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The Barely-Beating Heart Of Christendom

The faith is all but dead in Europe. America is not fated to follow -- but only if US Christians wake up

[Note: I’m moving this to the top of the queue to make sure that people who didn’t read the blog over the weekend get to see it.]

A few days ago, I blogged about a story in the Guardian concerning the stark decline of Christianity among Europeans age 16 to 29. The news comes in a new report issued jointly by the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, based at St. Mary’s University, London, and the Institut Catholique de Paris.

The report — which you can download here — is a stunner.“Christianity as a default, as a norm, is gone, and probably gone for good – or at least for the next 100 years,” said Prof. Stephen Bullivant, the report’s author, in an interview with The Guardian. An English parish vicar e-mailed me to say that he finds the “next 100 years” claim to be extravagantly optimistic. In truth, he said, we’re looking at 500 years, if ever.

The report’s findings aren’t surprising, exactly, but they are shocking. They confirm that Europe’s is a post-Christian civilization, and they make clear the stark challenges facing the churches there going forward. For American Christian readers, the report may serve as a portrait of our own civilization in the future, if we don’t take strong measures now to prevent that fate.

Prof. Bullivant, director of the BXVI Centre and author of the report, agreed to answer some questions from me via e-mail. Here is the transcript of our conversation:

RD: You say in the introduction to the report that its findings are intended to help the work of the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops, which will meet in Rome later this year. What are the facts that these Church leaders must confront?

SB: The data in the report come from the European Social Survey, the closest US analogue to which is probably the General Social Survey. We’re talking high-quality, nationally representative surveys: i.e., rigorous sampling methods, face-to-face interviews, and high response rates (far higher than typical opinion polls, for example). What that allows us to do is to get a real sense of the whole ‘big picture’. That is to say, it allows us to see the proportion of each country’s young adults who aren’t there in church, or who don’t even identify with a religion or denomination in a vague way.
At the upcoming Synod, it will be very easy for each country’s bishops to paint a picture of thriving youth ministry initiatives, and to bring along some fresh-faced young people to back that up. Such initiatives, and such people, undoutedly exist (and thank God that they do!). But they can mask the hidden realities of the vastly larger numbers – often including a big proportion of the baptized – who don’t turn up, and who quite probably never have.
There are 22 countries covered in the report. In 18 of them, fewer than 10% of all 16-29 year-olds attend religious services at least weekly. And in 12 of them, over half say that they have ‘no religion’. And these are all countries in Europe, the very heart of Christendom, where Christianity (albeit in several forms) has been reliably passed on from generation-to-generation for the best part of 2000 years. And now, in the space of just a couple of generations, that’s largely stopped in many places.

Turning to the findings in your recent report, you say that the discovery that young adults in 12 of the 21 European countries surveyed have no religion at all is likely the most significant fact of the entire study. Explain.

Religious affiliation is, in the general run of things, pretty tenacious. Lots of people who were raisedas an X, to some degree, might no longer believe very much (or any) of it, and quite possibly haven’t set foot in an X church in decades. Yet they very often still tick the “X” box on surveys, and still think of themselves as an X, even if a “bad”, “lapsed”, “cultural” one or whatever. People can remain like that for decades.
Considering yourself to have “no religion” (i.e. to be a “None”), though, suggests either that you’ve become so distant or disillusioned that you no longer even feel that weak sense of belonging, or – and I suspect this is true of most of these young adults – you never had any sense of being part of a religion to begin with.
The fact remains that “cultural” or “nominal” Christianity doesn’t get passed on to the next generation. I’d lay money on the fact that a lot of these Nones’ parents still regard themselves as Catholic or Anglican or Lutheran or whatever, even though they don’t believe in very much beyond there being a vaguely benevolent “Something” out there, and certainly don’t pray or attend church regularly. But their children, even if they were baptized and confirmed, would never have gotten a sufficient dose of Christianity at home to feel even a nominal sense of attachment. That’s not to say that they’re all thoroughgoing materialist atheists – some will be, though most won’t – but they’re a long, long way from anything resembling (in the sense you use the phrase in The Benedict Option) ‘orthodox Christianity’.

If Christianity in general is flat on its back in Europe and the UK, then it seems even clearer that Protestantism is entering rigor mortis. Why are the countries that have retained the most religious consciousness in Europe all historically Catholic? I note that France and Spain are among the most de-Christianized, and that aside from the Czech Republic, the farther East you go, the more likely you are to find religious believers.

