Data exists that would seem to confirm this thesis: low-level Sunday Mass attendance, lack of vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, frequent protests in the media against the Church.
Yet this is not the conclusion of an international congress, held in the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum last Saturday on the topic "France: Witness of Hope for New Millennium."
French Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who addressed the meeting, said that France, like the contemporary world, is characterized "by a profound crisis of culture."
Despite Europe being the cradle of Christianity, there is now a "slow, silent apostasy," the cardinal lamented.
Yet he added: "France´s cultural legacy even today is a light for the new millennium in art, philosophy and faith."
Religious practice has decreased considerably over the past 40 years, but "French Catholics are much more alive, active, and are inspired by a great spirit of mission and responsibility," said Marie Nicole Boiteau.
Boiteau is coordinator of the public courses of the École Cathédrale, the formation center of the Archdiocese of Paris.
"Before the Second World War, French society was traditionally Christian, but the faith was lived passively," theologian Boiteau explained. "People were primarily concerned with obeying the rules, more than with having a direct relation with God."
"Today the message of Vatican Council II has been heard. The great majority of French Catholics have understood that they are called to a life of authentic communion with the Lord, in the most intimate sense of the term," added Boiteau, a member of the Emmanuel Community.
She pointed to some evident signs: "thirst to learn about the word of God, especially on the part of youth; rediscovery of the Holy Spirit and of one´s own filial relation with the Lord; the persons of the Trinity are no longer a mystery, but living presences with whom one can dialogue; also Mary, the Mother of God, has a fundamental importance."
Boiteau said there "is a great sensitivity for prayer and eucharistic adoration, not as mechanical gestures, but as real moments of encounter with the Lord, capable of filling the whole of life."
This vitality is also expressed in the liturgy. France is seeing a renewal of chorales and of the way of "proclaiming" prayer, she added.
"The people of God are aware they are a minority and have experienced trials, but the liturgy is celebrated joyfully, because Christians have leaned to trust the Lord implicitly," the theologian explained.
John Paul II has had a key role in this process, especially during the 1997 World Youth Day, which draw over 1 million people to the closing Mass.
"The event made France realize that the Church is alive and far from the image painted by some of an agonizing patient at the end of a necessary sociological process," Boiteau concluded.