Europe – Church attendance / Church and state
Posted by Fr Mark on August 8, 2010
The fate of Catholic Europe
Catholicism is hollowing out in its traditional European strongholds. But signs of intriguing new life are springing up at its periphery
From The Economist, 5.8.10:
IN THE small world of traditional French Catholicism, everybody knows about Abbé Francis Michel. For the past 23 years this small, stubborn figure in his well-worn soutane has been responsible for the cure of souls in the village of Thiberville in Normandy. The locals like his conservative style, even though his Latin services would not suit all French churchgoers. The village’s 12th-century church, and the 13 other places of worship under his care, are kept in good repair by his supporters. (These days, some priests in rural France must cope with as many as 30 churches.)
Since the start of the year Abbé Francis has been at war with the region’s bishop—in church terms, a liberal—who has been trying to close the parish and move him to other duties. Uproar ensued in January when the bishop came to mass and tried to give the priest his marching orders. Most villagers followed Abbé Francis as he strode off to another church and celebrated in the old-fashioned way. He has made two appeals to Rome, both rejected on technicalities; a third is pending.
To Father Francis’s admirers Thiberville is a pinpoint of light against a sombre background: the near-collapse of Catholicism in some of its heartlands. In the diocese of Evreux, Christianity has been part of the fabric of life for 15 centuries. Of its 600,000 inhabitants, about 400,000 might call themselves, at least loosely, Catholic. But the number of priests under the age of 70 is a mere 39, and only seven of those are under 40. That is just a bit worse than average in a country that, as recently as the 1950s, boasted 40,000 active priests; in a few years, the number under 65 will be a tenth of that. This suggests a body that is not so much shrinking as dying.
On closer inspection French Catholicism is not dead, but it is splintering to the point where the centre barely holds. The brightest flickers are on the fringes: individuals like Abbé Pierre, founder of the Emmaus movement for the homeless; “charismatics” whose style draws on Pentecostalism, and traditionalists who love Latin rites and processions. Meanwhile, the church’s relatively liberal mainstream is almost in free fall. As conservatives like Abbé Francis see it, it is largely the liberals’ own fault: “They keep selling and closing properties, while we [traditionalists] are busy building and restoring.”
Among Europe’s historically Catholic lands, France is an outlier. Its leap into modernity took the form of a secular revolution; that differs from places like Ireland or Poland, where church and modern nationhood go together. Things are different again in Bavaria or the southern Netherlands, where the church inspires local pride; or in Spain, where Catholicism is at issue in an ideological war.
But in many European places where Catholicism remained all-powerful until say, 1960, the church is losing whatever remains of its grip on society at an accelerating pace. The drop in active adherence to, and knowledge of, Christianity is a long-running and gentle trend; but the hollowing out of church structures—parishes, monasteries, schools, universities, charities—is more dramatic. That is the backdrop against which the paedophile scandal, now raging across Europe after its explosion in the United States, has to be understood. The church’s fading institutional power makes it (mercifully) easier for people who were abused by clerics to speak out; and as horrors are laid bare, the church, in many people’s eyes, grows even weaker.
A couple of decades ago Ireland defied the idea that modern societies grow secular: churches were packed. But last year, after a decade of mounting anger over clerical malpractice, the nation was stunned by two exposés of cruelty by men and women of God. First, a nine-year investigation found that thousands of children had been maltreated at church-run industrial schools and orphanages. Then a probe of the archdiocese of Dublin, over the three decades up to 2004, not only found widespread child abuse by priests but police collusion in hiding it. Five Irish bishops offered to step down; the pope has accepted three resignations and is considering the others. When a new bishop, Liam MacDaid, took office on July 25th, he presented a stark picture: “Society has forced us in the Irish church to look into the mirror, and what we saw [was] weakness and failure, victims and abuse.”
Ireland is still a churchgoing nation; about half claim to attend mass weekly, and there has been an uptick since the economy turned sour. But in a land that used to export priests and nuns to the world, vocations have dried up. In a couple of decades there could be a French-style implosion. That need not imply a collapse in Christian belief; but as one Catholic history buff puts it, rural Ireland could go back to its early medieval state, when a largely priestless folk-religion held sway. Already, popular religion—local pilgrimages, or books on Celtic prayer—does better than anything involving priests. And Ireland’s political class, once so priest-ridden, now distances itself from the clergy.