It’s certainly true that, at least judging by the sample of countries in the report, those with prostestant national Churches of one kind or another – the Lutheran ones of Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway; Anglican in England; Presbyterian in Scotland, etc. – seem to have been hardest hit. Being an historically Catholic-majority country, while certainly no guarantee of ecclesial vitality (you mention France and Spain), at least seems to leave open the possibilty of (relative) vigour: Portugal, Poland, and Ireland are proof of that. And the Catholic minorities in some other countries, especially the Czech Republic, seem to be doing at least OK.
Why might that be? Two tentative possibilites come to mind.
The first thing to say is that the Catholic Church has resisted at least some of the endless “updating” and “moving with the times” in search of an ever-elusive “relevancy” of the national Protestant churches. I don’t mean to say that there hasn’t been any of that in the Catholic Church, or that all of it is a bad idea. But as denominations in Europe go, the Catholic Church is certainly not at the very avant-garde of doctrinal and liturgical innovation. And the simple fact remains that those churches that have most closely mirrored the (very rapidly) changing social mores of their host cultures, and have indeed made a point of doing so, have very little to show for it in terms of actual disciples. There I a great deal more that could be said on this, but I’ll leave it there.
The second is simply the prosaic fact that the Catholic communities of many countries have often benefited enormously from Catholic immigrants from more religious countries coming to work and settle there. The UK is a case in point here: 20% of our Catholics were born outside the UK, compared to only 5% of the UK population in general. Waves of immigrants either from more Catholic places in Europe (Poland, Ireland), or other parts of the world (the Philippines, Keralan India) have continually topped up the Catholic numbers. The Anglican Churches don’t quite get the same boost (though they did in the past, thanks to the Commonwealth). And, of course, if you’re the Lutheran Church of Finland, then there aren’t really any Lutheran-majority countries who are sending young jobseekers abroad to fill your pews. The same thing is true in America, of course: Latino, Vietnamese, Polish, Filipino immigrants all have have a very tangible effect on Catholic numbers.

 The real measure of religiosity, it seems to me, is whether or not people participate in the rites of their stated religion. This is where the news in your report is really bad: Portugal, Ireland, and Poland are the only European countries in which more than one in ten 16-29 year olds attend religious services regularly. If those numbers do not change, what will the religious landscape in Europe look like mid-century and beyond?

You’re absolutely right about the “real measure of religiosity” being practice. And not only does it tell you something about the real religiosity of the current generation, but it’s also the best predictor of the next generation’s religiosity too. As I mentioned above, cultural (i.e., non-practising) Christianity just doesn’t transmit.
This is what I meant when, in The Guardian article you originally quoted, I said that “Christianity as the default, as the norm, is gone” in many of these countries. Even places where, in terms of affiliation, the Christian numbers are still fairly high – Austria, say, or Lithuania – there is hardly any practice to back it up. Barring some miraculous intervention from Our Lady of Fatima or something (and I am not the sort of person to rule that out tout court), there’s no genuine reason for thinking that in 30 or 40 years time, most of those countries won’t be majority “no religion” countries. Especially as the older, and much more likely to affiliate and practice, generations die off.

Poland is a far outlier in Europe, easily its most Christian country. What are the Poles doing right? Can it be repeated elsewhere?

Well, I should preface this by saying that in all my 33 years on this planet, I’ve spent no more than three days in Poland. So I’m not the expert on Polish Catholicism you’re looking for… not that that’s going to stop me, naturally.
A few general observations. First of all, Poland was already very Catholic before the communist era, and the Church was strong enough not to be destroyed or co-opted. As such, it was able to maintain its credibility as an independent carrier of Polish religious and national identity over and against communism. John Paul II was both a product of that, but also, in turn, was able to galvanize it.
Much more speculatively, I suspect that the relative “isolation” of Poland (Lithuania too) behind the Iron Curtain, rather protected it from many of the wilder excesses of the immediate post-Vatican II era (unlike, say, Belgium or the Netherlands) in the Sixties and Seventies. That is, it was able to preserve a good deal of traditional Catholic teaching and piety – Marian devotions, the rosary, sacred images, etc. – which elsewhere were swept away, somewhat hastily in retrospect. Though that, again, is something on which a great deal more would need to be said!

