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Michel Houellebecq: Many Americans probably don’t know that a Pentecostal movement exists in France. I became aware of it when I was living in Paris near the Porte de Montreuil, at that time a poor neighborhood with a lot of recent immigrants. Drawn by posters, I went to several meetings, some led by an American televangelist on tour. Probably 90 percent of the attendees were black. The memories I have of this are strange—I almost doubt having lived these moments. The people danced, sang at the top of their lungs, and sometimes spoke in tongues. I never had the feeling I was witnessing a collective delirium, or that I was in the midst of a cult. The sign of peace, reduced in Catholic Masses to a brief, irritated, and icy shake of the hand, gave way here to interminable warm hugs and kisses. And at the end of the celebration, we would share bountiful meals.
“If these people are saved,” Nietzsche more or less said (with cruelty, but rightly), “they ought to look like it!” I understood from this moment that the Catholic Church had much to gain by moving closer to the ambience of Pentecostal celebrations.
Especially because this is perfectly possible. It has even been tried, with success, by the communities affiliated with the charismatic renewal. I spent a week in the midst of one of them—at that time called the “Communauté du Lion de Juda et de l’Agneau Immolé”—and there I found exactly the same effusiveness, the same warmth. And it was almost entirely a group of white people—I say that in order to establish that whenever we are dealing with affairs of the heart (and religion is such an affair, indeed of the highest degree), race is not pertinent.
A scene of the same sort can be found in the magnificent final pages of Emmanuel Carrère’s book The Kingdom, located this time in Jean Vanier’s L’Arche community. I am talking about the moment when Carrère comes face-to-face with dancing Élodie, the girl with Down syndrome, and catches a glimpse of the Kingdom.
While I very much liked these charismatic celebrations, there remained in me a certain uneasiness, which I fully understood only later, thanks to Douglas Kennedy’s very good book, In God’s Country, which relates his study of revivalist Christianity in the Bible Belt. In reading the book, you sometimes get the impression that this renewal can only involve people with a past in alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution, or homelessness—that it does not address itself to people who are integrated into society in a normal way, having spent their childhood in a reasonably loving family. As a matter of fact, the L’Arche community has as its essential vocation the care of the mentally handicapped; and I would probably not have stayed with the Communauté du Lion de Juda if at the time I had not been the victim of a severe depression, in part tied to joblessness.
In short, it seems that though the Pentecostals can rescue people from the edge of the abyss, or sometimes even a bit farther away (which is already a considerable good—in this regard, probably only Jehovah’s Witnesses could be comparable), they cannot do what the Catholic Church has so perfectly succeeded in doing for many centuries: organize the functioning of society as a whole.
Geoffroy Lejeune: I have been going to Mass every Sunday for the last thirty years and have experienced almost all the liturgical styles. I frequented some charismatic meetings, notably with the Communauté de l’Emmanuel, and like you I saw people dancing, singing, speaking in tongues—in short, giving themselves over to all the effusions that we thought were reserved to Americans alone. I have to admit that a form of joy reigns over these assemblies that is sometimes a bit worrisome, because certain members seem possessed (their behavior during so-called “evenings of healing” leads one to believe that this mystery can only be experienced if one is in bad shape). And I have never felt farther from God than on these occasions: I was eighteen years old, I was neither sickly nor depressed, and I ended up believing that, because I was unable to sob uncontrollably or pour out my feelings into a microphone in front of people I didn’t know, I was simply not made for the faith.
There is a wound that ought to be treated by the Church: the wound of not knowing God, or of not knowing how to find him. In the 1960s, when the Beatles were making the world dance, the Church asked itself how to continue to announce the gospel. In 1962, it called the Second Vatican Council. Wags remarked that the cardinals arrived there by boat and left by plane: The institution had just entered modernity. In drawing closer to common mores, in speaking the language of its time, the Church believed it could maintain its tie with the faithful who were thrown off balance by the liberal and sexual revolutions.
The changes, notably, concerned liturgy: Latin was abandoned, ornamentation was simplified, and the priest turned toward the congregation. Parishes invested in synthesizers, and girls began to keep the beat in the choir. But the drama of style is that it goes out of style. Sixty years later, the synthesizers are still there, and the girls too, but they have grown old, and their voices quaver—even the priests can no longer put up with them. Only the dynamic parishes of the city centers escape this liturgical impoverishment, but even there on a Sunday one can hear a guitarist trying his hand at arpeggios, and recall this cruel reality: He’s no Mark Knopfler.
