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Fr. Luc Forestier, director of ISEO: Pandemic and ecumenical life in France

Pandemic and ecumenical life in France

Questions for the Catholic Church


The pandemic has weakened globalisation by closing borders. In a similar way, it can be said that the pandemic has affected the different churches present in France, deepening the differences between denominations. The aim of this contribution is to examine two specific confessional situations, showing that the pandemic plays a revealing role.

We will be attentive to the questions that this raises for our societies but also to the internal debates within the Catholic Church. We look, from an ecclesiological and Catholic point of view, on the one hand, at what has happened in France in an evangelical church and, on the other hand, at how a French Orthodox theologian proposes an initial analysis of what he has observed over the last year.

1. Mulhouse (in Polish: Miluza) and the political question of churches in a secular state

The religious question was raised at the very beginning of the pandemic in France because one of the first clusters was an evangelical church in Mulhouse, where a large festive gathering caused the contamination of several hundred people, with several deaths.

A media crystallisation and a lasting shock

In February 2020, 2,000 people from all over France and even from other countries gathered for a weekend of prayer and training in the church "La Porte Ouverte". The media pressure on this lively community was enormous, with accusations that were all the more unfair because the health rules were tightened after the meeting, and the organisers had fully respected the rules in force at the time.

The National Council of Evangelicals of France, a body representing a large number of evangelical churches in France, then took up the issue and issued increasingly strict rules. Evangelical churches were the first to develop large-scale online activities, not only in terms of Sunday services but also in terms of Bible study groups.

But the questions raised by this incident are not only about the role of the media or pastoral initiatives in times of pandemic. A broader and much more problematic context must be taken into account, with the questioning of certain public freedoms for religious services.

The legal issue of religious freedom

The confinement imposed by the government from March 2020 onwards has made it impossible to implement freedom of worship, which is legally guaranteed. At the same time, the context of Islamist violence, with the appalling succession of attacks on French soil, led the French government to propose a bill - currently under discussion – “to strengthen respect for the principles of the Republic”. The major religious denominations have publicly expressed their objections, particularly the French Protestant Federation and the CNEF (Le Conseil national des évangéliques de France).

The legal questions are quite technical, but one of the issues at stake is the balance between the rules that a democratic country must set for itself, within the limits of a state governed by the rule of law, and respect for the individual freedoms guaranteed by the international conventions that France has signed.

Some people fear that the sensitive issues raised by the organisation of Islam in France will lead political leaders to enter into a form of desire to control the religious life. But the divisions are also internal to the Churches, particularly in the Catholic Church.

Internal conflicts in the Catholic Church

Indeed, at the end of the first confinement, a real conflict divided the Catholic Church in France. On the one hand, small groups demanded the immediate reopening of the churches, with permission to celebrate mass. On the other hand, a majority of Catholics remained silent and understood that it was necessary to wait for a gradual loosening of the restrictions.

In reality, the main problem was the place of the Mass in the Christian life: where some made it an absolute necessity, others recognised that the Christian life could have other places to be lived, and that the essential thing was to participate in the collective effort to limit contact in order to curb the epidemic. The new conditions of the pandemic have further deepened the opposition between different ways of situating the Eucharist within the Christian life, especially in relation to the transmission of faith and the care of the most vulnerable.

“At the same time, we ask God to strengthen unity within the Church, a unity enriched by differences reconciled by the working of the Spirit. (…) Hearing his call, we recognize with sorrow that the process of globalization still lacks the prophetic and spiritual contribution of unity among Christians.” (Fratelli tutti n°280, 2020)

Thus, the brutal confinement imposed by the pandemic in the spring of 2020 not only raises the always delicate question of religious freedom, but also reveals tensions between and within churches.

Deep theological and pastoral questions have been raised within the Catholic Church in the current pontificate. On the other hand, liturgical questions appear from the following second study, carried out in the Orthodox world, with questions about the place of the authorities that structure Christianity.

2. An Orthodox analysis of the pandemic and the question of liturgy in a media society

Is it really possible to celebrate the Eucharist “online”? How far should sanitary rules be respected in liturgical life?

A question of liturgical adaptation

In Orthodoxy, as in other Christian denominations, official church authorities have generally recommended following state health guidelines even when these appear to be discriminatory. However, some minority Orthodox groups have disagreed, refusing to apply the barrier gestures, particularly at the essential and sensitive moment of communion.

The problem is that of communion, which in the Orthodox tradition is given to each member of the faithful with a spoon containing the two Eucharistic species. There are two different problems:

- Does the use of the same spoon throughout the act of communion not risk transmitting the virus?

- How can we theologically take into account the fact that the Body and Blood of Christ can carry a deadly virus?

The first question leads us to imagine other possibilities of communion that would allow a certain number of barrier gestures to be respected, while the second question leads us to look deeper into possible models of the presence of the risen Christ in the Eucharistic species.

In his book, Jean-Claude Larchet is indeed in favour of strictly maintaining the traditional discipline, summarising his opinion as follows:

“The sacrament has a force of its own, because it is objectively the Body and Blood of Christ and possesses all its properties. Even supposing that bacteria or viruses potentially harmful to man could be found by chance in the chalice (as a vessel), it can be considered that these bacteria and viruses are inactivated by the divine energies contained and diffused in the Body and Blood of Christ.”

Of course, the point here is not to discuss the relevance of this opinion of the Orthodox theologian, but to note the convergence between two elements: on the one hand, the resistance to the transition to “online” celebration with spiritual communion; on the other hand, the debate between the authorities called upon, both medical and theological. The development of such digital practices has been part of a profound transformation of societies thanks to the widespread technical means, raising redoubtable anthropological questions, in particular on the question of authorities.

