France’s Catholic clergy to carry ID cards proving they are in good standing

Church of the Sacred Heart in Bordeaux, France Church of the Sacred Heart in Bordeaux, France. | Credit: Olivier432 - Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Catholic clergy in France will soon carry a standardized identification card linked to a national database that shows whether they are currently in good standing and can celebrate Mass and hear confessions.

“It aims to prevent impostors [false priests or deacons] from continuing to act to the detriment of the faithful and the sacraments,” the Conference of French Bishops’ website said May 5. It noted that current paper documents can be faked.

Clergy have always carried a document showing they are approved to celebrate Mass, called a “celebret.” The document, issued by a bishop or a religious superior, is valid for one year. It shows a priest is authorized to celebrate Mass and to hear confessions. The French Catholic bishops’ website compared the card to a press credential for journalists or an identity card for legal professionals.

France’s Catholic bishops first approved the updated clergy identification card at their November 2021 plenary assembly. The bishops made the change to help standardize documents between dioceses and religious communities and to provide real-time updates on authorizations and restrictions.

The French Bishops’ Conference in a May 10 announcement described the change as part of a large set of measures “intended to continue and intensify the fight against sexual violence within the Church” following the October 2021 report of the Independent Commission on Sex Abuse in the Church.

That report, however, did not make recommendations regarding identity cards. The French bishops’ press kit about the card also does not mention abuse prevention explicitly.

All bishops and priests are affected by the new ID cards, as are permanent deacons. Both French-based clergy and those who are living in France as part of their religious mission must have an identification card.

Clergy credentials are to be verified by those who supervise a religious event or gathering, including pilgrimages or Masses.

“If the ordained minister refuses to present his card, he will not be able to celebrate,” the French bishops’ website said.

The system is operational for French bishops, who received their cards at their March plenary assembly. Data collection is underway for 13,000 priests and 3,000 deacons. Identification cards will be issued when the process is complete.

The new “celebret” document includes a QR code linked to a secure national directory. The national database may be accessed by using a phone to scan the QR Code on the identification card or by entering the clergyman’s name and personal ID number on the relevant website.

Bishop Alexandre Joly of Troyes, vice president of the Bishops’ Conference of France, explained at a May 10 press conference that when the card’s QR code is scanned, the app will show a green, yellow, or orange color based on the priest’s authorizations.

This is a nonspecific indication of whether or not the ordained minister has specific restrictions on his ministry. Out of concern for privacy, the user must enter the clergyman’s four-digit confidentiality code to display the specific details.

Authorizations or restrictions can apply to public celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, baptisms, confessions, one-on-one pastoral counseling, wedding preparation and celebration, and ability to preside at a funeral.

A lack of authorization is not necessarily due to a flaw on the clergyman’s part. Newly ordained priests are not immediately approved to hear confessions pending further training, France24 News reported.

The superiors of clergy can at times bar them from making media appearances, so the identification card will show whether the clergyman is approved to participate in programs broadcast by radio, television, or the internet.

Some restrictions appear relevant to abuse prevention. Clergy may be authorized or restricted to supervise groups of young people while alone or to be alone with a minor even in a visible space.

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Special cases of restrictions or authorizations may also be displayed.

Dioceses are responsible for updating the information for their priests, while religious superiors are responsible for updating the information for religious clergy. Information will be updated once a year, but immediately for cases of serious misconduct, Joly said.

Some clergy who have been suspended from ministry still present themselves as clergy. Worse, some suspensions have simply been forgotten.

In one scandal, the French priest Marie-Dominique Philippe was condemned by the Vatican in 1957 for complicity in sexual assaults, but he and his brother, Thomas, were still able to found or co-found several religious communities or associations, France24 reported.

Joly noted in Oest France that there is not a general habit of checking a priest’s credentials.

“I have had mine for 25 years; the first time I was asked to do so was abroad, at World Youth Day in Toronto,” he said, referring to the 2002 event.

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