February 11, 2005


Waning of Christianity

Recent news stories about the serious weakening of Christianity in Europe are a clear warning to us here in the United States that, unless we do something to stop it, the same thing could happen here.

As we reported on the front page of our Nov. 5 issue last year, Pope John Paul II did all he could to convince the writers of the historic European Constitution that Christian values are at the base of European identity. Never­theless, there is no mention of Christianity in the new constitution.

Instead, the Church’s teachings have constantly been challenged by country after country in Europe. Our article concluded with a quotation from Spanish Prime Minister Jose Rodriguez Zapatero that the Church is promoting “certain values and certain discussions from a historical period that society has by now surpassed.”

Just how much European society has “surpassed” Catholicism can be seen by an article by Eamon Duffy, an Irishman who now teaches the history of Christianity at the University of Cam­bridge in England. He wrote about the waning of European Christianity in the Nov. 5, 2004, issue of Commonweal. He titled his article “The Mass Bells of Maremma,” a small town in Tuscany, Italy, where he and his wife have spent parts of several summers.

Few people in Maremma, he says, pay much attention to the church’s bells. The congregation this summer consisted of three elderly men, eight women and them. No children or young adults. The priest is a septuagenarian. He uses this experience as an example of the way Christianity has declined, not only in Italy but throughout Europe—even in his native Ireland.

He also tells a story about a Cambridge colleague who went to a jeweler to buy a silver cross for a goddaughter’s birthday. The salesman asked, “Would you like a plain one or the kind with the little man on it?” He found “such breathtaking disengagement from even the basics of the Christian story startling in an ancient university town.”

Ordinations in Europe, he reports, have dwindled to a trickle. In England, neither of its two seminaries outside London has more than two dozen ­students and dioceses are planning massive closures of parishes. Those that remain will have non-sacramental ministries—in a religion “that is surely nothing if not sacramental.”

A third article, by Liz Sly, appeared in the Chicago Tribune online edition. She wrote that none of the ills afflicting the modern world is causing deeper concern than “the rising tide of what Vatican officials call ‘militant secularism’ washing over Europe.”

She, too, refers to the omission of any mention of Christianity in the European Constitution. She reports that the pope expressed his regret about the constitution to worshipers at a Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square. “Taking into account the Christian roots of the European continent remains fundamental for the future development of the [European] union,” he said.

Sly also quotes Archbishop John Foley, who heads the Pontifical Council for Social Communications: “There’s this militant secularism, a denial of spirituality, of the destiny of the human person, and it’s a great concern. A number of Muslim countries are closer to us on these issues than some of the European countries.”

Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent for Italy’s La Repubblica, agrees. He said, “The fact is that the Church in Europe represents a minority view. So many countries and most public opinion simply don’t support the stance of the Catholic Church any longer.”

Sly writes that the Vatican is trying to fight back. One example of that, she says, is a newly published Vatican-endorsed sex manual called It’s a Sin Not to Do It, which encourages married couples to have more sex.

We’re not sure that that’s the best way to fight back. But the fact is that secularism appears to have won over Europeans. It appears to be winning here, too, as our entertainment media continually preach secularism.

The results of our recent election show that many Americans are deeply concerned about that. We hope that somehow that concern can be translated into the necessary steps to slow down the decline in the influence of Christian principles so that our society doesn’t reach the depths to which Europe has sunk.

— Jack Fink

(Jack Fink is the editor emeritus of The Criterion)


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