French Catholics, it is perhaps Gad Elmaleh who talks about it best. In his latest show (1), the Franco-Moroccan Jewish comedian, who has come closer to Christianity in recent years, gently pokes fun at what he perceives as a lack of pride among Catholics in their religion in simulating the reaction of a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian when asked about their identity. While the first two affirm their religious affiliation in an unbridled tone, the Catholic drowns the fish: “So… it’s a little more complicated. How to say ? Uh… Here… mom is baptized. My atheist sister… Dad where are you? »
This sketch humorously illustrates the transmission crisis in Catholic families, further supported by a recent INSEE study. Published on March 30, its results are implacable: the share of Catholics continues to fall in France, representing, in 2020, 29% of respondents aged 18 to 59, against 43% ten years earlier.
The decline, the authors explain, is due to the low rate of reproduction of Catholicism from one generation to the next. While family reproduction is strong in Islam and Judaism – 91% of people raised in Muslim families and 84% in Jewish families continue to claim the religion of their parents – Christian families transmit their belief less to their children. Only 67% of people raised by Catholic parents kept their religion. Practice – prayer, pilgrimage, mass… – appears to be a key element of religious reproduction: “If in families, nothing has been done to restore value to practice, especially that of the mass, in three generations practitioners have non-practicing children who themselves have non-Christian children”, observes the sociologist of Catholicism, Yann Raison du Cleuziou (2).
Leaving the Catholic Church is all the easier because, unlike Islam or Judaism, this religious affiliation now has only a minimal influence on social life. “The religious dropout then occurs without drama, almost in indifference, when the children take their autonomy from the parental home”, recalls Pierre Bréchon, professor emeritus of political science at Sciences Po Grenoble.
The researcher, who conducted a study on the values of the French, however observes an effective transmission of faith “in families who assume a form of impermeability vis-à-vis other surrounding cultures”. These observant and rather conservative Catholic families successfully steer their spiritual reproduction, carefully selecting the religious socialization of their children (Catholic schools, youth movements, friendly circles, etc.). Winning consistency? The successful transmission from one generation to another is, more precisely, according to the sociologist Yann Raison du Cleuziou, the fruit of the combination of two dimensions: the enhancement of rites and the “totalizing” dimension of the faith that a child receives and permeates all aspects of his life. Conversely, “Catholic families who delegate the transmission of the faith to collective structures (catechism, chaplaincy, etc.) – as an aspect of education – have a much lower rate of religious transmission”.
In fact, Catholics interviewed by La Croix, now parents of adults in their thirties, confide their disappointment at not having succeeded in transmitting their beliefs. Some question the idea that it was good “to leave the choice to children to be interested or not in religion once adults”. “We haven’t given them enough information for them to make an informed choice. To reject the religion of one’s parents, it is still necessary to have received it”, recalls a person in charge of catechism at the national level. The figures leave little room for doubt: only 2% of adults who grew up in a non-practicing Catholic family will experience a religious conversion as an adult (3).
The fact that Catholicism is becoming a minority in France could paradoxically change the situation. “In a minority landscape, a religion tends to restructure itself so as not to disappear. This reconfiguration leads to an intensification of self-segregation around significant practices,” observes sociologist Yann Raison du Cleuziou.
However, in matters of religion, the law of large numbers always coexists with the mystery of intimate experiences. Even for families who have placed faith at the heart of their family life, transmission often remains an enigma. This is explained by Catherine, mother of seven children, “of whom the first four have a deep faith and the last three are more or less close to religion”. “I don’t know why some people believe and others don’t, because we didn’t do it differently,” explains this stay-at-home mother from Dijon. However, she points out two things that seem essential to her: first, family prayer in the evening, after dinner. “To be honest, there were no great mystical flights during these times of prayer, but they had the merit of existing. Looking back, I realize that we were able to cultivate gratitude for the beautiful and the good as a family. »
Second essential point, the importance of appropriation. For this, the rite must manage to open onto the message of love inscribed in the Catholic faith and find its way to the heart, assures Catherine. The figure of the parent, transmitter of faith but also figure of authority, can be ambivalent. “There may be knots in the parent-child relationship that prevent transmission if the relationship with the parents is conflicting, or if the children think they observe a lack of coherence with us”, testifies Frédéric, 67, a former trader.
Only two of his children today feel close enough to the Church to talk in turn about Jesus to their children: “I believe that the first two were lucky enough to meet around them Catholics who really lived from Christ, while the last two suffered more from Catholic teaching as a place of social reproduction with a view to economic success”, he analyzes. An example which shows that the destiny of a religion certainly depends on its logic of social reproduction, but also on the personal experimentation of an evangelical coherence deemed authentic.