cost of 350,000€ in 2013. The reasoning: It was much cheaper to demolish it than it would cost to restore…”
According to a CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate – at Georgetown Uni.), the priest population in the Americas has grown only two per cent since 1980, and is down 17 per cent in Oceania. ‘The most serious decline was Europe, which had a net loss of 78,090 priests during this period (1980 to 2012), representing a 32 per cent decline in this population.’ ‘Globally, the ratio of Catholics per priest worsened, as the number of Catholics per priest increased from 1,895 in 1980 to 3,126 in 2012.’
As of January 2016 France had about 2,500 mosques and registered prayer rooms, about 20 had been closed due to preaching a radical Islamic interpretation of Sunni Islam. Another 450 are waiting for approval. In April 2017, a mosque in Torcy – a suburb of Paris – was closed due to its Imams “calling on members to pray for jihadists to destroy the enemies of Islam in France and around the world;” and for being “a threat to public order.” In 2016, France issued a ban on foreign funding for mosques.
Conclusion and French Status of Belief
In 2012, the CSA polling institute stated, “by last year, 47 percent of those aged 18 to 24 said they were ‘of no religion’.” The poll interviewed samples of 20,000 people.
In April 2015 The Washington Post article World’s least religious countries showed that 53% of French citizens claimed to be “either not religious or atheist.”
Since 1980 (to 2017) thousands of Catholic parishes have and are closing and many church properties sold off due to lack of attendance. Mass attendance fell from over 60% of the French after War World II to about a quarter of the population regularly attending mass in the 1960s and about 10% of the adult population in the 1980s to less than 3% of the Catholic population today in 2017.
As France has enjoyed its secularism (known as laïcité) it has lost its Christianity – at least the majority of its people are no longer practicing Christians. A February 2016 Harvard Divinity School, Religious Literacy Project, Country Profile: France, stated “Christianity remains the majority faith in France at roughly 65% and Catholic culture predominates in French society, though recent studies show that less than 4% attend weekly church services.” Looking further we find that the Harvard Study used data from 2008 and 2009 for much of its findings.
But even in January 2007 The Telegraph reported that only 51% of the population were self-declared Catholics, less than 3% Protestants and the number of atheists rose to 31% in 2006 from 23% in 1994. And now 10 years later (2017) the non-religious and atheists make up 40% to 50% of the French population, Muslims about 7% to 9% and other non-Christian religions about 2%. Moreover, less than 1 in 5 French persons absolutely believe in God, and even less absolutely believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and only salvation to all mankind.
A new French Presidentielle 2017 Ipsos poll found that 61% of French adults said Islam is incompatible with French society compared to 17% that said Judaism was incompatible and 6% said the same about Catholicism. That was a significant jump from 2015, when 47% of Frenchmen said Islam (Muslim religion) was not compatible to their society. The reason that the non-religious Frenchmen did not say that Catholicism or Judaism was incompatible was that they are not seen as a threat to society. France, like the United States and other former Western Christian nations, separated the Church from the State with their laws; then the vast majority of parents and schools quit teaching the doctrines of Christianity and the future will find that today’s youth in France (and most other nations) will be significantly non-religious and even atheists and agnostics.
Just as less than half of the 48% of UK citizens who stated they were ‘Christians’ in a 2011 YouGov survey said they believed that Jesus Christ was a real person was died and was resurrected and was the Son of God; that same pattern is found in France. And though nearly 60% of the French may still claim to be ‘Catholics’ and even ‘Christians’ – for a small percentage of Catholics oddly claim not to be Christians – it is likely less than 1 in 4 French citizens actually believe in the Holy Scriptures and in the truths concerning our Lord Jesus Christ.