FRANCE: Vatican vs France on religious liberty

The Holy See reminded France that when civil courts second-guess the decision of expelling a nun from her religious order (Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit), freedom of religion is “gravely violated.”

by Massimo Introvigne

Bitter Winter (19.04.2024) – If some believe that the attack against religious liberty in France only targets “cults” and Islam, they are wrong. On April 13, a religious organization in an official statement lamented that it is a victim in France of “a serious violation of the fundamental rights to religious freedom and freedom of association.” The name of this religious organization is the Roman Catholic Church, and the statement came from the Holy See Press Office.

In short, a religious order called the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit asked the Vatican to investigate the behavior of one of its nuns, Sabine de la Valette, who had taken the religious name of Sister Marie Ferréol. As usual in these cases, the Vatican ordered an apostolic visitation of the convent, under the authority of Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Following the visitation’s report, the Vatican decided in 2020 that Sister Marie should be dismissed from the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit.

Unhappy with the decision, Sister Marie sued and asked the Tribunal of Lorient to declare that she had been wrongfully dismissed from her order. On April 3, the Tribunal found in favor of the ex-nun and ordered the religious order, Cardinal Ouellet, and the two Vatican envoys who conducted the apostolic visitation to pay more than Euro 200,000 to her as damages. According to media reports, the Tribunal found the visitation biased as Cardinal Ouellet was “friendly” with another nun known as an opponent of Sister Marie.

On April 13, the Vatican stated that it had learned of the case only from the media, Cardinal Ouellet “never received any summons from the Lorient Tribunal,” and neither the Cardinal nor the Holy See have been served with a copy of the verdict.

Assuming that what the media reported about the decision is true, the Vatican stated that what it still calls an “alleged” ruling (since it has not seen an official copy of it) “could raise not only significant issues concerning immunity, but if it ruled on internal discipline and membership in a religious institute, it might have constituted a serious violation of the fundamental rights to religious freedom and freedom of association of Catholic faithful.”

The Vatican is, of course, right. The decision has been appealed and may well go to Strasbourg to be examined by the European Court of Human Rights. The latter, as did courts in the United States and Canada, has constantly ruled that the decisions of expelling members from a religious body are based on theological and not only on legal reasons, on which secular courts cannot interfere without seriously violating religious liberty—just as the Vatican said. But it seeems that violating religious liberty is now a daily occurrence in France.


Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio.  From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.

Further reading about FORB in France on HRWF website