This race toward modernity is an obvious failure, and the churches are considerably emptied as a result. Before Vatican II, one-third of French people stated that they went to Mass every Sunday. In 2012, this number had fallen to six percent, the sign of a major cultural upheaval.
The phenomena are probably linked: The Church tried to conform itself to the world at a moment when the world was becoming uglier. This is a sufficiently serious reason for reproach: We are right to expect that the Church will point out a path toward God, independently of the jolts and shocks of the epoch; that it will remain, subsist. Latin was thus supposed to mark a difference between everyday language and the language with which we address the Creator. The incense, rising up into the nave, pointed out a path for the soul. The priest, with his back to the faithful, was in reality turned toward heaven. The sacred was silently driven from the churches and replaced only with the cool, the festive—that’s great, but desperately human. I want to clarify, to avoid confusion, that I have also known ultra-traditionalists for whom incense, prayers reeled off in Latin at top speed, and hours spent kneeling were the alpha and the omega of faith: I take them equally for fanatics. So what should we conclude? Jesus said to his disciples, you must be in the world but not of the world. The Church should have taken him seriously.
Mh: We can spot in the history of thought a strange family of minds that admires the Roman Catholic Church for its power in the spiritual direction of human beings, and above all in the organization of human societies, yet do so without being Christians.
The first and most remarkable representative of this tendency is certainly Auguste Comte. In his inimitable way, Comte describes the label “Protestant” as characteristic. A Protestant knows how to do nothing but protest—it is in his nature. Joseph de Maistre, whom Comte quotes with approval, had noted that a Protestant will be a republican under the monarchy and an anarchist under the republic. For de Maistre, it is even worse to be a Protestant than to be an atheist. An atheist can have lost his faith for respectable reasons, and it is possible to bring him back to the faith, as many have seen; but Protestantism, he writes, “is only a negation.”
Intellectually the most remarkable in this strange family of “non-Christian Catholics,” Comte is also the most sympathetic, because his picturesque megalomania leads him, in the end, to frequent appeals to all those whom he judges ready to agree with his positivism: the conservatives, the proletariat, women, Czar Nicholas I . . . Basically, he could see himself replacing the pope in Rome and taking over the entire Catholic organization. Catholics would merely have to undertake the—in his eyes very simple—gesture of converting to the positive faith.
Invoking Comte in his turn, Charles Maurras, the leader of Action française, granted too great an importance to political efficacy, which led him into base behaviors that were as lethal as they were immoral.
The most interesting contemporary avatar of this tendency in France is Éric Zemmour. For years, he reminded me of someone without my being able to determine who. Then recently, the answer came to me: Zemmour is precisely Naphta from The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.
Leo Naphta is the most fascinating Jesuit in world literature. In the interminable controversy between Settembrini and Naphta, Mann takes an ambiguous position; we feel that it is not straightforward for him. Naphta wins out over Settembrini on every point; Naphta’s intelligence surpasses Settembrini’s, just as the intelligence of Zemmour surpasses that of his current contradictors. But, in an equally indisputable way, all of Mann’s sympathy (more and more clearly, as the book moves forward) is directed toward Settembrini, and this old Italian humanist driveler winds up making us cry, something that the brilliant Naphta would be incapable of doing.
If we suddenly and radically change surroundings, leaving the edges of civilized Europe of the 1900s and transporting ourselves to the heart of Russian hysteria, we can add another item to the dossier: the famous scene from The Brothers Karamazov where, putting Christ and the Grand Inquisitor on stage, Dostoevsky violently attacks the Catholic Church, especially the pope and the Jesuits. Having returned to earth, Christ is immediately imprisoned by the ecclesiastical authorities. The Grand Inquisitor, visiting him in his prison cell, explains that the Church has organized herself quite well without him, that she no longer needs him—and that, indeed, he bothers her. The Grand Inquisitor thus has no other choice than to have Christ executed once again.
This scene, which Freud called “one of the peaks in literature of the world,” plunges the Catholic reader into a deep and prolonged uneasiness. For what, indeed, would happen if Christ returned and walked the streets of Rome, preaching and performing miracles? How would the pope react?
