God’s lieutenants: The French bishops at Vatican II

The role of the YCW and the Specialised Catholic Action movements in changing the Church in France has long been recognised, in France at least. Indeed, as Catherine Grémion and Philippe Levillain have pointed out in their study, Les lieutenants de Dieu, the French bishops were “profoundly marked by Catholic Action”.

In their study carried out in the mid-1980s, Grémion and Levillain interviewed 100 active French bishops. Here are a few of their findings/conclusions:

The French episcopacy analysed in this study was profoundly marked by Catholic Action… The years 1930-1950 constitute a remarkable moment in the evolution of the Church in France. They are those of a “sociological revolution” of which the Vatican II Constitution Gaudium et Spes would be the final outcome. The same thread links the research of Gabriel Le Bras on the life of the Christian people, the works of Canon Boulard to undertake an inventory of the state of Christian France, the birth of the youth movements with the foundation of the YCW and the YCS, etc. and the publication in 1943 of the famous study by Fr Godin: France, A mission country? Henceforth, France was regarded as a land to be evangelised and according to the expression of Cardinal Suhard in 1931: “France today is the popular masses who have turned away from Christ because they don’t know him, who combat Christ because they do not understand his true face which has been disfigured by bad shepherds.”

Original French:

L’épiscopat français analysé dans cette étude a été profondément marqué par l’Action catholique pour ces raisons mêmes. Les années 1930-1950 constituent un moment remarquable dans l’évolution de l’Eglise en France. Ce sont celles d’une « révolution sociologique » dont la Constitution Gaudium et Spes de Vatican devait constituer l’aboutissement. Un même fil relie les recherches de Gabriel Le Bras sur la vie du peuple chrétien (dont il proposa de confronter la pratique avec des variables comme la démographie ou des attitudes comme les choix politiques), les travaux du chanoine Boulard pour opérer un inventaire de l’état de la France chrétienne, la naissance des mouvements de jeunesse avec la fondation de la J.O.C., puis la J.E.C., etc., et la publication en 1943 du fameux mémoire de l’abbé Godin : La France pays de mission ? La France fut dorénavant regardée comme une terre à évangéliser et selon l’expression du cardinal Suhard en 1931 : « La France d’aujourd’hui ce sont les masses populaires qui se détournent du Christ parce qu’elles l’ignorent, qui combattent le Christ parce qu’elles n’en connaissent pas le vrai visage que de mauvais bergers ont défiguré. »

Source: Catherine Grémion et Philippe Levillain, Les lieutenants de Dieu, 1986, p. 54.

This translates into some remarkable figures for the number of bishops with concrete, practical experience of the specialised Catholic Action movements in particular:

If one considers the number of bishops who exercised a part of their priestly activity in the apostolate of the laity, one notes that this is the case for more than two-thirds. However, there are some nuances:

1. 67 bishops out of 100 devoted between 7 and 15 years of their priestly life to the apostolate of the laity. And 19 of them between 1 and 5 years.

2. By apostolic regions of birth or major seminary studies, never, based on the total number of bishops, is the percentage of those who devoted themselves to the lay apostolate lower than 50%

Original French:

Si l’on considère le nombre des évêques qui ont exercé une partie
de leur activité sacerdotale à l’Apostolat des laïcs, on constate
que c’est le cas de plus des deux tiers. Mais des nuances s’imposent

  1. 67 évêques sur 100 ont consacré à l’apostolat des laïcs entre 7
    et 15 ans de leur vie sacerdotale. Et 19 d’entre eux entre 1 et 5
  2. Par régions apostoliques de naissance ou
    d’études au grand séminaire, jamais, sur le nombre total des
    évêques, le pourcentage de ceux qui se sont consacrés à
    l’Apostolat des laïcs n’est inférieur à 50 %.

Source: Les lieutenants de Dieu, p. 230-231.

So, basically, roughly two thirds of French bishops during the 1980s had strong backgrounds in the Cardijn-inspired movements. That in itself is particularly noteworthy.

However, what were the figures during Vatican II itself? Unfortunately, Grémion and Levillain don’t answer that question directly, although clearly there were many.

Fortunately, there is another tool available, Dictionnaire des évêques de France au XXème siècle, published in 2010, which as the name implies lists nearly every French bishop of the 20th century. Why nearly? Because there seem to be a couple of names missing from the list as I discovered by comparing with a list of bishops present at the Opening Session of Vatican II.

Comparing those lists, I have been able to identify 81 bishops out of 139 French bishops, including the six cardinals, at the First Session who had close personal links with the Cardijn movements, either as movement chaplains, or in specifically promoting specialised Catholic Action as bishops.

As it stands, this means that at least 58% of the French bishops at Vatican II had such a background, quite possibly more.

In any event, it is quite revelatory in terms of how Cardijn’s influence came to be transmitted to the Council.

Stefan Gigacz