Europe’s Crisis of Faith


Less than an hour’s train ride outside Glasgow, Scotland, stands a moldering monument to the troubled state of European Christianity. Bordered by suburban villas and a golf course and surrounded by fences, this cluster of massive buildings could pass for a Mayan temple or even for Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu. But it’s neither. The decaying structures are what remains of St. Peter’s College, consecrated in 1966 as the seminary of the Glasgow Catholic archdiocese and abandoned in 1980 for lack of students.

The buildings are considered of architectural interest as examples of the influence exerted by the celebrated architect Le Corbusier and, as such, are on an international register of important buildings thought to be at risk. Whatever the future holds for the remains of St. Peter’s College, however, one thing already is abundantly clear: Here is silent but eloquent testimony to high hopes disappointed, great expectations come to naught—and to the worrisome state of Catholicism in Europe today. (The former Glasgow seminary is hardly alone, by the way. Many other European seminaries also have closed. The former seminary of the Aberdeen, Scotland, diocese is being converted into a luxury hotel.)

St. Peter’s College was designed and built in the heady years of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Church leaders supposed that renewal and growth lay ahead. But history has proved them wrong. The experience of the Catholic Church and most other Christian bodies in most of Europe—as well as much of North America—has mostly been decline. Many see this as part of a larger phenomenon: the decline of Europe itself. But what caused the collapse? And what, if anything, can be done to reverse it?

Pope Benedict’s Answer

Like his predecessor, John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI is deeply concerned with these questions. Both before and since becoming pope, he has spoken and written about the crisis of Europe—and of the Church there—many times. One of his most hard-hitting analyses was contained in a talk last March 24 in Rome to participants in a congress organized by European bishops’ conferences for the 50th anniversary of the first formal steps toward creation of today’s 27-nation European Union.

"While contemporary Europe’s ambition is to establish itself as a community of values," Pope Benedict remarked, "it seems to be increasingly disputing that they are universal and absolute . . . If the European Union is to effectively guarantee the state of rights and effectively uphold universal values, it must clearly recognize the undeniable existence of a stable and permanent human nature, the source of right common to all individuals" (L’Osservatore Romano , April 4, 2007).

As a matter of historical fact, this insight into the grounding of human rights is traceable largely to the religious belief that all people are creatures and children of God. Yet in today’s secularized Europe, Benedict observed, the religious voice is often ignored and even stifled, and Christians are denied "the very right to intervene as such in the public debate."

Earlier, in his famous, controversial address on September 12, 2006, at the University of Regensburg in Germany, the Pope laid down a challenge to Europe’s secular intellectuals to join in seeking a new rapprochement between reason and faith in order to address growing threats to human dignity and rights. "We will succeed in doing so only if reason and faith come together in a new way, if we can overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable, and if we once more disclose its vast horizons," he said (L’Osservatore Romano, September 20, 2006).

Benedict’s Regensburg speech also was a reminder that the crisis of Europe and European Christianity has another side—the rise of Islam. The "Islamization" of Europe is sometimes called an even greater threat to Christianity than secularization. Whether that is or isn’t a correct reading of the situation, it’s essential to keep separate the two things—secularization and Islam—in attempting to understand the religious situation in Europe now.

An Anti-Patron for Europe?

The subject of patron saints offers an entry point for reflecting on Europe’s religious plight. The old continent is richly blessed with patrons—no less than six: St. Benedict, sixth-century founder of Western monasticism; Sts. Cyril and Methodius, ninth-century apostles of the Slavs; St. Catherine of Siena, 14th-century mystic and counselor of popes; St. Bridget of Sweden, 14th-century mystic and religious founder; St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), philosopher and Jewish convert who died at Auschwitz in 1942.

In light of what’s been happening lately, you could make a case that someone else now deserves recognition as a kind of European anti-patron—someone whose baleful influence helped produce the spiritual hollowing-out now so visible in much of Europe. In that case, serious consideration should go to a German professor of philology whose books were little known during much of his lifetime and who died insane, apparently as a result of syphilis: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche’s nihilistic rants proclaiming the death of God have proved to be, says a sober historian of Western thought, a "potent wine" that muddled the thinking of countless people—including, it seems, the shapers of Nazi ideology—in the last hundred years (Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, 7:II:164).

