The Economist, Catholicism, and Europe
Religion & Liberty Online

The Economist, Catholicism, and Europe

When it comes to the sophistication of its coverage of religious affairs, the Economist is better than most other British publications (admittedly not a high standard) which generally insist on trying to read religion through an ideologically-secularist lens. Normally the Economist tries to present religion as a slightly more complex matter than “stick-in-the-mud-conservatives”-versus-“open-minded-enlightened-progressivists”, though it usually slips in one of the usual secularist bromides, as if to reassure its audiences that it’s keeping a critical distance.

A good example of this is a recent Economist article on Catholicism’s hollowing-out in Europe. The piece is worth reading, even if it does get a great deal wrong. The article’s basic thesis is that much of Catholicism in Europe is dying while signs of new life are simultaneously growing in other parts of European Catholicism.

Insofar as it goes, that’s a broadly accurate analysis. It’s complicated, as the Economist notes, by factors such as the resurgence of Catholic activism in countries like Spain to combat a hyper-leftist secularist government’s social agenda, the varying nature of the official links between the state and the Catholic Church in different European countries, and the widespread disgust at the utterly inadequate response of so many European Catholic bishops to the sexual abuse problem.

But what the Economist doesn’t say (though the evidence is there in its own article) is that what we are witnessing is the collapse of “liberal” or “progressivist” Catholicism. The phrase “liberal Catholicism” can mean many things, not least because of the sheer number of often-diametrically opposed positions associated with the word “liberal”. But for our purposes we are talking about the policy of gradual accommodation to secularist expectations, and then, inevitably, subservience to secularism.

This was the approach adopted by mainline Protestantism (which today includes most of Anglicanism in the developed world) in Europe after World War II. And for them, it has proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Catholics account for less than 10 percent of England’s population, for instance, yet they far outnumber Anglicans when it comes to Sunday observance in a country where perhaps 60 percent of the population still calls itself Anglican. Mainline Protestant churches throughout Europe are, to use a medical term, terminal.

In the heady days after Vatican II, however, large numbers of West European Catholic bishops, clergy, theologians and laity really believed that the 1960s progressivist agenda was the future. Unfortunately, like all forms of liberal Christianity, “progressivist” Catholicism carried the seeds of its own destruction. Sociologically-speaking, it’s hard to deny that those forms of Christianity that (a) demand nothing from its adherents in terms of belief beyond an emphasis on tolerance, diversity, and endless dialogue-for-the-sake-of-dialogue; (b) dilute dogma and doctrine to the point of meaninglessness; (c) that become yet another means of self-affirmation in a culture full of self-affirmation; (d) embrace post-1960s sexual morality; (e) essentially anathematize anyone who doesn’t more-or-less adhere to secular left-liberal political, social, and economic positions, eventually self-destruct.

The reason is simple: no-one needs to be a Christian to hold these views. The actual content of orthodox Christianity is, in fact, opposed to all these positions. Hence, no-one should be surprised that most who embrace these views sooner or later eventually marginalize their Christianity to the point of irrelevance to their daily lives or simply drift away altogether. The odds of them raising their children – assuming they actually have any – in the Christian faith are remote at best.

Of course, the documents of Vatican II provided no warrant for Catholics to follow such a path (that’s why the dwindling band of progressivists talks endlessly about “the spirit” of Vatican II). Yet that didn’t deter a good number of West European Catholics from doing so. Today, we are witnessing the fruits of such choices throughout much of Europe. Everywhere the “liberal” agenda was adopted, a collapse in Christian belief and practice has been the result. It is hard to find exceptions to that rule.

Beyond this, however, there are three other important factors the Economist missed in its analysis of European Catholicism.

The first is the impact of urbanization in continental Europe from the 1950s onwards. As the current archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Andre Vingt-Trois, observes in his excellent book, Une mission de liberté (2010), Catholicism was woven into the very fabric of rural France (and other traditionally Catholic rural areas in Europe). With the mass shift of population to urban areas after World War II, that world came to an end, and, with it, a type of mass Catholicism. The Church struggled to adapt to this population shift. Some of its attempts to do so – like the “worker-priest” experiments of the 1950s – were an abject failure and ended with flirtations with the dead-end of Marxism.

The second is the impact of the church-tax in countries such as Germany and Austria. While it permits the Catholic Church in these nations to perform all sorts of social activities on a mass scale, the same tax also diminishes the direct link between Catholics and church activities. Voluntary church activity and direct financial giving in these countries has been supplanted by a host of lay bureaucrats, many of whom sit rather loosely towards Catholic belief and essentially see themselves as deliverers of social services on behalf of the state.

The third data-point is that where Catholic bishops have promoted a “dynamic orthodoxy”, the Church in Western Europe has held its own. A good example of this is the archdiocese of Paris. Yes, that’s right—Paris, the home of the French Revolution. If you visit Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on a Sunday evening, you will likely find it packed for evening Mass. The congregation typically consists of people of all ages and backgrounds.

Under the leadership of the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger and his successor Cardinal Vingt-Trois, the archdiocese of Paris has slowly emerged as a success story of post-Vatican II Catholicism. It has many vocations to the priesthood. It also has an active laity that is engaged with the world without being subservient to the expectations of secular culture. This “dynamic orthodoxy” has not involved retreating into a Catholic ghetto or yearning for an imaginary, idyllic 1950s in which a lot of social conformity often masqueraded as authentic belief and practice in much European and American Catholicism. Nor has it meant dumbing-down the faith to make it more “relevant” or “cool.” Instead, it has meant learning, living and teaching the fullness of the Catholic faith in the conditions of secular modernity. Part of the success has involved integrating many of the new Catholic movements—Emmanuel, L’Arche, Charismatic Renewal, etc—into the daily life of Catholic parishes in Paris.

To be sure, this approach hasn’t converted everyone. It could also use refinement here and there. But it is having much more measurable success than all the progressivist alternatives combined, and doesn’t involve embracing a siege-mentality. That’s no small achievement in a Western Europe where “Christophobia” and anti-Catholicism has increasingly become a cultural norm, or, as some put it, the last acceptable prejudice.

Samuel Gregg

Samuel Gregg is Distinguished Fellow in Political Economy and Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research and serves as affiliate scholar at the Acton Institute.