TOP STORY: THE CATHOLIC CHURCH: Ousted French bishop makes cyberspace his pulpit

c. 1996 Religion News Service PARIS (RNS)-He was removed from his diocese by Pope John Paul II for spouting progressive views. But one year later, Monsignor Jacques Gaillot has eluded the church by connecting with followers on the World Wide Web. Often described as the church’s first”virtual bishop,”Gaillot says he will not be denied his […]

c. 1996 Religion News Service

PARIS (RNS)-He was removed from his diocese by Pope John Paul II for spouting progressive views. But one year later, Monsignor Jacques Gaillot has eluded the church by connecting with followers on the World Wide Web.

Often described as the church’s first”virtual bishop,”Gaillot says he will not be denied his right to preach social and moral principles at odds with the conservative positions of the pope.”This is against what they wanted,”Gaillot said of the church’s attempt to muffle him.”The fact that they took away my diocese was a strategy for them to stop me from speaking.” If so, it obviously hasn’t worked.”He’s the first virtual bishop because he’s not responsible for a community,”said Morvan Boury, a magazine writer in Paris, one of many journalists who keeps tabs on the prelate.

Indeed, Gaillot’s dismissal in 1995 from his diocese in Evreux, 60 miles west of Paris, has given him the freedom to say what he wants and where he chooses. And these days, he’s busy.

He’s on the nightly news, chaining himself to a tenement with the homeless. He’s on radio, decrying civil rights abuses against political refugees. He gets more ink than Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris. Gaillot’s recent trip to the South Pacific aboard a Greenpeace vessel to protest French nuclear testing got top billing in French newspapers.

Gaillot wears an impish grin. Slight and trim at 60, dressed in a black wool sweater and gray trousers, he sits at a round table in his small studio-a double bed at one end, a new computer at the other-amid sheaves of paper and a cellular phone.

Gaillot collects $1,100 a month from his pension. In addition, a devout group of 10-most of them journalists sympathetic to his ideas-has established a fund for him to finance trips, some living expenses and the computer venture.

Dubbed the”red cleric”for his outspoken views, Gaillot smiles when asked if he promotes subversive ideas.”I’m not a militant and I’m not a radical,”he said in a soft voice.

John Paul II, a practitioner of tough discipline, apparently thought otherwise. He took the rare action of removing Gaillot from his diocese. The Frenchman had infuriated the Vatican for publicly favoring the use of condoms to fight AIDS and the French abortion pill RU-486. He also angered Rome by saying priests should be allowed to wed, as they are in many Christian denominations, and urging greater tolerance toward homosexuals.”When I was young I had very fixed ideas because that’s how I was taught to believe,”he said.”And then life taught me to measure, to live, to see what people were really living. I think I changed.” The French Bishops’ Conference also seemed to change course recently, when it held that doctors may counsel the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. But, unlike their fallen brother, who advocates condoms as a health measure to fight the disease, the bishops explicitly said on moral grounds they do not promote condoms to fight AIDS.

Last December, the pope summoned Gaillot to the Vatican for a private chat. His message was simple: Behave yourself and you can reclaim your place in the church hierarchy. Gaillot turned him down.”I don’t want to return,”he said.”What’s happened has happened. Leave the place for someone younger.” The pope replaced him with Bishop Jacques David. He’s 65.

Gaillot said he has no regrets, though he misses the people of Evreux. By his account, he is a roving ambassador, a salesman who hawks social enlightenment. He’s in hot demand.

He has planned a trip to San Sebastian, Spain, for a conference on political refugees, followed by a meeting in Brussels on immigration. After that, he’s back in Spain to”help the Basques,”the Spanish separatist movement. Two days before leaving Paris, he held one of many protests with the homeless to save a dilapidated tenement from the wrecking ball. The building was spared.

Gaillot went on line in January, on a web site cleverly called Partenia, named for the titular see in the uninhabited Sahara Desert to which he was assigned by the Vatican after he was forced to withdraw from Evreux.”It wasn’t my idea,”he said of the on-line diocese.”It was friends who work with computers who advised me to use computers to convey what I want to say.” Partenia ( is a sophisticated, bilingual web site, with appeal to French and English-speaking followers. This week, the bishop’s home page is illustrated with photos of Gaillot participating in a recent Paris demonstration protesting the deaths of 10 homeless people, who died of exposure in the harsh winter weather.

It is not without humor. There is a map locating Partenia in the barren Sahara. There are updates on Gaillot’s difficulties with his superiors; he claims they are urging him to find less controversial work.”I feel I have not been understood,”Gaillot writes, giving an account of a recent meeting with his superiors.”The Episcopal Conference gave me the choice between three posts-chaplain either in a psychiatric hospital, or in a general hospital or in a prison. I will let you know my decision at a later date.” (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

Gaillot received 290 e-mail messages during the first 10 days his virtual diocese was on line. The majority were from France, the United States and Canada. The volume since then has tapered off, but news stories in the press about him inevitably generate more mail.

Most messengers urge Gaillot to fight church teaching on moral issues. Dozens of people, most of whom he has never met, request his personal counsel, as any Catholic might seek out a priest.”I’ve always been concerned that one should spread the word far,”he said,”just like Jesus says in the Gospel to get the word out.” Of course, Jesus never used a keyboard. What’s more, Gaillot’s evangelization extends far beyond the Gospel. Last month he wrote an article in his electronic monthly newsletter that questioned U.S. and Chinese efforts to regulate the flourishing interactive computer medium.

Gaillot could have been speaking of his efforts to elude the Catholic Church when he said,”The Internet is a cultural network and it bypasses the powers in place. My feeling is that it should be allowed to evolve.” (END OPTIONAL TRIM)

Gaillot’s activism has launched another sort of debate within France over his highly visible media image. Many people admire his courage and conviction, which they say was strengthened by the classic David vs. Goliath combat between him and the pope. But some see him as self-serving.

Many people who admire Gaillot’s courage question his tactics and to some extent, his character. They suggest he abandoned the Catholics of Evreux, where he served as bishop for 13 years. They say that Gaillot is preaching to the converted when he should work to convert conservative Catholics. Perhaps the most stinging charge is that Gaillot, a darling of the media, enjoys the limelight a bit too much. “Monsignor Gaillot is an event and like all events, he will go away,”said Dominique Mange, staff director of the Catholic Movement for Women, which seeks increased representation in the French church.”I do feel at times, he should have stayed in Evreux and carried out the fight,”Mange added.”He should have used his stature to shine the light on these problems.” Even Gaillot’s detractors have kind things to say about him.”On the positive side, he has sensitized the church to things that it may not have ventured to look at,”said the Rev. Olivier De La Brosse, spokesman for the French Bishops’ Conference.”He is someone who reveals problems.” But De La Brosse faults Gaillot for having”hardened people against the church.” Boury, the journalist, said that to Gaillot’s credit,”people are very sensitive to the issues that he has raised. But the fact that you see him so often on TV doesn’t help to have a good image. I think the best thing for him would be to stay in the system, to convert people and make them understand the issues.” Gaillot acknowledged that his message might get lost amid charges that he is media hungry.”Certainly there are Catholic people who are now suspicious of me because I don’t have links with Rome,”he said.”They don’t trust me. But I’m following my path. Promoting myself is not why I do it.”


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