In Belgium, where Catholicism used to hold a disparate nation together, relations between church and state have been transformed in a spectacular way. On June 24th, as the country’s nine bishops were conferring at their headquarters, the building was taken over by the police. On the same day police raided the home of a retired archbishop, drilled holes in the tomb of at least one cardinal (looking for hidden papers) and took away 450 documents from the office of a church committee that was probing clerical abuse. The committee, headed by a layman, resigned in protest.
What the Belgian and Irish stories suggest is the collapse of a centuries-old order in which the church functioned as a sort of “state within a state”—administering its own affairs, and often the affairs of its flock, by a system of law and authority that ran in parallel with, and could trump, the authority of the state. Europe’s enlightenment may have put an end to the sort of formal theocracy in which popes commanded armies and kings ruled by divine right. But in a messy mixture of ways the authority of church and state has remained intertwined across Europe.
Even now quasi-theocracy dies hard. Ireland’s hierarchs have lost their grip on secondary and higher education, but primary schooling is still a church-based affair; even non-Christian youngsters are drilled in Catholic teaching. In France the Catholic hierarchy had until recently an informal place in the establishment. Nicolas Sarkozy may be the first French president who does not see the archbishop of Paris as a natural interlocutor. Mr Sarkozy, whose own roots are secular and Jewish, speaks of the church from an outsider’s distance.
As the Irish case shows, the most insidious links between church and state are often informal ones, which can leave priests and bishops virtually exempt from scrutiny. But all over Europe the child-abuse scandal has made secular powers keener to reassert their authority, and less willing to accept the Catholic church as a semi-autonomous power. In almost every country, therefore, the church is in decline as an institution—a situation in contrast to its vibrancy in Africa, Asia and much of Latin America, and the energy brought by Latinos to the church in the United States. But its decline across Europe is not uniform; in each country, the church faces a different mixture of threats and residual strengths.
Across southern Europe an intense, atavistic attachment to Catholic tradition remains, sharpened by a perceived challenge from the fast-growing Muslim neighbours. In Italy Catholicism, as a mark of cultural difference in a homogenising world, is held dear in some unlikely quarters: among atheist intellectuals, for example. As recently as 2006 a research institute, Eurispes, asserted that the share of Italians calling themselves Catholic had risen by eight percentage points over 15 years, to 88%. It also found that 37% of Catholics claimed to be regular mass-goers. Despite the decline of its flagship party, the Christian Democrats, the church has muscle; it has seen off challenges to Italy’s strict curbs on in vitro fertilisation.
But Italians are less pious than they pretend. A study of central Sicily, published this year, found that only 18% of people actually went to church, although 30% said they did. And the Eurispes study of Italy found that 66% backed liberal divorce laws and 38% supported euthanasia. Only 19% favoured abortion on demand, but 65% could accept the practice in cases of rape. Strikingly, more Catholics than non-Catholics supported cohabitation by unmarried couples. Behind supposed religious uniformity lies a range of views. “Rather than Catholicism, it is more accurate to talk about Catholicisms,” says Giuseppe Giordan, a sociologist of religion. “There are those who identify completely with the teaching of the pope, and those who dissent—both from the traditionalist and liberal viewpoints.” Among those who—paradoxically—find Pope Benedict XVI’s church a tad liberal are xenophobic groups that fear Islam: they groan at the sight of Catholic charities running halal soup-kitchens for immigrants.
Across much of traditionally Catholic Europe, there is massive dissent from the church’s teaching on morality. If the Vatican has lost credibility in this area, says Mr Giordan, it is for reasons that go beyond sex: it has failed to see that since the 1960s, there has been “a huge anthropological change in favour of…freedom of choice. People are no longer prepared to obey instructions.” The pope’s defenders—like Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano—would insist that Pope Benedict does believe in human freedom: he would prefer a small church of freely committed believers than a giant flock herded in by custom or constraint. But in many parts of Europe, critics of the Vatican feel it still tries to tilt the playing-field—by clinging on to old privileges—rather than embracing religious freedom.
