ROME, December 6, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) – Ignorance of the Christ and His teachings have created an inability to understand the history, culture, and artistic heritage of European people, Pope Benedict XVI told a group of visiting French bishops on November 30th. This ignorance, which has been identified as a leading stumbling block by pro-life and pro-family advocates in Europe, leaves Europeans unable “to recognize themselves as heirs to this tradition,” which has shaped European society.

It is, moreover, a “double ignorance” both of Jesus Christ Himself, and about the “sublimity of his teachings, their universal and permanent value in the quest for the meaning of life and happiness.” Pope Benedict encouraged the laity to study theology, calling it a source of “wisdom, joy and wonder” not restricted to priests and seminarians.

With the French Socialist government promising to create “gay marriage” before next year, the pope in his addresses this year to visiting French bishops has focused on the conflict between the two warring conceptions of the family: the modern secularist notion that it can be any combination of persons living together in a sexual relationship and the traditional Judeo-Christian concept that it is founded in the biological and ontological nature of human anthropology.

In such debates, he said, “the voice of the Church must make itself heard ceaselessly and with determination.”

“The harmony between faith and reason gives you special reassurance,” he said. “The message of Christ and His Church is not merely a religious identity that demands to be respected as such; it carries also the wisdom that permits us to provide concrete answers to the pressing and sometimes troubling questions of our times.”

“There is also the enormous challenge of living in a society which does not always share the teachings of Christ and at times ridicules and marginalizes the Church in the attempt to confine her to an exclusively private sphere. To face these immense challenges, the Church needs credible witnesses,” the pope said.

In September, the pope told another group of French bishops, “The family is threatened by a conception of human nature that is proven to be faulty.”

“Defending the family and life in society is prophetic and anything but regressive. Marriage and the family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is harmful to them will in fact be injurious to society itself.”

Pope Benedict’s November 30th address was the last of a series of three “ad limina” visits from the bishops of France in the last year. In it, the pope also noted the growth of a renewal movement in France and elsewhere in “encouraging…signs of vitality and involvement of the laity in French society.”

The necessary renewal of the Catholic faith, the pope said, must involve the renewal of family and parish life, and he challenged the bishops to act boldly in the context of a larger culture of “relativism and hedonism.”

Benedict called on the French bishops to consider more seriously the looming threat of a priestless Church and do more to promote vocations to the priesthood within a context of fidelity to the Church’s magisterium. He highlighted the importance of the liturgical celebration and its “contribution to the civilizing work” of the Church, emphasizing how “respect for its established norms expresses love and fidelity to the faith of the Church.”

“The beauty of her celebrations, far more than innovations and subjective adjustments, constitutes a durable and effective form of evangelization.”

Observers have long noted that the renewal in Catholic France is happening largely on the “traditional” end, with a growing number of new seminarians interested in learning and promoting the pre-1960s version of the Church’s liturgical customs and devotions. They are also notable for their enthusiasm for a more rigorously orthodox approach to the Church’s moral teachings.

Currently the numbers paint a grim picture for the future of the Church. In 1966, just after the close of the Second Vatican Council, there were 4,536 seminarians in France. In 2011, the total number of French seminarians is down to 710, a decline of 85 percent and the lowest numbers since the French Revolution.

This year the French bishops announced that only 96 diocesan priests would be ordained, down from 109 the previous year, representing an 11 per cent drop. Meanwhile, roughly 800 French diocesan priests retire or die every year.

Of the remaining seminarians, however, approximately one third are formally attached to one of the communities set up to accommodate the more traditional forms of liturgy and practice.

Joseph Meaney, a French citizen and the Director of International Coordination at Human Life International’s Rome office, told LifeSiteNews.com that the situation in France is at a critical juncture and that sooner or later the country once called the “eldest daughter of the Church” will again be declared “mission territory.”

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“There are many dioceses which will literally not have enough priests to serve their territories,” Meaney said. “There will be a need to send in missionaries from other countries that are French speaking, which means mostly African countries.”

“There are priests available around the Church,” he said, but in recent decades there has been a strong antipathy among the French episcopate to allowing priests from other countries to come in. “Generally, there’s an ideological position there. They only wanted people with a certain background, a certain pastoral practice that fit with their viewpoints, usually a fairly liberal one. So they weren’t really open to allowing other groups in.”

“That obviously is going to have to change,” Meaney said. He noted the growing acceptance by several French bishops who have started allowing in new congregations who hold a more traditional mindset.

But the French Church has an uphill climb with France continuing to be “heavily influenced” by secularism, Meaney added. The work of the pro-life movement in France face great obstacles created by the “very militant” separation of Church and state, called laïcité, as distinct from other European countries—a holdover, he said, of the French Revolution.

The government of France, he said, “sees itself as almost antagonistic” towards the Church. Whether a “right-wing or left-wing government, the Church is not allowed much social space in France.” Bishops making any public comment are open to harsh criticism for breaching the rules of laïcité.

As the French population continues to drop its participation in Catholic life, Meaney said, the room for the Church to operate becomes even more restricted. The fact that most of the French population was Catholic was “all that kept the government from doing even more than they are now,” Meaney said.

“But now, fewer and fewer people attend Mass and receive the sacraments and the fear by government of offending the large majority of the Catholic population goes down as well.” It is clear, he said, that the situation as it is cannot continue in France. “Something in either direction is going to give.”