February 3, 2006


Maintain Christian heritage

The January issue of First Things, published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, has an article by Pope Benedict XVI on “Europe and Its Discontents.” Written before he became pope, it will be in the pope’s book, Without Roots, to be published by Basic Books in February.

The pope has long had a concern about the future of Europe and for Western civilization because it has forgotten its religious heritage. Today, he writes, “Europe is infected by a strange lack of desire for the future. Children, our future, are perceived as a threat to the present . . . as a liability rather than as a source of hope. Here it is obligatory to compare today’s situation with the decline of the Roman Empire.”

He discusses two opposing diagnoses of the possible future of Europe—the “biologistic” thesis of Oswald Spengler (every culture has a birth followed by its rise, flourishing, slow decline, aging and death) and that of Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee attributed Europe’s crisis “to the abandonment of religion for the cult of technology, nationalism and militarism.”

Pope Benedict writes: “The essential problem of our times, for Europe and for the world, is that although the fallacy of the Communist economy has been recognized, its moral and religious fallacy has not been addressed. . . . The decline of a moral conscience grounded in absolute values is still our problem, and left untreated, it can lead to the self-destruction of the European conscience.”

He notes that, in Europe today, anyone who dishonors the faith of Israel or Islam “must pay a fine.” However, “when it comes to Jesus Christ and that which is sacred to Christians, freedom of speech becomes the supreme good. This case illustrates a peculiar Western self-hatred that is nothing short of pathological.”

The pope also includes the United States and its separation of church and state. He says that the United States “is characterized by a Protestant Christian consensus . . . with its sense of a special religious mission toward the rest of the world. The religious sphere thus acquires a significant weight in public affairs.”

But he also notes, “One can, of course, not hide the fact that in the United States, too, the Christian heritage is decaying at an incessant pace.”

Pope Benedict is not, of course, the only person who is concerned about the future of the West if it abandons Christianity. A new book titled The Victory of Reason by Rodney Stark tells how Christian theology led to freedom, capitalism and Western success. Stark explains why those things came about in a Christianized Western world rather than elsewhere.

Besides that discussion, though, Stark’s book also has some figures about religions in America. In 1776, he says, at least 17 different religions had congregations. Congregational Churches in New England were the largest, with 668 congregations. They were followed by the Presbyterians with 588, Baptists with 497, the Episcopal or Church of England with 495 and the Quakers with 310. There were 56 Catholic congregations.

After 1776, four of the top five (all except the Baptists) began to shrink. By 1850, the Methodists were the largest denomination in America, with a third of all Church members. Then, Stark says, the Methodists became complaisant while the Catholics and Baptists continued to grow. Today, all the mainline Churches have seen decline while evangelical Protestant groups and the Mormons are growing. Stark’s conclusion is, “Clearly, a free market religious economy favors robust, energetic organizations.”

His figures, by the way, show that Catholicism, while growing in actual numbers, had a decline of 5 percent in the number of American members per 1,000 U.S. population between 1960 and 2000. It was 233 in 1960 and 221.7 in 2000. He doesn’t say it, but we think that the Catholic Church in the days of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and other apologists for the Church was a more vigorous and competitive Church than we have today.

There seems to be no doubt that the United States is becoming a more secular society than it was in the past. It’s well for us to remember the pope’s warning that we must maintain our Christian heritage.

— John F. Fink


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