In Spain the church presents all these contradictions: it is culturally very strong, and rooted in one half of a divided society. It is losing its sway over people’s behaviour but retains a loud and controversial voice. Some 28% of people in Spain call themselves practising Catholics, and another 46% non-practising Catholics; as many as 38% profess devotion to a particular saint or image of Christ or the Virgin Mary. But secularism, and a long-term backlash against the Catholic authoritarianism of the past, is on the march: 2009 was the year when town-hall weddings finally overtook those in church.
In recent weeks thousands of Spanish Catholics have joined church-backed rallies against a new, liberal abortion law, part of the ruling Socialists’ programme of radical change. In other measures, gay marriage has been legalised and religious (in effect, Catholic) education has been downgraded. Rallies in favour of the new abortion law were just as large, though, and a centre-right government would be unlikely to change it. The church can still mobilise, but it cannot impose its will.
Among the Catholic nations of Europe, Poland stands out as the only place where seminaries are full and priests abound. The percentage of churchgoers remains high, though it peaked, at 55%, in 1987. But Catholicism has no monopoly over Poland’s public square; the country played host this summer to a European gay pride march, and this year’s musical hits include a song by a famous crooner, Olga Jackowska, in which she discloses that she was abused by a priest as a child. Nor is Polish Catholicism immune from social changes; a survey of Polish priests found that 54% said they would like to have a wife and family, and 12% said they already had a stable relationship with a woman.
But for Poles Catholicism retains a huge emotional power. It is true that Polish Catholicism has a vitriolic fringe, prone to bigotry and anti-Semitism. But there are several positive traditions on which the church can draw, ranging from the efforts of John Paul II to improve relations with Jews to the tolerant nature of the 17th-century Polish Commonwealth, which had room for Protestants, Jews and Muslims. Unlike the once-mighty Latin churches at whose behest the New World was conquered, the Polish church sees itself as honourable but embattled: a defender of the nation against invasion and a comfort in its darkest days.
Poland’s tradition—or rather, some carefully selected bits of it—is one place to which the Vatican might look if it wants to shake off the habit of arrogance that has bedevilled its responses to the child-abuse scandal. It is true that most of the cases took place in the 1960s and 1970s; the culture of cronyism and impunity which made such horrors possible is now well in the past, and most of the institutions involved have been shut for decades. But many of today’s senior bishops were part of the world that tried to cover these things up. That is deeply embarrassing for the elderly men who now run the church, including the 83-year-old pontiff. And their reaction has ranged from slow to staggeringly insensitive.
As a rule of thumb, the reaction has been especially clumsy in parts of Europe (including Rome itself) where the church has recent memories of enjoying unchallenged power; and much more intelligent, and appropriately humble, in places where the church was used to fighting its own corner in a noisy democratic space.
Take the sunny Saturday in May when the Dutch diocese of Roermond, in the country’s Catholic south, commemorated 450 years of life. In deference to the public mood, the festivities were reduced in scale, and a note of repentance was added to a dignified cathedral service. A small group of child-abuse protesters rallied outside, but the impression was left of a church already working to clean its stables.
In the French city of Lyon, where St Irenaeus hammered out some of the basics of Christian doctrine 19 centuries ago, the church is downsizing in a different way. One of its best-known priests is Father Christian Delorme, an admirer of Gandhi who has been speaking out for poor Muslim immigrants since the 1970s. As pastor of two parishes near the city centre, where families of Spanish or Portuguese origin rub shoulders with North Africans, he is kept down to earth by having to conduct at least 200 funerals a year. Some of his colleagues, he says, refuse to take funerals because they feel they should be preparing their flock for the time when there are no priests available. But he officiates willingly, feeling that this is his biggest chance to meet people who are mostly unchurched. At 60, he regrets the decline of the progressive French Catholicism that flourished in his youth—and also of Christian culture in general. Businessmen he lectures to do not even know the rudiments of doctrine.
But he is too busy, and intellectually active, to wallow in gloom or pessimism. As he sees things, the regime of laicité has protected the French church from the dangers of power over the vulnerable. Catholic schools exist in France—but not the vast network of unaccountable authority that led Irish, Belgian and Bavarian priests into temptation. French Catholicism is a battered tree, but it can still sprout new and unexpected branches. In places like Italy, where the church shelters behind a high wall of culture and convention, the hardest days may still lay ahead.