Only 10 percent of young adults in the UK identify as Catholic, yet your report calls Catholicism the “dominant religious identity.” What does this mean? 

According to these new figures, 70% of UK young adults say that they have no religion – which, given that around 50% of the whole population (all ages) are also Nones isn’t terribly surprising. That leaves 10% identifying as Catholic, 7% as Anglicans, 6% as Muslims, and small percentages identifying with other Christian denominations and other world religions. So yes, among 16-29 year-olds, Catholic is the largest religious identity.
Admittedly, a good chunk of that is almost certainly due to the “immigrant boost” I mentioned above. But it’s probably not the only factor in play. Catholic identity and practice were, for example, already stronger than in the Anglican churches in the immediate postwar period – i.e., before serious decline really started to kick in. Catholic retention rates (i.e., the proportion of cradle Catholics who still identify as Catholic as adults) are also that bit stronger than Anglican ones, and much more so than, say, Methodist or Baptist ones. Though all of that is relative: according to the latest figures (I’m writing a book on the topic of Catholic disaffiliation in Britain and America at the moment, so this stuff is pretty fresh in my mind) almost half of all British cradle Catholics now no longer even identify as Catholic, and the vast majority of such ex-Catholics identify as Nones.

In terms of prayer and mass attendance, young Catholics in the UK are more devout than their counterparts in France, which, obviously, has a more Catholic culture. How do you explain that?

Again, I’m not sufficiently familiar with the French Church to offer a proper comparison. But off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of possible factors that might make the observed difference less clearcut. The first is simply that since the UK Catholic Church is smaller (and has been since the Reformation!) than the French one, then one would expect any influx of practising Catholic immigrants from outside to have a bigger overall effect on the numbers. I’ve no idea what the immigration figures from Catholic countries look like for France, but unless they’re over double the UK ones, then that’d certainly be a factor.
The other one is actually because of France having a more Catholic culture. That is, it might simply be that because France is more Catholic, then a higher proportion “keep” a weak Catholic identity, rather than simply thinking of themselves as Nones. That would, of course, have the effect of lowering the mean level of Mass-going and praying, but it’s a bit misleading.

Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to go to the margins in search of converts, but it seems to me that the center is all but dead. How realistic is his exhortation to European Catholics?

I certainly agree that it’s the center we need to focus on. Obviously, if there weren’t serious problems at the center, then there wouldn’t be nearly so many people at the peripheries. This is something I’ve been banging on about for years. In one of the Benedict XVI Centre’s previous reports, we showed how only 56% of all British cradle Catholics now even identify as Catholic, and only 17% are weekly church attenders. Without diminishing the abiding importance of both bringing new people in, and attracting old ones back, obviously the first task is to address why so many have left to begin with. Otherwise, it’s a bit like giving someone a blood transfusion without first stemming their haemorrhaging artery.

In my travels in Europe promoting The Benedict Option, I have been amazed and gratified to see young Catholics who are palpably strong in their faith, confident, happy, and really interested in the Benedict Option idea. I notice too a significant distinction between them and between older Catholics, who strike me as more timid and hesitant. I also see a real difference between young European Christians, who are really excited by the idea, and young American Christians, who may find it intriguing, but aren’t quite sure about it. Help me understand what’s going on here.

First of all, America is still a much more Christian place than most of western Europe, although the current “direction of travel” is certainly concerning. So there’s a sense in which The Benedict Option is prophetic in the US context. In lots of European places, however, young committed Christians recognize much of what you’re talking about from personal experience. Certainly, that was my immediate feeling about the book: that the ‘Benedict Option’ as a concept crystallizes and gives a handy label to something that, in lots of different ways, some big, some small, I’ve been noticing for several years.
I’ve seen it very clearly on several university campuses, around both Catholic chaplaincies and (evangelical) Christian Unions, for example. The kinds of late-teens or twenty-somethings who are going to join those in the first place are already at the more extreme end of religious spectrum (as the report’s figures amply demonstrate!). And they know it. They’ve been the “weirdly religious one”, swimming against the tide, in their peer groups, schools, even their own families, for years. And then suddenly, simply by being one of the very few students who will go to church on a Sunday, they suddenly find themselves in a group of people just like them (plus a good number of international students from countries where being overtly religious is, if not normal, then at least abnormal). And that becomes their social group, and they all encourage and challenge each other. Then you start to get some of them discerning vocations as though that were still a thing that people actually do. Some of them fall in love, get married, and take the teachings of their faith on sexual matters seriously in a way that their parents’ generation never did.
So that’s why. They don’t read The Benedict Option and think “What does this Dreher guy want us to do? Become Amish?”. They read it and say, “Hey guys, there’s this book you should read… it kinda sounds like us….”

