Anticlerical mutts

15th arrondissement, Eglise Saint Rita - 27, rue François-Bonvin

"Si vous avez des chiens anti-cléricaux, vous le faites savoir", and the animal-loving (but not Pope-loving) Father Philippe at Saint Rita's Gallican Catholic church is off on his twice-yearly blessing-of-the-animals stunt.

The animals that are brought along are all quite obviously believers. Though the church is packed with dogs, cats, birds and even reptiles, there is not a sound from any of them throughout the ceremony, which lasts almost 2 hours. Maybe this respectful silence is due to the fact that the animals all understand Latin, the language used for the Mass.

Gallicanism is a characteristically contorted form of French Catholicism that goes back at least to the 15th century when the French king, Philippe Le Bel, had a row with Pope Boniface VIII, which resulted in the former deciding to limit the latter's interference in internal French politics. By 1682, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, leading philosophic light of Gallicanism, had come up with the Déclaration des quatre articles, which set down the basic principles of Gallicanism. These are: that the Pope cannot depose the King, nor release the King's subjects from the loyalty that is owed to him; that the canons issued by local Episcopal councils have precedence over decisions taken in Rome; that the Pope must respect the privileges and canons of local churches; that the Pope plays a leading role in defining doctrine but is not personally infallible. These are all the kind of doctrines the Ancien Régime could live with. But it is precisely the closeness of its links to French royalty that ensured the doctrine's precipitous decline after the French Revolution. However, some historians believe that Gallicanism at least prevented France from turning Protestant, as England did under Henry VIII.

Not surprising, the animal-loving parish priest at Saint Rita is a staunch defender of his version of Catholicism: "Ne vous faites pas avoir par les gros matous qui vous disent que les animaux ne sont pas le bienvenu dans leur église", he says to loud applause from the huge congregation rounded up for the occasion in large part through the efforts of the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, one of the leading campaigners in the battle for animal rights in France. That "B.B." should take up such a fight is not actually all not surprising. For was she not herself at one stage a sex kitten? And so an unlikely alliance has grown between animal lovers and Catholic traditionalism.


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