The French bishops’ conference is facing backlash after it unveiled a new identity card for clerics, with a scannable QR code that can convey whether a priest or deacon’s ministry is restricted.
The card uses a traffic light system, with green for a clear record, amber for restrictions not necessarily related to safeguarding, and red when a priest is no longer permitted to celebrate Mass publicly or hear confessions.
But the system has provoked criticism, with an victims-survivors advocate describing it as “one of the Catholic Church’s top three most stupid ideas.” Critics dismissed it as a gimmick that did not address the causes of abuse and questioned whether it infringed clerics’ privacy. Supporters said it would give parishes a more efficient and accurate way to check the credentials of visiting clergy.
They adopted the measure following a devastating report on abuse in the French Catholic Church from 1950 to 2020 by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (CIASE). But ID cards were not among the report’s 45 recommendations.
The bishops wanted to enhance the existing “celebret” system, under which a priest seeking to celebrate the sacraments in a new parish may be asked to show a letter from their superior attesting that they are authorized to do so. The celebret — from the Latin for “may he celebrate” — is used widely throughout the Catholic world.
The French bishops aimed to standardize the celebret document, allow parishes to view up-to-date information on restrictions, and make it harder for imposters to pose as priests.
The ID card bears the user’s date of birth, details of his ordination, an ID number, and a QR code linking to the French bishops’ website celebret.cef.fr.
The card also has a message in French, Latin, and English saying: “This card gives access to the Celebret: It can be obtained flashing the QR code or connecting to the hereabove Internet URL.”
An eight-page dossier presenting the new system explained that “by scanning the QR code, with a smartphone or a tablet, an indicator will show whether or not the cleric has specific restrictions on the exercise of his ministry, but without specifying the nature of these restrictions, in order to respect the confidentiality of this personal data.”
“To display the details of the specific rights and authorizations he has, it will be necessary to enter in addition the cleric’s 4-digit confidential code,” it said.
The dossier described the card, which is valid for a year, as “the equivalent of the press card for journalists or the professional identity card for lawyers.”
The French bishops’ conference said that the ID card offered access to three levels of information.
The first is the information written on the card. The second is the information obtained by scanning the QR code, which includes contact details and current duties, as well as general details about authorizations or restrictions on the exercise of ministry.
At the third level, only accessible via the confidential code, there are further details about authorizations and restrictions, relating not only to the celebration of the sacraments, but also to “having one-on-one pastoral conversations,” “supervising youth groups alone,” and “being alone with a minor even in a visible space,” as well as taking part in radio, television or internet broadcasts.
Speaking at a May 10 press conference, Bishop Alexandre Joly of Troyes explained that the amber color did not necessarily mean the holder posed a safeguarding threat. A recently ordained priest yet to receive the faculty to hear confessions could fall into the category.
For permanent deacons, the absence of restrictions will be indicated by a blue color, rather than the green used for priests and bishops.
While the new system is intended to replace the paper celebret, the document can be accessed in PDF format and printed, “especially for areas without network coverage.”
Clergy will be asked to present their cards to the organizers of Masses, pilgrimages, and other Catholic events in France or abroad, for example at World Youth Days.
“If the ordained minister refuses to present his card, he will not be able to celebrate,” the bishops’ conference said.
According to the website France 24, François Devaux, the former president of the abuse survivors’ group La Parole Libérée, said that the ID card was “quite an exceptional measure which, in my opinion, is one of the Catholic Church’s top three most stupid ideas.”
“If we have to scan the QR codes of clergy members to reassure Catholics, it means the Church has hit a new low. It’s nothing more than a publicity stunt, and it shows the extent to which trust has been broken between the faithful and their hierarchy,” he said.
He added: “This new ineptitude is a sign of the Church’s idleness. It has not understood the criticism it has faced, nor does it want to. In any case, the initiative is a far cry from the measures that were recommended in the CIASE report.”
Olivier Savignac, co-founder of Parler et Revivre, an organization supporting abuse victims, questioned whether “people of a certain age” who oversaw parishes would be able to operate the online system.
“We would have liked to have a file, especially about the abusers, the aggressors, as is the case in the United States, where there is a list that can be consulted at the level of the dioceses and in a public way,” he said. “In France, this is not the case.”
France 24 noted that the introduction of the cards had sparked a debate on social media about whether they infringed privacy.
Christine Pedotti, director of the weekly magazine Témoignage Chrétien, said that the ID cards were “a good idea given the current context, and should prove quite useful.”
But she added that the measure didn’t address the demands made in the CIASE report and was “a small tool that, when compared to the scale of the problem, just isn’t enough.”
French bishops received their ID cards at their March plenary assembly at Lourdes. The country’s 13,000 priests and 3,000 permanent deacons are expected to have cards by the end of the year.
Dioceses and religious congregations will be asked to update the status of all clergy annually, but immediately when restrictions are imposed on an individual.
According to the Catholic weekly Famille Chrétienne, groups of French bishops have visited Rome this year to study the handling of abuse cases.
It said that a group of 30 bishops is visiting the Vatican May 15-16, meeting with officials from the Dicastery for Bishops and the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.