Nietzsche was bitterly hostile to Christianity. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886), he wrote: "The Christian faith from the beginning, is sacrifice: the sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of spirit; it is at the same time subjection, self-derision, and self-mutilation" (34). Yet Nietzsche was capable of astonishingly prescient insights into the depths of meaningless to which his nihilism led. "To sacrifice God for nothingness—this paradoxical mystery of the ultimate cruelty has been reserved for the rising generation," he wrote (Beyond Good and Evil, 39).

There’s little chance that Pope Benedict will name Nietzsche Europe’s anti-patron, but he would see the point of the idea. In his best-selling Jesus of Nazareth, he observes that Nietzsche found in the Sermon on the Mount "a religion of resentment . . . the envy of the cowardly and incompetent, who are unequal to life’s demands"; and much of that Nietzschean critique has today "found its way into the modern mindset and . . . shapes how our contemporaries feel about life" (97).

Demographic Winter

Were Nietzsche alive today, it seems certain that, barring some improbable change of heart, he would be delighted at many of the things now taking place. Population numbers alone would warm his heart.

Consider. The replacement rate required for a population to remain stable, neither rising nor falling, is 2.1 children per woman. (As it happens, that’s the rate now in the United States.) Italy’s rate is 1.2; in Spain it’s 1.15. Other Western European countries have comparably low numbers. As birthrate goes down, the median age naturally goes up. Nineteen out of 20 of the oldest countries in the world are already in Europe, and by 2030 one person in four in the European Union will be age 65 older, with chances good it will be one in two by the year 2050. In that time, Germany alone will have lost the equivalent of the population of the former East Germany. With good reason people now speak of Europe’s "demographic winter."

The aging of Europe puts obvious strains on the economy. For example: how to continue providing expensive social benefits like health care and pensions? "Europe as we know it is going out of business," says economist Robert J. Samuelson. "It’s hard to be a great power if your population’s shriveling" ("The End of Europe," The Washington Post, June 15, 2005). Pope Benedict sees even more dire possibilities. "Europe seems to be walking a path that could lead her to disappear from history," he told the Rome conferees in March.

Beyond demographics and economics, much the same picture exists in the religious sphere. Weekly church attendance in Western Europe as a whole is now about 5 percent. Though Protestantism has been harder hit—and for longer—the problem exists even in traditionally Catholic countries. In Austria, to take one instance, 78 percent of the population is nominally Catholic, but fewer than 15 percent of the people of Vienna go to Mass with any regularity. Priestly and religious vocations have suffered a dramatic drop. The state of religious knowledge is generally abysmal. A recent poll in Ireland found that only 5 percent of the young people aged 15 to 24 could say what the First Commandment was, only a third knew what the Church celebrates at Easter, and only half could name the four Gospels.

These developments have political consequences. As Pope Benedict pointed out, militant secularists increasingly challenge the right of Christian believers to have a voice in the public decision-making process. In a tussle fraught with symbolic meaning, leaders of the European Union a few years ago repelled repeated Church appeals for a reference to Europe’s Christian roots in the European constitution—although the Enlightenment received glowing mention there. Currently the constitution is stalled, but not because of any backlash against secularism.

Aggressive atheism also is on the rise, visible in the recent publication (as in the United States) of a number of highly publicized books making the case for non-belief. The Washington Post in a front-page article attributes the rise of the new atheism to reaction against Islamic terrorism and the political activism of Christian fundamentalists ("In Europe and U.S., Nonbelievers Are Increasingly Vocal," September 15, 2007). Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., also includes among the causes the emergence of a militantly antireligious neo-Darwinism. "The new atheists are writing with the enthusiasm of evangelists," he remarks ("God and Evolution," First Things, October 2007).

