Vatican II went further by opening the gates to counter reaction in the shape of the traditionalist backlash led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
And the overall result is that the Catholic Church in France is undergoing what His Holiness described as 'growing pains' when he visited that country last year.
Nowhere else in western Europe, with the possible exception of Holland, has doctrininal debate wreaked such havoc with devotional habits. Some 85 per cent of the population are baptised Catholics, but whereas twenty years ago 35 per cent claimed to be regular churchgoers the proportion has now slipped to between 12 per cent and 17 per cent (the figure has varied in different polls).
Of those who do attend Church, roughly half' are over the age of 50, and less than a fifth are under the age of 35.
Closely linked with the falloff in the number of practising Catholics is the drop in the number of ordinations.
Here again the statistics tend to fluctuate within a certain margin, but the general message is perfectly clear: whereas roughly a thousand priests a year were being ordained in the early sixties, the annual figure today is in the region of one hundred.
What is more, over two thousand priests have left the ministry altogether — many of them to marry.
Does this mean that France has become a Godless nation?
The recent Gallup Poll on social, moral and political issues in various European countries suggested that the French attitude to observance of the Ten Commandments was to say the least casual and that France today contains a high proportion of avowed atheists: but this is not the whole story. Together with the obvious decline in orthodox Christian observance under direction from Rome there has been a notable revival of religious activity at levels that do not fall into traditional categories.
Thus, in addition to the Lefebvre movement, there has been that of the worker priests and of lay preachers in villages who are critical of Rome's authority — and perhaps especially critical of the orthodoxy with which Pope John Paul II applies that authority in such matters as divorce, contraception and abortion.
Catholic Action for Women, for example, is a major pressure group in urging practical solutions to problems that for long have received answers based on theological doctrine.
The ancient image of France as 'the eldest daughter of the Church' has indeed, in this sense, taken on a new significance.
The Pope's visit to France early last summer does not appear to have brought as yet much change in a situation where — as the influential Le Monde remarked at the time — "religious Sentiment is less and less attached to Church structures. It is an extra mural faith."
To this might be added that religion has also become heavily involved with the striking of political attitudes.
The Catholic Workers' Movement has arguably shown itself as leftish on many issues as the political left-wing, but on the other hand there is also as yet no indication that the installation of a socialist President and government has lent much fuel to anticlerical movements.
Anticlericalism in France is an ancient phenomenon but the word itself became fashionable only around the 1850's.
It surfaced again in particularly active form during the 1871 Commune — when many priests were executed — and grew rapidly after the last war with a wave of opposition to Catholic schools and of atheist materialism that found further echoes after what the French. euphemistically call 'les evenements' of 1968, when revolt against authoritarianism from whatever direction was the order of the day.
The French love of contention has not however extended to a nationwide rejection of the Church and — rather as in Italy — more than half' of those who vote communist also want their children baptised, even although churchgoing has fallen off drastically the Church is still the place in which to be married or buried.
Since the separation of Church and State in 1905, which ended the teaching of religion in State schools, the faithful have been asked to give one per cent of their earnings to the parish, and as there is no central financing system throughout the country this can mean that different dioceses have very different resources.
The drift from the countryside to the towns has not been as pronounced as in some other European countries — which is why French politicians still have to worry more about the farm vote than do politicians in Britain — but less than 10 per cent of the French now cultivate the land.
The proportion was almost three times higher than that when the war ended. This in turn means that country churches have suffered financially, and that churchgoing has dropped even more than it would have done in the prevailing climate of materialism.
Nonetheless, it is possible to exaggerate the plight of the Church in France by omitting to take account of the deep historical roots which Catholicism has established for centuries in the national culture.
The Gallic passion for controversy has thrived on the fallout from Vatican II, and polarisation as between reformers and traditionalists is now very marked. And yet a poll conducted by the reputable IMP institute not long ago indicated that 49 per cent of the French thought they should conform to the Pope's views on married life, including divorce, abortion and ' conception.
If this figure is to be regarded as roughly correct, the picture of a nation of church absentees • does become toned down into that of a nationa which distinguishes betwecn theological argument and the practical business of Christian living.
And certainly there is little on the-spot evidence presented to anyone who has lived in France which could reasonably convey the idea of a nation in a state of moral collapse. Could that have been said forty years ago'?