The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]
December 3, 2021
By Brendan McCarthy
When I filed my story on the problems of the diocese of Paris, A Crisis of Governance in the French Church, for this week’s Tablet, I had little sense that Pope Francis would accept Archbishop Michel Aupetit’s resignation before the week was done. The news slipped out in the Vatican’s daily bollettino yesterday, while the Pope was on his way to Cyprus
Michel Aupetit was not the right man for Paris. He glaringly lacked the human, political and cultural skills to run the most important diocese in France. He alienated many of his priests; some saw him as an old-fashioned GP (he was one before coming a priest) with a “doctor knows best” attitude. The Vatican knew all this; Libération reports that the Papal Nuncio to France, Mgr Celestino Miglior, had been trying discreetly to move Aupetit for some time – perhaps to exfiltrate him to a position in the Roman curia.
Aupetit’s resignation was accepted with brutal speed, barely a week after it was offered. In contrast, Pope Francis waited a full year before finally accepting the resignation of Cardinal Barbarin (he had been convicted for refusing to report allegations of child sex abuse). When Cardinal Woelki of Cologne lost the confidence of his diocese for withholding a report on clerical child sex abuse, Pope Francis told him to take leave of absence – resignation was not in question.
So why was Michel Aupetit’s resignation accepted so quickly when others were not? The sexual allegations were flimsy. But their emergence served to speed Aupetit’s removal. There is an important wider context; the appalling findings of the CIASE report into child sex abuse in the French church. Several weeks of media coverage have further damaged French Catholicism. The Aupetit affair added to the pain. The church needed this story to go away.
Michel Aupetit had lost control of his complex archdiocese. It has a sophisticated and sometimes argumentative clergy (some 500 priests) and a rich architectural patrimony. Paris is a cultural and intellectual node of French and global Catholicism. The diocese is in good health with plenty of vocations and lively parishes, in contrast to the deserts of Catholicism in rural France. But Parisian Catholicism demands both a sense of direction, and a leader confident in the public square, speaking both to the Catholic community and to secular France.
Aupetit had nothing of this. He was comfortable in a Catholic milieu and not outside it. He was ill at ease with politicians – a crucial relationship when it comes to rebuilding Notre Dame, which is owned by the French state (tensions are already looming about the liturgical reordering of the Cathedral when it eventually re-opens).
Aupetit’s appointment was a stitch-up by his predecessor, Cardinal Ving-Trois for whom he had once been vicar-general. Cardinal Vingt-Trois’s own appointment came from a similar stitch-up by his predecessor, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. In neither case, was the wider French church was considered. One priest commented that this week’s events draw the curtain down on a self-referential Parisian Catholicism (“l’entre-soi” Parisien”).
So what now? The Aupetit affair has cruelly exposed the shortcomings in the appointments of bishops: no consultation with lay people; no due diligence; no scrutiny of whether the man was a good fit with the job; no thought for the wider interests of French Catholicism. Pope Francis simply signed off on Cardinal Vingt-Trois’s disastrous suggestion. Such spectacular naivety in the management arts bedevils Catholicism from the Vatican down. It is a factor in the Vatican’s financial scandals, and it will trigger future similar scandals in the church.
Who might be the next archbishop? A prominent name on any list must be Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, archbishop of Reims, chairman of the French Episcopal Conference, and member of the editorial board of Communio. A former auxiliary bishop in Paris, he is known to some priests as “Le Prince Eric”. He comes from a family of nobility, his father was a French army general. He led the church’s response to the CIASE report with considerable flair (despite a slip-up on the issue of confessional secrecy and French law).
An outside candidate might be Mgr Benoist de Sinety, one of two vicars-general in Paris who resigned because they could not work with Michel Aupetit. He left the diocese for a parish in Lille. De Sinety is one of the Parisian church’s great personalities; media-savvy and socially adept, while at the same time a strong advocate of the rights of the refugees and homeless. He is highly regarded by Pope Francis, and his falling-out with Aupetit raised red flags in Rome.
The next leader of Parisian Catholicism, whoever he be, will need to heal a deeply wounded Church. If the new man is to be accepted, the Vatican must consult fairly and openly. The Michel Aupetit affair marks a spectacular failure of the old ways. Let it also mark their passing.