Europe and Islam

Nietzsche would be pleased. But not even he anticipated—and, given his atheism and dislike of religion generally, he would not have welcomed—another striking fact about today’s Europe: the growing presence of Islam in countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain. As much as 10 percent of the French population now is Muslim, while the figure for all of Europe is about 5 percent.

These numbers are not so large in themselves—not yet anyway—but they are on the way up due to immigration and high birthrates. Unlike Europe’s Christians and secularists, these largely unassimilated newcomers have big families. Low birthrates among old-stock Europeans and high birthrates among the Muslims point to a predictable result. "Current trends show that Europe will have a Muslim majority by the end of the twenty-first century at the latest," declares Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis (qtd. in Richard John Neuhaus, "The Much Exaggerated Death of Europe," First Things, May 2007). That may or may not be correct, but it is certainly true that European Muslims, already numerous, will be far more numerous in years to come.

This circumstance has spawned doomsday scenarios. In a much-cited image, Catholic writer George Weigel offers the nightmare vision of a Europe where "the muezzin summons the faithful to prayer from the central loggia of St. Peter’s in Rome, while Notre Dame has been transformed into Hagia Sophia on the Seine—a great Christian church become an Islamic museum" (The Cube and the Cathedral, 156). Extreme as it is, this nevertheless underlines a fundamental question: how to preserve a vibrant Christianity in Europe at a time when opposed forces—secularism and Islam, both militant—are on the way up?

A Case for Christianity

Part of the challenge lies in making a persuasive contemporary case for Christianity—a new apologetics, as it were. Some of the best Christian minds in Europe, including Pope John XXIII and Pope Benedict, have devoted much time and attention to this need. (Benedict’s Regensburg address is just one example.) Others have done the same, with Weigel and Rodney Stark among the representative figures of this group.

Weigel founds his apologia on the idea that Christianity is essential to the "democratic project," and European democracies therefore shunt it aside at their own risk (The Cube and the Cathedral, 157-62). This is hardly a trivial consideration, yet it’s unlikely to impress many convinced secularists, who consider the rise of democracy to be grounded in Enlightenment values. And although the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies are today committed defenders of democracy, that hasn’t always been the case. As recently as the 19th century, the papacy routinely inveighed against secular democratic movements then sweeping the continent. There was a reason, of course—those movements often were anticlerical and anti-Catholic—but the memory lingers on.

More fundamentally, to base the case for Christianity on usefulness to the democratic project comes close to instrumentalizing Christianity by turning it into something uncomfortably close to civil religion. Christianity itself has embraced this role before—in the later Roman Empire, for instance, or in pre-Revolutionary France—and it sometimes has paid a heavy price for doing so. Christianity betrays its own high calling in becoming so identified with a particular political ideology or regime that its ability to judge it in light of the gospel is compromised.

Something similar can be said of Rodney Stark, a social scientist at Baylor University who has written a series of books defending the social value of Christianity. The subtitle of the latest tells the story: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. Stark’s thesis is that Christian commitment to rational theology has been the fundamental source of the astonishing achievements of Europe and the West in the last two millennia by providing support for the idea that human beings can learn about God and the human condition and move ahead on that basis.

Stark, like Weigel, may also be correct. As a social scientist, though, he takes no position on the truth claims of Christianity but only contends that in humanistic terms it has been the driving force behind Western culture’s stunning success. Even if true, not everyone would concede the relevance of that to the current scene. But even if relevant, it has no real bearing on whether Christianity is true.

St. Paul’s Mistake

At this point, something comes to mind that Archbishop Fulton Sheen pointed out to the American bishops at one of their general meetings over 30 years ago. The question was why so many then-current efforts to spread the faith seemed not to work very well. In attempting to answer that, Archbishop Sheen cited St. Paul’s experience at the Areopagus in Athens as it is recounted in the Acts of the Apostles.

In this cosmopolitan and sophisticated setting, it seems, Paul chose to adopt a philosophical approach to evangelization.

He began by commending the Athenians for their high degree of religiosity, as manifested in the presence in their city of a public altar dedicated "To the Unknown God." It is precisely this unknown deity, Paul explained, about whom he had come to tell them. This is the God who has created all things, including the human race, and it is in this God that "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). There is no longer any excuse for ignorance of him, for he has sent his herald—Jesus Christ—into the world and certified the authenticity of Jesus’ message "by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:31).

