After several days of suspense, the French Catholic Church announced on Thursday that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit. Less than a week before, Aupetit sent his letter of resignation acknowledging that he had been involved in an “ambiguous” relationship with a woman in 2012 while he was a priest in the Paris diocese. He has denied any intimacy with her but offered to step down “to preserve the diocese from the division that suspicion and loss of trust are continuing to provoke.”
The pope was swift in accepting the resignation, which is unusual but not surprising: indeed Aupetit’s departure comes at a time when the Catholic Church in France is reeling from an October report alleging the sexual abuse of more than 200 000 children over 70 years. In the upheaval caused by such a scandal, there is a deep problem of confidence between the French Catholic community and its clergy that is likely to worsen.
2020 and 2021 have been terrible years for the Catholic Church. The pandemic caused much damage—both material and spiritual. The finances of the Church have greatly suffered from the repeated restrictions and lockdowns. Some faithful have accused the Church of not properly responding to the crisis—especially for not fighting hard enough to defend freedom of worship against the government restrictions.
Furthermore the imposition the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes caused much dissent—not only from the traditionalist clergy but also among priests attached to the modern form of the Mass. Former Archbishop Aupetit has spoken in extreme terms against both the people demonstrating for the re-opening of churches and the traditionalist communities who advocate for the option to attend the traditional liturgy of the Roman Rite.
To a certain extent, Aupetit embodies for the French faithful the inability (or unwillingness) of the Church hierarchy to offer proper answers to these problems. Moreover, the impact of the revelation of his “ambiguous” affair was felt more deeply since the archbishop was already stained by other scandals accusing him of authoritarianism in the diocese. By accepting his resignation, Pope Francis may be signalling that the rotten state of the Church will no longer be tolerated. For the moment, it is unclear what the alternative path will be. The temporary nomination of former archbishop of Marseilles and president of the Conference of the French Bishops Georges Pontier to replace Aupetit, however, appears to be a concession to the ‘progressive’ wing of the French Church.