Churches on wane in Europe

Bishops, gathered in Rome, want to stem a secular tide. But faith itself holds strong.

Could it be, as Christians around the globe prepare to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' birth, that in Europe, the hearth of Christian civilization, the embers are dying?

Europe's Roman Catholic bishops wrapped up a three-week synod in Rome on Saturday proclaiming their hope of warding off such a prospect. But they pointed to "the serious indifference to religion of so many Europeans ... the secularism which poisons a large section of Christians" as a dangerous sign. "There is a great risk of de-Christianization and paganization of the Continent" that "puts the cultural identity of Europe in jeopardy," warned the synod's working paper.

But while major Christian churches may be on the decline, few theologians or religious observers share the fear that Europe's millennial cultural values are seriously threatened.

"Cultural memories and patterns of living are so deeply embedded, it will be a long time before we find ourselves in a post-Christian Europe," says Grace Davie, a sociologist of religion at Exeter University in England.

"Institutional religiosity is on the decline, but personal religiosity is not in danger," adds Loek Halman, a Dutch scholar who runs Europe-wide studies of personal values. "People who leave their churches still go on searching for meaning. They may not be willing to accept traditional Christian beliefs, but that does not make them unbelievers."

Certainly the signs are not encouraging for the major Christian churches in Europe, which have seen their congregations and their priestly ranks shrink over the past half century.

Church attendance is still high in traditional Catholic countries such as Ireland and Italy, where nearly half the adult population goes to church at least once a month. But in countries like France, Belgium, and Germany, less than 10 percent of young people attend church regularly, and there is not a major city in northwestern Europe where even half the newborns are baptized. That prompted the bishops to end their meeting with a call "to undertake with great zeal and urgency the task of the new evangelization" - missionary work on the Continent from which missionaries once spread worldwide.

Tolerance for other views

But in a multicultural Europe, where "it is less and less possible to base pastoral programs on a presumed acceptance of a generally shared Christianity," as the bishops acknowledged, where Islam is on the rise, having outstripped Judaism as the second-largest European religion, and where tolerance of other people's views is a prime modern value, missionary work is not easy. "The real issue is how you evangelize a secularized Europe in pluralistic societies while still showing respect for other people's opinions," says the Rev. Jan Kerkhoss, a Jesuit priest and emeritus professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium. "If the churches try to impose things, well, that's not the way our societies work any more," agrees Dr. Halman. "People won't accept being told what to do."

But if the churches' formal influence over people is falling off, the imprint of Christianity's 1,000 years as a central element in Europe's identity is still strongly felt. For a start, only 4 percent of Europeans describe themselves as atheists. And while fewer and fewer people now proclaim a belief in core Christian credos, such as a personal God or the resurrection, Christian ethics still rule most people's morality.

In Holland, for example, which has the lowest proportion of church members in Europe, "the social and moral side of Christianity is maintained outside the churches, and outside belief," points out. Meerten Terborg, a theologian at the University of Leyden in Holland. "Sixty percent of the Dutch have said goodbye to the church, but they still give enormous sums of money to charities. They still show the human feeling of pity that is Christian in origin."

"I am optimistic," says Fr. Kerkhoss. "The French Doctors [Without Borders], the Red Cross, the peace movement, human rights groups - they all started in Europe."

Secular vs. 'permissive' society

The Catholic church is especially worried about changing morality in the field of human and family life, continuing to oppose divorce, contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. Catholic countries in southern Europe have changed their social legislation on such issues least or last. It is more than a coincidence, say religious analysts, that Holland, where church membership is the lowest in Europe, is also the only country on the Continent so far to have legalized euthanasia.

But the picture is more complex, argues Halman, drawing on the answers to questionnaires on their values and beliefs that Europeans have been filling out every 10 years since 1981. There is no clear match, he says, between "permissiveness" in social and sexual matters and secularization. Britain, Germany, Holland, and Belgium, which are the most "permissive" European countries in terms of their acceptance of homosexuality, abortion, prostitution, and euthanasia, are not as secular as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, or France.

At the same time, Europeans are more conservative than is often thought. When "permissive" behavior is judged on a 10 point scale, from "never justified" to "always justified," not even the "let it all hang out" Dutch rate above the midpoint.

But however resilient Christian values are proving to be in everyday European life, "the problem is that the links between these values and Christianity are growing looser," worries Kerkhoss. "People are sticking to the values, but they don't see that they come from Christianity."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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