France is still deeply rooted in Christianity, sociologist says


Specialising in the relationship between democracy and religion, Philippe Portier, a French academic professor and political scientist, is not surprised that secularised France is so interested in rebuilding Notre Dame Cathedral in the nation’s capital.

“The interest aroused in France by the restoration of Notre Dame is very telling,” he explained to OSV News.


“In the current context, where society tends to become unstructured, Christian religious elements are still perceived by the French as a precious heritage.

“That’s because they help preserve the French identity, which seems to be dissolving in a changing world.

“Our society is marked by anxiety about its future,” Portier pointed out.

“When the French, and even more widely Europeans, are surveyed, they express a great deal of pessimism.

“They used to say that tomorrow would be better than today. And today, it is the other way around.

“The general feeling is that the future will be bleaker than the present,” emphasised Portier.

He’s known as a professor of world-renowned French political science schools such as Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and Sciences Po Paris.

“Faced with this, people tend to revalue the past, and the heritage that is its legacy,” he added.

“Heritage elements appear as reassuring refuges in a period of doubt, and loss of benchmarks.”

It has little to do with faith, he said, however, with “little effect on religious practice, and no impact on people’s moral positions, which are disconnected from those of the Church.”

Nevertheless – people do not want to cut ties with the roots of their past identity, Portier pointed out.

“They are attached to their village church, and they give money to help preserve it. Today’s interest in Notre Dame Cathedral is part of this attitude.”


From 2019 to 2021, Portier was a member of the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, known by its French acronym CIASE.

It was set up in 2018 by the French bishops to investigate sexual abuse committed in the Catholic Church since the 1950s.

In October 2021, CIASE published a report that indicated that 216,000 children had been abused by Catholic clergy since 1950 – a number that shocked France and the Catholic world.

The sociologist and political scientist said that establishing the commission helped rebuild the Church’s trust and, in consequence, make it a more reliable institution in a society going fast down the path of “de-Christianisation.”

“The work of this commission considerably accelerated the process of raising awareness of sexual abuse in the French Church, a process already underway since the late 1990s,” Portier explained.

“It marked a radical turning point in dealing with abuse. Since then, bishops and religious congregations have been taking reparation and prevention measures very seriously.

They acknowledged the facts, recognised and accepted the Church’s responsibility as well as their own. … My thesis today is that the French bishops are doing a good job in this area.

“In the face of abuse, the dynamic launched by the Church in France is going in the right direction,” Portier told OSV News.

“At the very top of the state, decision-makers have followed this affair very closely,” he said.

“For the political elites in France, Catholicism continues to be a stabilising element in the architecture of society, due to its central place in the history of the nation.

“Everyone praised the work of CIASE and the courage of the Church of France, which commissioned it,” the French professor emphasised.

“Beyond the political elite, since this report there has been a return of confidence in the Catholic Church within society as a whole,” Portier continued.

“This is evident in recent polls I conducted. In modern democracy, where individuals count more than institutions, society places transparency at the heart of its functioning.

“An institution that shows itself to be transparent, as the Church has done, has everything to gain.

“Today, in general, the Church is recognised for having taken matters into its own hands with courage, and for acting with determination.”

Baptisms increasing

Since 1970, the Church in France has been losing 10 percent of its membership every 10 years, and today only 30 percent of French people claim to be Catholic, Portier said.

But “we now see that this figure is no longer falling. The decline is stabilising. There are even signs, not of a new rise, but of a significant increase in the number of adults asking for baptism.”

Over 12,000 people, both adults and adolescents, were baptised in France on Easter.

That is a record number in the country that at the same time made abortion a constitutional right on March 4 and started a heated debate on legalising euthanasia. Read more

  • Philippe Portier is a member of the French Independent Commission on sexual abuse in church.
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