Clearly, this was an ingenious discourse, but the Athenians weren’t impressed. A few became believers, most did not. The idea of resurrection from the dead alienated them and caused them to "sneer" (Acts 17:32). Disappointed by this reaction, Paul soon moved on to Corinth.

What was the master-evangelist’s mistake that day in Athens? Archbishop Sheen was happy to explain: The Apostle to the Gentiles spoke of Christ, but—departing from his usual procedure—he left out the cross. And Christ without the cross doesn’t make sense. This may or may not have been a sound analysis of the Areopagus discourse, but it made a point that Paul also made in his first letter to those Corinthians to whom he’d gone after his setback in Athens: "And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with pretentious speech of wisdom . . . I determined not to know anything among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:1-2).

Is there a lesson here for people who today.aspire to bring Europe back to the faith? Speaking of a citywide mission conducted in Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, O.P., says: "What we did was to propose the gospel. The fascinating thing is that it really touches; it really moves people. If we don’t announce the gospel, we miss the point of our vocation, our purpose, our duty" (Inside the Vatican, June/July 2007, 36-7). The democratic project and capitalism with a human face are desirable, but they aren’t the good news.

Emphasizing the need for the spiritual renewal of European Christianity is hardly new. From the start, in fact, Christianity has often appeared to be on the point of expiring and in need of being renewed. In the 1930s Georges Bernanos, author of The Diary of a Country Priest, wrote a disturbing novel (published in 1943 as Monsieur Ouine) that he at first intended to call The Dead Parish. Located in a decaying village in remote rural France, the parish in question is a metaphor representing the Church in Europe. "There are still many parishes in the world," its ineffectual curé says. "But this one is dead" (Monsieur Ouine, 196).

The Signs of Hope

Bernanos took an exceptionally bleak view. So do some people today. Yet alongside signs of crisis in contemporary European Christianity stand signs of hope.

Faith and religious practice have declined, but there are still many millions of believing, practicing, committed European Christians.

Priestly and religious vocations are off sharply, but men and women continue to dedicate themselves to Christ’s service in the priesthood and consecrated life.

New, mainly lay groups and movements—Opus Dei, Focolare, the Neo-Catechumenate, Communion and Liberation, and others—have stepped forward as sources of vigorous apostolic activism.

Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict have given the Catholic Church creative leadership for the last three decades.

Poland and a few other places continue to embody the Catholic culture that has largely disappeared in much of the rest of the continent. As of November 2006, the Mass attendance rate in Poland was almost 46 percent. Polish priests currently are fanning out to other regions of the world much as the Irish did a century ago.

Pilgrimages are booming to traditional sites like Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, and Czestochowa.

All this has moved observers of religion like Philip Jenkins to suggest that the future of Christianity in Europe may take the form of fewer but better. "The sharper the pruning, the stronger the growth," Jenkins writes, citing encouraging signs like those mentioned above (God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis, 69). The faith has been saved before in Europe by its saints—think of St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Peter Canisius, St. John Vianney, St. Therese of Lisieux. And now? "I’ll tell you a secret, an open secret: These world crises are crises of saints," the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva, once wrote (The Way, 301).

Clearly, though, the puzzle has at least one more necessary piece—the cross. In his high-spirited journal of a one-man pilgrimage, The Path to Rome, originally published in 1902, Hilaire Belloc gave this version of what brings people back to the faith: "I think it is the problem of living; for every day, every experience of evil, demands a solution. That solution is provided by the memory of the great scheme which at last we remember."

But this solution, Belloc also pointed out, brings difficulties of its own. "We who return suffer hard things, for there grows a gulf between us and many companions. We are perpetually thrust into minorities, and the world almost begins to talk a strange language" (The Path to Rome, 102).

Nietzsche notwithstanding, the faith will survive in Europe. But not without pain—the pain of the cross.


Russell Shaw is the former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., and author of 20 books.

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 2.