Gl: Éric Zemmour very much likes history, but in a few centuries he will considerably complicate the task of historians. Those who study his case in order to understand our era will have much difficulty drawing correct conclusions: He incarnates a very powerful intellectual current in France, which we could classify as reactionary, but he finds himself almost completely alone in defending these ideas, and he is attacked in a ferocious manner.
The posture of the “non-Christian Catholic” that you describe fits him marvelously; he is one of the last of this breed. At the time of Comte, and even later, many such existed, for a quite simple reason: Catholicism was, at least in Europe, in a situation of cultural hegemony, to speak like the Italian communists. In a Christian continent, where Catholicism was often the state religion and at the same time the common cultural base, it was possible for the great minds, whether believers or not, to influence the Church. In a de-Christianized era, on a continent that has forgotten its roots, with juridical systems aimed at erasing all traces of religion, the “non-Christian Catholics” are rare, and there are hardly any plain Catholics left at all.
In general, nostalgia for the time of controversies among great thinkers over the subject of faith seems anachronistic to me. The Church herself, at the same time that she has withdrawn from the public sphere, has given up playing a role and influencing minds. In France, the law of 1905 was applied too well: In separating the Church and the State, the political power probably did not think that it would succeed, in less than a century, in carrying out this gigantic erasure. The Church has her share of responsibility, even if she was bitterly opposed, by submitting too easily. Today, she is paying for that decision.
Mh: What are, exactly, these centuries of the Church’s splendor? In my opinion, each of us has his era of predilection, and it seems to me that it is the architecture that allows us to situate ourselves. In a Romanesque cloister I feel at peace, connected to the divinity. With Gothic cathedrals, it’s already something different. Beauty takes on a character there that Kant will later call sublime (beauty accompanied by the sensation of danger, such as a great storm at sea, or a thunderstorm high in the mountains). In a baroque church it’s no good at all, I could just as well be in a palace, or at the theater.
It seems to me that the Church of Rome committed different errors at the beginning of the twelfth century: separating itself from the Eastern churches; trying to reconcile reason and faith; attempting to interfere in the affairs of temporal powers; and granting too much importance to the Final Judgment and, consequently, to questions of morality. These errors made possible the civilizational catastrophes that were the Greco-Latin Renaissance and, above all, Protestantism—which, through their related action, necessarily led to the Enlightenment, and thus to the crumbling of the whole thing. The evil thus comes from long ago.
Gl: If you choose to go by architecture, there is indeed a striking aspect: In the time of the cathedrals, monumental places of worship were erected and their construction lasted longer than a man’s lifetime. The cathedrals of Chartres, Reims, and Paris were built in 75, 134, and 182 years, respectively. At that time, preference was not for the minuscule. By comparison, Trump Tower in New York was designed, constructed, and delivered in four years, between 1979 and 1983. You can say that motorization, technological progress, and materials explain this difference. So much for the business angle, but when we see the ugliness of modern churches, these unhappy cubes of faded cement, sometimes so hideous, which hardly ever tower above the horizon traced by the surrounding houses, one understands above all that what differentiates us from the Christian builders is “functional thinking,” instead of dedicating the construction to God. It was better before, when the supernatural was seen everywhere, even in the cathedral spires pointing toward heaven.
If we extend this observation to art, it’s even worse. European artists, whether believers or not, found in the sacred a limitless inspiration, nourishing centuries of Christianity with their genius. Everything was linked, homogeneous. Caravaggio, a scandalous, whimsical, and aggressive character, could thank his talent (and, it is true, certain well-placed relations) for his rehabilitation by the pope when he was condemned to death. When one enters the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, one sees in Caravaggio’s three paintings devoted to the life of St. Matthew the magnificent fruits of this conniving between clergy and artists. Must we compare that period to ours when it comes to sacred art? Honestly, let’s not waste our time.
Mh: The precept “render unto Caesar” was clear; it does not seem to me that the Catholic Church has applied it with sufficient rigor.
Devoid of any theological basis, the Anglican schism has its origin in the refusal of Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage of Henry VIII. Weakened by this struggle, the Anglican clergy showed itself incapable of curbing the development of Puritanism. Without Clement VII’s obstinacy, the United States would perhaps today be a Catholic country. How clever.
Though royal marriages are today little more than odd ceremonies, the Catholic Church has not given up on meddling in the government of states (intervening, for example, in their migratory policies), and it must be said that this ends up irritating everyone.