Anthropological and political questions about digital humanity

Because of the changes that the digital shift in our societies has imposed, with massive recourse to teleworking and accelerated digitisation of education, from kindergarten children to university students, questions are multiplying about social isolation, the accelerated fragmentation of societies, intra-family violence, house arrest in sensitive neighbourhoods, the fragility of people in situations of digital divide, not to mention situations of great vulnerability such as lack of housing, disability, very old age, etc. The political effects are also being studied in depth, not only through the weakening of a number of public freedoms, but also through the transformation of the balance of power. Many question the relationship between public authorities and scientific experts. The very exercise of the right to vote has been questioned, while some observers are concerned about the marginalisation of Parliament.

In addition to this elaboration between anthropology and politics, two other types of questions arise. On the one hand, the digitalisation of society is not without ecological effects, contrary to the received idea that the network is immaterial. We now know better the real cost of the necessary infrastructures, and the necessary use of good practices to avoid disastrous consequences in terms of climate change. On the other hand, the use of these technologies is not neutral in geopolitical terms either, since we are dependent on hardware and software belonging to powers outside Europe, which is not without consequences in the context of the rise in international conflict.

The digital shift of our societies does not only affect the life of the Christian churches, and we have to take into account the questions raised by the profound transformation of our societies on the anthropological and political levels. The difficulties encountered by the Christian Churches, both among themselves and within themselves, are therefore not only a matter of adapting to the new conditions. Several ecclesiological questions are thus revealed in the light of the anthropological and political questioning implied by the digital shift in our societies.

Internal conflicts within the Catholic Church

Indeed, the internal conflicts within the Churches on how to deal with the pandemic on a liturgical level are the result of much deeper tensions, both anthropological and political. Among them, at least two issues have emerged in the Catholic Church, that of ministries and that of the role of theologians.

The transformation of the Eucharistic gathering into a spectacle filmed and broadcast on the internet completely alters the balances achieved at the time of Vatican II. The rules of confinement have led some parishes to film the Sunday liturgy celebrated by the priest alone, sometimes surrounded by a few altar servers. In the context of questioning certain forms of "clericalism", according to the formula of Pope Francis, the multiplication of celebrations available on the internet, featuring priests celebrating alone, has reopened debates on the specific place of ordained ministers in the Church.

Indeed, the intervention of several theologians in these often very lively debates fed another type of conflict about the place of experts in the life of the Church. Faced with the proposals of the specialists called upon by the National Service for Liturgical Pastoral Care (le Service national de la pastorale liturgique), other much stronger conceptions on the question of the Eucharist were given wide media coverage. Far from the long intermediation of theological reflection and the consideration of history, rapid statements on the need for the celebration of the Eucharist, on the “presence” of the Risen Christ in the Eucharistic species, on the possibility of implementing a celebration of Eucharistic adoration in front of the image filmed and broadcast by the internet, and even the contestation of the relevance of the measures decided by the government, were spread on social networks.

But this essentially political debate was in fact mixed with another questioning of the very nature of the Eucharistic gathering in relation to family life. Indeed, at a time when strict confinement gave renewed importance to family life, the absence of a Sunday Eucharistic liturgy led a number of families to live new forms of domestic liturgy.

The analogy between family and Church works both ways, for it is possible to understand the Church as the “family of God”, and it is also possible to understand the family as “ecclesiola” or domestic Church. The suspension of all public liturgy, and the inadequacies of online celebrations, have led some observers to propose that the Eucharist be entrusted to families. Some have also proposed a rapprochement with the usual practices in Judaism, in particular around Pesach with the family celebration of the meal which plays a decisive role in the transmission of faith and tradition.

This second study, carried out in the recent book of an Orthodox theologian, actually allows us to recognise that the questions raised by the pandemic are also dependent on questions that run through all our societies, and affect the unity of the Catholic Church, which allows us to conclude this ecclesiological contribution.

Conclusion

From an ecumenical point of view, the pandemic has contradictory effects. If, on the one hand, confessional logics have been rather strengthened - a Catholicism centred on the Eucharist, almost codified, Orthodox granting supreme authority to the liturgy and Protestants opting for very diverse strategies - there have been, on the other hand, some unexpected places of convergence, in particular the questioning of legitimate authorities in the churches and of the expertise so far recognised to theologians as bearers of specific knowledge. This double movement only really makes sense against the background of anthropological and political questions, while at the same time feeding them in turn.

These two studies, in Protestantism and in Orthodoxy, cannot claim to represent all the ecumenical questions raised by the health crisis we are going through. However, they do allow us to observe unprecedented convergences that can be understood in relation to major anthropological and political developments - a kind of Christian populism that feeds on a set of fears of downgrading, identity-based withdrawal, distrust of the intelligence of faith and disqualification of institutional authorities in favour of charismatic figures capable of grasping these convergences and exploiting them to their advantage. Taking this temptation into account - a simple recipe in the face of confused situations - requires that the ecclesiological questions thus posed be truly listened to, without claiming to provide immediate answers, but perhaps opening up new ecumenical paths that would allow divided Churches to face the same questions together.

These two studies also allow us to measure the tensions that are present in Catholicism today. For the questions that are specific to each Church - which are subject to the many tensions of our changing societies - it is likely that some of the solutions can be found among our brothers and sisters of other confessions. As St John Paul II wrote in Ut Unum Sint (n°28, 1995), ecumenism invites dialogue which “is not simply an exchange of ideas. In some way it is always an "exchange of gifts".”

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