A dispute over the construction of a Mormon temple in a suburb of Paris is revealing as much about France's changing religious profile as it does about possible prejudice against the little known religion.
In the Parisian suburb of Le Chesnay, where construction continues amid pending court action to bar the project, the complaints are legion: Missionaries will bother residents, children could be targeted for conversion without parents' knowledge, construction will be disruptive, the edifice will be too large for the town.
But what seems equally on display is unease about a profound decline in Catholic practice, accompanied by a rise – however small – in Christian evangelicalism.
“It [the Catholic church] registers the fact – the word is constantly used in its documents – that it is today a minority and it has to make do in a society where it only is a minority, but where, as a minority, it also needs to defend its identity,” says Philippe Portier, a professor of political science at the Practical School of High Studies.
Doorbells will ring
For Michelle Carloz, it was worries about missionaries that first came to mind when she heard about the plans to build the temple in Le Chesnay, an affluent and mainly Catholic community of 30,000 about 10 miles west of Paris, near Versailles.
“I told myself, ‘Here we go again, it’s going to start again as it was with the Jehovah’s Witnesses,’” says Mrs. Carloz, the secretary of a local group promoting urban development in the residents’ interests. Carloz, a practicing Catholic, first heard about the project in 2010. “We’ve had some coming to our streets all the time, all the time, all the time, ringing doorbells. That was my first reaction.”
Jean-Louis Schlegel, a philosopher and religion sociologist, says such a response is not unusual. French people tend to be wary of Mormon missionaries and tend to confuse them with Jehovah’s Witnesses, he says.
“I am not sure that the average Catholic from Le Chesnay sees the building of a Mormon temple with a favorable eye, even more so given such a big one,” Mr. Schlegel says, referring to the size of the project, which also includes a park, a guest house for those going to the temple, a house for the temple’s president, an information center, housing for the missionaries working in the temple, and an underground parking lot.
Le Chesnay Mayor Philippe Brillault says that local Catholics were intrigued, and perhaps puzzled, by the temple project when it became public last year. “I would tend to say that, given that the Mormons are called the Church of Jesus Christ, there can be either a perception of confusion, or a perception of competition,” he says.
Worries about the tax base
Residents of Le Chesnay who oppose the temple say dedicating such a large amount of land to untaxed, religious ends will not help the city, which needs more public housing and companies to boost the local economy. Mr. Brillault agrees that a Mormon temple isn’t what the city needs the most, but he says he had no legal reason not to authorize the temple's construction and so he gave it the green light a year ago.
Following the mayor's authorization, opponents to the project unsuccessfully asked the city council to cancel the decision. And in April of this year, Carloz’s group, the Association of Inhabitants and Friends of Le Chesnay, and her husband, Rémi Carloz, an opposition council member, filed two separate complaints in an administrative court to try to block the construction of the temple. The court hasn’t reached a verdict yet, so the temple project continues to proceed slowly. (Under French law, the Mormon church is free to continue construction while the decisions are pending.)
A group of six residents of Le Chesnay started a petition against the temple on Dec. 18, 2011, that received over 6,000 signatures, of which 1,000 to 2,000 signatures were actually from residents of the town, says Martial Pradaud, one of the group’s founders. Yet the group has no plan to give the petition to the city council because 2,000 signatures isn’t a lot for a town of 30,000, Pradaud says.
Shifting religious demographics
Professor Portier, who serves as the director of a research group named Group Societies, Religions, Secularisms, part of France’s National Center for Scientific Research, says he believes the opposition of some Le Chesnay residents to the construction of the Mormon temple is the expression of an old tendency of French society to consider all religions except Catholicism and Protestantism as likely to disrupt public order.
But French Catholicism no longer enjoys the public position that it once had. France started to enforce the separation of church and state more than 100 years ago and the secularization of French society has been growing ever since.
According to an August 2010 survey by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) compiling several years worth of data, while 64 percent of those surveyed called themselves Catholics as of 2010, an overwhelming majority of French people do not go to church.
In fact, the study found, only 4.5 percent of those surveyed said they went to a Catholic church at least once a month as of 2006. By comparison, 27 percent of French people attended a Catholic church in 1952 and 20 percent did so in 1972. That proportion later dropped during the 1970s and 1980s.
And as Catholic church attendance dwindled, other religious perspectives – including Mormonism – have been gaining in France.
From 1987 to 2010, the proportion of Protestants increased from 1 percent to 3 percent of the French population, according to the IFOP study. The proportion of those belonging to other religions increased from 3 percent to 5 percent, and from 21 percent to 28 percent for those without a religion.
The number of Mormons on France’s mainland increased from 10,000 in 1970 to slightly more than 30,000 in 2000, according to data from the French Mormon church. As of late 2011, there were 36,600 Mormons on France’s mainland, accounting for 0.06 percent of the population. There also are 25,000 Mormons in French overseas territories – there is a Mormon temple in French Polynesia, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean.
Mr. Schlegel says France's Catholics no longer see attendance to church as a religious requirement and have a more individualistic approach to faith.
“I don’t think that people have a feeling that they are breaking a rule when they don’t go to Mass,” Schlegel says. “They simply forgot that it is an obligation.”
Further, only 7 percent of practicing Catholics are 18 to 24 years of age and 9 percent are 25 to 34 years of age. Portier, the political science professor, says younger generations know very little about Catholicism.
“You have here a serious difficulty for the institution to perpetuate itself because the new generations often hear about the church only through a few reports on television, through a few memories from the grandparents, but never through firsthand experience,” Portier says.
The lack of youths in the church extends even to the clergy, which over the past decade has been increasingly forced to recruit priests from abroad, mostly from Africa and Asia, to fill its ranks. There are roughly 1,600 foreign priests who account for 10 percent of all clergymen in France, according the Rev. Jean Forgeat, who heads the department of the Catholic church in charge of welcoming the priests when they arrive in France.
Mr. Forgeat says the foreign priests usually are much younger than their French counterparts. The average age of foreign priests is 42 while the average age of French priests is 72, according to Forgeat.
Fear of indoctrination
It is against this backdrop that the temple project in Le Chesnay unfolds, perhaps explaining why the prominent arrival of a new religion arouses such concern. Some parents even fear their children could be converted to Mormonism against their will, according to Carloz.
Dominique Calmels, the national communication director of the French Mormon church, says the controversy surrounding the temple project is unfortunate, adding that he is open to discussion with residents of Le Chesnay.
“There is something that surprises me,” he says. “Le Chesnay is a city of people that are of a rather high standing, they are intelligent people, they are brilliant people. How is it that they are suddenly scared of being indoctrinated? But you don’t get indoctrinated. You are indoctrinated if you want to be indoctrinated. I have a hard time imagining that people living in Le Chesnay would suddenly all decide to become Mormon.”
Calmels says he hopes the temple will be built in 2013 and 2014 and will open in 2015 or early 2016.