Catholics, like the French as a whole, have been surprised, stunned, and bewildered by the pandemic and the confinement that responded to it. Like most of the French, they obeyed the new health regulations, out of both fear of the virus and obedience to legitimate government. They accepted being deprived of the sacraments without a word, including during Holy Week. In the days that followed, at the same time that routine set in, this exceptional state seemed less and less acceptable. The pain of being deprived of the life of the Church was compounded by the unpleasant feeling that public institutions were perfectly indifferent to the religious needs of citizens—that at no moment of making a decision had the government given a minute of reflection, an ounce of consideration, to this essential part of common life. Priests, groups, and even some bishops began to speak publicly about their unhappiness, giving voice to an emotion that found an echo in general opinion. For once a Catholic complaint was met with a certain sympathy in the media. Suddenly the Council of State, France’s Supreme Court for administrative law, ordered the government to quickly reestablish the conditions for the exercise of religious liberty—more than the institutional Church had dared ask for. This divine surprise paradoxically showed Catholics how they had remained passive before the situation as it had been made for them. It underscored how weakly they had defended their own good and made their rights respected.
Indeed, one can only be struck by the timidity of most of the arguments advanced, which came down to this conclusion: we too! We too have rights, we too participate in the common life, we too are at the service of our fellow citizens. These arguments are evidently valid because they correspond to our constitutional situation, especially to the principle of laïcité that supposes that public institutions, indifferent to what belongs to each religion, focus only on guaranteeing the equal rights of all. Under the circumstances, however, one could not entirely ignore the specific content of the religion involved. The political authorities were implicitly reasoning along these lines: workers are adapting to the situation by working virtually, and believers by assembling virtually, so what is the problem? They did not perceive in what that assembly consists, real and not virtual, that Catholics wanted to reestablish. We needed to make them understand the purpose and meaning not just of some religious assembly among others, but of this religious assembly, the Catholic assembly.
Is Religion an Opinion?
The inseparably political and logical obstacle consists in this: to resolve the problem posed by the division of Christian confessions following the Reformation, we decided to conceive of religions simply as diverse opinions between which the State must be neutral. As it says in France’s Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen: “No one should be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as their expression does not trouble public order established by law.” This assimilation, politically or juridically necessary, has a considerable cost. First, it tends to erase the qualitative differences between religions—and also between religions on the one hand, and all other associations founded on “opinions” on the other. Second, in so doing, it tends to dis-educate the citizenry: non-believers know less and less what a religion could look like, and believers themselves hold a view of their religion that is more and more pale and poor. The risk is greater for Catholics, whose religion is the most complex and articulated and the least susceptible to being reduced to an opinion or a collection of opinions.
The Catholic Church is born on Pentecost: the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. . . [and] each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:4–6). Peter immediately explains: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses. . . . and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this which you see and hear” (Acts 2:32–33). The past is confirmed at the same time that the future is opened: The Church has her foundation and her center in the death and resurrection of Christ, and she will be guided by the constant action of the Spirit. The religious association appears here as independent not only of every pre-existing human association—be it city, empire, or people—but even of the letter of a sacred Scripture. Under the reign of the Spirit there is no more exclusively sacred language, and the letter of Scripture, which could be translated into all languages, can only be understood with the help of the Spirit.
The Church Has the Form of a City
The specificity and unique character of the catholic and apostolic Church are confirmed and epitomized by the event that completes and institutionally realizes Pentecost. The Council of Jerusalem resolves the conflict between the faithful who judged that they had to circumcise pagan converts and the others who rejected this obligation. Without the resolution of this conflict, there would have been no “Church.” As we know, under the impetus of Peter, the Council decided “that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God” (Acts 15:19). The most interesting thing for our purposes lies in the wording of the letter that will be brought from the Council to Antioch, in particular the following sentence: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things. . . .” (Acts 15:28).
The beginning of this sentence, as it is written in Greek, follows the form of decrees made by Greek cities: “It has seemed good to the council and to the people. . . .” We can see the extraordinary audacity of this borrowed usage. We can also see which teachings this “council of the apostles,” drawing out the consequences of Pentecost, emphasizes for the manner in which we must understand “the fact of the Church.” This is not the Church copied from the form of the empire, a prideful power among prideful powers; this is the Church scarcely born, under the direction of Peter, an association deprived of everything that gives strength and credit to a human association. It is this Church that declares her power and her right to deliberate and decide as the human city deliberates and decides. In short, the Church has the form and consistency of a city.
Today Catholics can reject the Church of the crusades, or the throne and altar, or the Church of popes thundering interdicts and excommunications, or the “Constantinian” Church—but they cannot reject the Church of Peter and of the council of the apostles. If the Church today is something other than the sum of our nostalgias—or the print left behind by a “big thing” that we don’t know the meaning of, only we know that it does not concern us any more—it is because she is something other than an association of individuals exercising their right to have opinions. She is a kind of city, a “commanding form” in which a specific work is conducted, a work that operates on the whole man and is proposed to all men—this work that the Church in her weighty but clear language calls “sanctification” and whose source and body dwell in the sacrifice of the Mass.
In the Church, Catholics do not principally practice a social activity that is useful to their fellow citizens and to men in general, even if they do that as well. Rather, they are engaged in a work of great and high ambition that not only has its finality and its worth in itself—to become a Christian—but is the most desirable thing and urgent thing to do for every person who is concerned about the meaning of his life. Catholics demand no public privilege when they ask for the right and power to exercise that which is proper and specific to their religion. Christian congregations must be opened so that this new people can be formed and renewed without ceasing around the altar, this new people that since Pentecost is born of all peoples and speaks all languages.
This essay originally appeared at La Nef and was translated by Nathaniel Peters.