PARIS - Everyone thought they had disappeared, and they had indeed become invisible to most of us. But for the past six months, they have been resurfacing and taking to the streets relentlessly to protest against gay marriage.
They use their networks to organize events and rallies, as well as candlelit sit-ins and vigils. As defenders of the so-called traditional family, they represent a large proportion of those who march against same-sex marriage.
“It is a real groundswell,” says Christine Pedotti, editor-in-chief at Témoignage chrétien (“Christian Testimony”), the only Catholic magazine to favor gay marriage. “These young conservative activists obey the Church hierarchy and are addicted to family values and genuflecting. This is the new face of the Church.”
This new generation of Catholics – the John Paul II and Benedict XVI generation – became the unexpected sentinel of the Church in the battle against gay marriage, which started on August 15 with a “Prayer for France.”
Ultimately, despite a continuing series of protests, France last month became the latest country to approve same-sex marriage and adoption.
Nonetheless these young militants have vowed to continue their battle -- proud and riding high on their newfound activism, miles away from their elders’ modest discretion.
“Today, everyone asserts their identity, why shouldn't we?” asks Maxence, who speaks to us with her friends Solène, Marine, Eléonore, Bertrand and Michel, all aged between 18 and 19.
All have been to the Catholic Church's World Youth Day at least once, and some have taken part in marches against abortion. “Do not be afraid. Have the courage to live the Gospel and the boldness to proclaim it” was Joseph Ratzinger's message to the youth in his 2008 prayer vigil in front of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
These young people heard it loud and clear. According to philosopher Marcel Gauchet, “It is a major historic change. This youth is both conservative and modern. It is like a whole new continent to be explored.”
Sister Nathalie Becquart is the head of the French national youth evangelism service. She says, “Trying to understand this phenomenon is like being an explorer in Papua New Guinea.” These “Catholics 2.0” have their own codes, their own priorities and communication methods (see video below).
The 43-year-old nun – a graduate of France’s top business school HEC and a former marketing and communications consultant – is astonished by how religious practices have evolved in the past five years, even among young people from less privileged backgrounds and immigrants: “At the end, they were all on their knees.”
The "Catholic style" video is a parody of Psy’s Gangnam style and was directed by a community in charge of the evangelization of the young.
Having grown up in a secular society, these young churchgoers are well aware that they are a minority. Their personal choice therefore becomes “stronger and more passionate,” according to Sister Nathalie. “They form a generation of more fervent believers, who are intent on living their faith in every aspect of their lives – professional, political or associative.”
Polo shirts and no make-up
The Saint-Guillaume Center, situated in the heart of Paris, is the meeting place for Catholic students studying at the prestigious Sciences-Po political science university. The chaplaincy has around 200 members, who come to have lunch, work or pray together.
Like many other student chaplaincies, it is witnessing a strong revival. Even if these future political leaders pride themselves on having different backgrounds, the first thing that comes to mind is how identical they seem – physically for instance. All young women fervently embrace the “no make-up” trend, and men wear their polo shirts with the collars turned up. Their resemblance is also political – they are all right-wing, except for one student, who is pointed out as being a member of the Socialist Party Youth Movement.
During lunch, all conversations criticize the new French law on same-sex marriage. “Gay marriage is a death sentence to marriage,” the Saint-Guillaume Center president affirms. He himself did a two-months internship in Washington, working for the Family Research Council, a Christian and anti-gay marriage lobby. Ash blond hair, very polite, Pierre Jovanovic is rather good-looking, in choirboy way. He takes the time to bless the food before starting the conversation. “We take sacred things seriously here,” he explains. According to him, what divides people in this debate about marriage is not as much homosexuality as a conception of man and society. “On the one hand there are those who think man and woman are interchangeable, and on the other those who want to build society on eternal, immutable bases.”
The church, “Like it or leave it”
According to Pedotti, the uncertainty of today's society makes Catholics “crave for authority.” They love – sometimes even idolize – the pope, and hate the 1968’ generation, which they consider as the root of all even, the people who are responsible for the Church’s decline.
“They have made obedience to the Church the most important aspect of their faith, which can sometimes prove counter-intuitive when they fail to follow the strict commandments of the institution. They would rather be in the wrong than challenge the rules,” Pedotti explains.
“When you have no backbone anymore, you need to have a body armor. It's like the ‘lobster complex’ coined by French psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto to describe the transitional period that teenagers go through, where they act like a lobster, which sheds its outer shell and hides while waiting for the new shell to grow,” explains Nicolas de Brémond d'Ars, priest and psychologist. He finds it regrettable that among the adepts of this new trend, the more progressive young Catholics do not have their say.
“Like the Church or leave it” seems to be the new policy. Consequently, an increasing number of young people are using calendar-based contraceptive methods and condemning abortion. This dogmatic approach has recently been named “human ecology.”
Joël Sprung, aka Pneumatis, is a 35-year-old blogger who converted to Catholicism at the age of 25. He is a fervent advocate of the “human ecology” theory, based on the laws of nature. Sprung has two children, one of whom is heavily handicapped: he refused the abortion option when doctors warned him of his son's disability.
“For me, there is no difference between a child and an unborn child,” he says. He is convinced that society is heading for a “disaster,” because the same-sex marriage law “does not respect human dignity.” He also denounces democracy as a “delusion” and a “lie.” Calling for a “revolution,” he campaigns for an enforcement of the Church's social doctrine. His blog is one of the most successful in the “Cathosphere.”
Missionaries on the Internet
For the past five years, the Catholic presence has been expanding dramatically on the Internet, through a new generation of bloggers who are happy to lobby for the Pope and Christian values. The 2009 crises, marked by pedophilia scandals and a reach-out to ultra-Orthodox Christians, also accelerated this phenomenon.
This digital expansion is now reaching all-time highs with the debate on gay marriage. Father Pierre-Hervé Grosjean, a 35-year-old priest in the suburbs of Paris, has his own website and Twitter account, which has 15,000 followers. He insists that his Facebook page is “the front door of the presbytery.”
“The older generations were more likely to bury their feelings, while this one is a lot more demonstrative,” says Grosjean, who never goes out without his clergyman clothes. “As a result, we have a generation that is highly involved, and yearns for references, for the absolute. They refuse to compromise with the Truth.”