Gl: With his “render unto Caesar,” Jesus invented laicity; the problem is that Catholics applied it with a little too much zeal. The history of the last century could be summed up thus: a massive de-Christianization of almost the entire West, principally in Europe, where in a few decades what had been built over the course of fifteen centuries was dismantled.
We can make all sorts of reproaches to the Catholic Church, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, she still played a political role, and above all, she remained culturally in the majority. In France, the drama peaks in 1905 with the law of the separation between churches and the State, which was conceived for the purpose of ending the Catholic Church’s influence. The great principle of laicity in the French style is fundamentally compatible with the one set forth by Jesus: There is interior faith (and freedom is preserved from this point of view), and there is the public square, where the member of a religious order may not exert an influence. According to this separation, the State is certainly secular, but at no time was it stated that society must be atheist. The problem is that the Church assimilated the idea that she had been driven away, and gave up in every area.
Her political influence rapidly collapsed, but above all she abandoned what we call “social Catholicism,” which used to give her a basis among the people. For a long time, people lived in a Catholic culture. The church bells gave their day a certain rhythm; they followed some offices and saw one another at Mass on Sunday. Even if in their inner depths they were not animated by an intense faith, they had recourse to the services of the curé in the important moments: marriage, sickness, death. I love very much the idea of the “collier’s faith” described by Honoré de Balzac: “lov[ing] the Holy Virgin as he might have loved his wife,” a filial piety, an attachment devoid of theological or philosophical reflection, a fidelity to a history and to roots more than to a mystical revelation. I put myself in this category; this simple faith was the cement of a civilization.
After 1905, and during her vast movement of retreat, the Church confused “disappearing from the public sphere” with “disappearing altogether.” She faded away from the world. In the past, she governed souls; today, her political influence is negligible, and her role in society is reduced to almost nothing. One can live in France without seeing a priest during one’s entire life. One used to see them because they wore soutanes and organized processions for the great religious feasts; today, they dress in civilian clothes and hide, as in the time of the catacombs.
And the Church seems to apologize for her existence. Currently in France, we are experiencing a vast insurrection by those who could be termed the “leftovers of globalization,” the gilets jaunes. These people are crying out with an anger that has been growing for a long time, and they have been supported by a majority of the population. A social phenomenon of this order cannot escape the notice of any institution claiming to have a plan for men. In lieu of exercising a political influence, the Church could be offering a spiritual plan to those who are fighting against a loss of fundamental meaning. There are approximatively a hundred dioceses in France, and a few more bishops, all of whom are the representatives of the Church in the country. Only one of them has decided it would be a good idea to go to a meeting of the gilets jaunes.
Mh: The attention paid by the Catholic Church to the sexuality of its faithful appears to me to be markedly overdone. It isn’t rooted in the origins of Christianity. As usual, St. Paul is irreproachable—“it is better to marry than to burn”—and sometimes even sublime—“the two will become one flesh.” Things clearly go wrong with St. Augustine, but that remains without consequence for many centuries. Things truly degenerate only in the modern era, as the Church succumbs to a kind of puritanism. We are still at this point, and I must admit to a real embarrassment when I hear various prelates strongly opposing the use of condoms, AIDS or no. In the name of heaven, what the hell does it matter to them?
For a long time, I had the impression that the Orthodox Church appeared wiser on this point and knew how to maintain an attitude of tolerance. But it was a diffuse impression for which I labored to find textual support (precisely because the Orthodox are reluctant to express themselves on this question, which is secondary in their eyes)—until, in an article by Olivier Clément (clearly, it’s always necessary to resort to good authors), I fell upon this quotation, to my eyes luminous, from Athenagoras I, patriarch of Constantinople: “If a man and a woman truly love one another, I have no need to enter their bedroom: Everything they do is holy.”
Gl: The Catholic Church is indeed thought of as moralizing and puritan; in other words, she is seen as a pain. This is both logical and unjust. She is, to my mind, playing her proper role when she points out a spiritual—but also moral—path. The unity of body, mind, and soul that she preaches makes it absolutely normal that she would enter into the domain of sexuality. In this respect, I prefer that she speak of sexuality, and even that she speak of it too often, and that the popes (like Paul VI with the encyclical Humanae Vitae, or John Paul II with his Theology of the Body) express themselves on this subject—unlike in Islam, for instance, where they take a hypocritical and muddled approach to the subject.