I find that in the US, very many Christians — clerical and lay — are unwilling to recognize the massive dechristianization underway now, especially among the young. From your perspective as a sociologist and a theologian living and working in a country that is much farther along the path to dechristianization that the US is, what message do you have for American Christians?

I think the first and most important thing to say is, it doesn’t have to be like this. I think secularization, at last as a description, is about as empirically demonstrable a fact as you might wish for in Britain and plenty of other places. But I’m not convinced that it’s some inexorable, irreversible, mono-directional Law of Fate, and with only one outcome.
I’ve no doubt that American Christianity is in for a rough time in the coming decades. The proportion of Americans who identify as “nones” is – depending on which survey you use – probably somewhere between 20 and 25 percent now. That’s only going to grow, largely because most of the damage has already been done. But that doesn’t mean you can simply extrapolate to ending up with, say, Scandinavian levels of secularity after so many years. I’m forever seeing articles with claims like “if current trends continue, then X denomination will have disappeared by 2037”. Current trends never continue!

Finally, you were an atheist who converted to Catholicism in 2008. Now you are married, and raising three children in the UK. How does your personal experience, and what you have learned from your academic work as a theologian and sociologist, affect the religious upbringing of your children?

The simple fact that I’m a Catholic convert, and my wife is too (in 2010, from Anglicanism), mean that Christianity is something we take seriously. I dare say we don’t always manage to live up to that, but when we don’t, we know we don’t and regret we don’t – and arguably that’s half the battle. At the most minimal level, it means that we go to church on Sundays, and make a point of doing so. That sounds like such a small thing, and of course it is. But it’s actually the single most important thing that parents can do. The single biggest predictor of adult religiosity is family religious practice during one’s upbringing (and there’s tons of British and American data to back that up.) Just doing that, of course, is no guarantee that you’ll successfully pass the faith on to your children. But not doing it is, statistically speaking, a near-guarantee that you won’t.
There’s other things we do, of course, mostly things that a couple of generations ago was just normal stuff: prayers at bedtime, not eating meat on Fridays, and so on. Though now they almost feel like reactionarily countercultural acts.
One thing that I think is hugely important – not just for the kids, but for us as well – is to find other families who take it all seriously, and hang out with them. Some of my very best friends, for example, are committed Catholics I originally got know, somehow or other, on Facebook – friends of friends liking each other’s comments, and then eventually adding them, that sort of thing. Many of them have young families too, and so we’re constantly contriving ways to meet up with the kids (easier with other families nearish to London; harder with those in, say, Tallahassee). Very little of this is with a specifically religious motive behind it, but being the sorts of deviantly religious people that we are, it’s just there in a normal way. Those kinds of relationships are absolutely critical for sustaining adults, and bringing kids up, in a robustly religious way. For most people in previous generations, this was just normal life. These days, it can require a bit of effort and artifice to maintain.
As it happens, the above is one of the examples I used when discussing The Benedict Option at a seminar with my PhD students back in November.

This has been an interview with Prof. Stephen Bullivant, a theologian, sociologist, and director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St. Mary’s University, London. Download the recent report the Centre released in conjunction with the Institut Catholique de Paris here

Some readers may be interested to learn that The Benedict Option, winner of the 2018 Paolucci Award for conservative book of the year, will be released in paperback on April 3. The new paperback edition contains a Study Guide for group reading, to spark creative discussion about what families, churches, Christian schools, and others can do to build more resilient communities of faith. I’m hoping that the Study Guide, plus the fact that the paperback is much more affordable, will make it possible for groups to read the book together, talk about it, and come up with strategies to live the Benedict Option out in their own communities.

If you’re interested in me doing a Skype conversation with your group about the Benedict Option, please email sentinelpublicity@penguinrandomhouse.com with your name, contact info (phone/Skype) and a brief description of The Benedict Option conversations your community has been having, and we’ll sort through the responses and pick a few communities to chat with. As Prof. Bullivant says, “It doesn’t have to be like this.” We are not fated to go the way of Europe — but we are clearly headed in that direction now. The change we need is not going to come from on high. It has to start with us, locally. 



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