What is often forgotten—and perhaps the Church does not insist on this point enough—is that her teaching points out a path that is supposed to lead toward heaven and also procure happiness on earth. Men are sinners, and God forgives them, which is something that non-believers have ceased to perceive. If the Church regained an influence in people’s hearts, she could perhaps deliver this message. We are light-years away from that.
Mh: Can the Catholic Church regain her former splendor? Yes, perhaps, I don’t know.
It would be good if she moved away definitively from Protestantism and drew closer to Orthodoxy. Unity would be the best solution, but it would not be easy. The question of the Filioque could easily be resolved by competent theologians. The problem of the installation of Western barons in the Middle East no longer presents itself; even Donald Trump has dropped it. However, for the bishop of Rome, renouncing his universal ambition and having only an honorific preeminence over the patriarchs of Constantinople or Antioch, would be, perhaps, difficult to swallow.
At the very least, the Catholic Church, imitating Orthodox modesty, ought to limit its interventions in the domains that are not directly within its competence (I mentioned scientific research, the government of states, and human love).
It also ought to abandon this mania for organizing councils, which are, above all, the opportunity for triggering schisms.
It ought to abandon encyclicals as well, and put a brake on its doctrinal inventiveness. (The Immaculate Conception, and above all papal infallibility, offend reason too directly. Reason is a big, peaceful animal, which falls asleep easily during services, but it is necessary to avoid useless provocations.)
The Church can be inspired by Pentecostalism in the same way that pop music has been inspired by gospel and the blues. Moreover, it’s important not to forget a dose of madness—Dostoevsky offers the Russian version: “If it is necessary to choose between Christ and the truth, I choose Christ.” For the French version, we have Blaise Pascal.
Basically, it amounts to this: The Catholic Church, in the course of its history, has granted much too much importance to reason (aggravated over the centuries, probably, under the influence of Protestantism). Man is a being of reason: That’s true, from time to time. But he is above all a being of flesh, and of emotion. It would be good not to forget that.
Gl: Can the Catholic Church regain her former splendor? Yes, probably, but the road is a long one.
If we had to sum up the last few decades, we could say that the Church, having lost temporal power, tried to survive by making herself tolerated; it is for this reason, essentially, that she adapted to the vicissitudes of a world she was supposed to save. This role-reversal led to suicide. But even in the eyes of God, there exists, after this tragic gesture, the possibility of salvation. The holy Curé of Ars once said, to a woman despairing over the suicide of her husband, that between the bridge from which he threw himself and the water in which he drowned, there was enough time to regret what he was doing, and to turn again toward the divine mercy.
In order to save what can be saved, it would be necessary to break with the relativism that has been in vogue since the 1960s. Perhaps the Church would recover a bit of its splendor if it stopped wanting to be cool and taught once again the fear of God, without which there is no love. The same goes for the education of children: Parental authority has been undermined, with the same consequences.
The Church should perhaps moderate its fascination with other religions. How can we tolerate such Trojan horses as the former Secretary-General of the Italian Episcopal Conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, who said not long ago that “the Reformation carried out by Martin Luther 500 years ago was an event of the Holy Spirit”? Pope Francis himself makes repeated overtures toward Muslims, as witnessed by his recent trip to the United Arab Emirates, and took care to define himself simply as “the bishop of Rome” on the day of his election, a pledge of good faith toward the Orthodox.
It would be necessary to put an end to the continuous quest for emotion, because from this point of view, the Church cannot do battle with concerts or the movies. But if she confines herself to her mission, namely, announcing God and leading men to eternal life, she remains absolutely indispensable.
Perhaps the Church would regain some credibility if she stopped conceiving of herself as an NGO that is vaguely charitable but does not take responsibility for the source of its generosity: Christ. In politics, she would perhaps win by ceasing to throw moral discredit on certain governments (the pope’s criticism of the management of migrants by the Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini is a good example).
Today, the Church in Europe has shrunk back into certain hard cores, sociologically very homogeneous—a social class—cut off from the majority of souls. Its embourgeoisement is perhaps, in the end, the greatest scourge that strikes the Church at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Mh: Can the restoration of Catholicism to its former splendor repair our damaged civilization? Here we are in agreement—it’s much simpler, almost self-evident. The answer is “Yes.”
Michel Houellebecq is the author of Serotonin. Geoffroy Lejeune is editor of Valeurs actuelles.
Translated from the French by Stephen E. Lewis.
Photo by Stefan Bianka via Creative Commons. Image cropped.