Christianity in Europe is in dramatic numerical decline. In the year 1948, 2,000 Frenchmen were ordained to the priesthood. Now, there are fewer than 100 per year. You can be fairly certain that of that 100, 95 will have heads buzzing with ideas that a Catholic of 50 years ago would scarcely recognise as Christian at all. A mere 4.5 per cent of the French population regularly attend Mass. This phenomenon is repeated throughout what was once Catholic Europe. Even in countries where the Faith is still entwined with nationalist self-consciousness, for example Poland, the number of ordinations has halved since the year 2000; and in Ireland, the numerical decline has been as steep as anywhere, a phenomenon accelerated both by the scandals of clerical child abuse and also by the Good Friday Agreement, which “de-confessionalised” the Irish nationalist ideal.
In Protestant Europe, the decline has been even more marked. When one considers the average age of a Church of England congregation, for example, or the age of the now largely female clergy one sees that even the Established Religion, its Supreme Governor well advanced into her nineties, has a built-in obsolescence. While Anglicanism appears to prosper in certain areas—in the cathedrals, for example, and some of the Evangelical centres, such as Holy Trinity Brompton in London—the overall picture cannot be gainsaid. In many areas of Europe the actual extinction of Christianity seems like a certainty in the quite near future, just as, in our own lifetime, we have witnessed the secularisation of society and the vanishing of the shared Christian culture, what used to be known as Christendom.
This is not to say that there will be no one in Europe in 50 years’ time who prays or attends the Eucharist. It is, however, to recognise that in the next hundred years, the majority of practising Christians will live in Asia, Africa and perhaps South America, and in its strange way, perhaps the United States; whereas Europe will be ever more secular. “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith!” proclaimed Hilaire Belloc only two generations ago, and in the intervening years, readers of T.S. Eliot—The Idea of a Christian Society—or Jacques Maritain —L’Homme et l’Etat—might have been led to hope that the forces of secularism would not necessarily triumph.
I was born in 1950 and went to a Protestant boarding school where our inspired history teacher, Warwick Hele, made us all read Christopher Dawson’s The Making of Europe (1932), a history of the Catholic European ideal, from the Rome of the Caesars to the rise of medieval unity in the time of Charlemagne. It is hard to imagine Dawson’s masterpiece being on syllabuses today, with its claim that there was a coherence in European culture even after the Reformation. “The Latin grammar took the place of the Latin Liturgy as the bond of intellectual unity, and the scholar and the gentleman took the place of the monk and the knight as the representative figures of Western culture.”
Many of Dawson’s core ideas, that Europe is of its essence Christian, and Latin Christian at that, would be offensive to the secularist majority, as well as to those who for the kindliest of motives wish the Muslims to feel at home. (But who could forget Dawson’s sublime passage, in his chapter on the rise of Islam, where he likens the Shia Muslims to the Jacobites and sees romance in their “unbroken record of undeserved misfortunes”?)
Paradoxically, today, it is the Muslims, on the whole, who keep alive what used to be Christian values in Europe—family virtue, and dread of usury. Only in the occasional papal encyclical have we seen any throwback to the sociology of Leo XIII’s De Rerum Novarum, in which it seemed plausible that Christians might help to build a just Europe in which the values of the Gospel permeated laws and mores. But even the encyclicals have not clung as firmly as Christopher Dawson would have done to the notion of Europe of its essence being Catholic. John Paul II, with his predeliction for kissing tarmac in Africa and Asia, often seemed to wash his hands of the problem. European Mass attendance during his pontificate went into freefall.
Olivier Roy, the social philosopher, has returned to the earlier theme, explored in his Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways (2010). In Is Europe Christian? he offers little comfort to those who hope for the revival of Christian Europe. “Dechristianisation never takes a step backward”, he asserts.
His analysis of what has happened is convincing. Fifty and more years ago in the West, the young began to question the fundamental values—based on family life—which the secular generality of people shared with Christianity. Little by little, these questionings turned from being the values of hippies, cranks and rebels to become enshrined into European law. Heterosexual monogamy was no longer especially regarded as an ideal, and the notion that homosexuality, abortion, or divorce, were morally wrong was simply discarded. Whereas a conventionally-minded secular agnostic 60 years ago would have agreed with a Christian that homosexuality was abnormal, or that abortion was the killing of a child, this was no longer the case.
Institutional Christianity then faced a crisis. What do you do when the majority of “intelligent” opinion has changed? Protestant Churches decided to go with the flow and to abandon all their principles. What C.S. Lewis would have called “mere Christianity” no longer satisfied, for example, a Church of England which had not merely a gay clergy, but gay clergy who wished to wed one another. The conventional doubts about the allowability of birth control, abortion, and free love, doubts were now seen as obscurantist. The only Christians who retained these doubts were conservative evangelicals and Catholics.
Roy rightly sees 1968 and the publication of the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae (which condemned the use of the contraceptive pill) as a pivotal moment. That encyclical was the last brave attempt of a Pope to be truly Contra Mundum, and remind the world that Christianity and common sense values are almost always at variance. Roy also rightly sees that for many Catholics, following the Second Vatican Council, there has been a Gadarene rush to espouse what are essentially secular values, (feminism for example). He concentrates more on questions of sexual morality than on the general question of what would make possible a return to a Christian society. He therefore says nothing about usury, which is a pity. If Dante read Roy’s book, he would surely suggest that the scandals surrounding the Banco Ambrosiano, in which Archbishop Marcinkus, abetted by John Paul II, were involved in Mafia-style skulduggery on a murderous scale (witness the corpse of Roberto Calvi, found hanging under Blackfriar’s Bridge in London in June 1982) were of greater significance than the fact that some Catholics practise birth control. The journalist Auberon Waugh, at the time of John Paul II’s visit to Britain that year, was the only Catholic journalist brave enough to suggest that the Pope should be arrested at the airport for complicity in the murder. Dante would indubitably have agreed. Apart from the murder, usury itself is a mortal sin in which Marcinkus revelled, eluding arrest for murder and fraud because the saintly pontiff refused to allow his extradition from the Vatican.
The point is a serious one. Usury is persistently forbidden by scripture, as by the tradition of the Church. The ways in which the Church as an institution, and Christian Europe, as a whole, came to terms with this, have varied, and there has no doubt been much hypocrisy over 2,000 years. Papal encyclicals, however, until our own times, have been consistently anti-usury. That is, anti- not merely the way that banks operate, but anti- the entire economic system on which the Western world, since the invention of modern capitalism in the City of London in 1694, is founded. The Popes since the early 19th century have also been anti-technological, anti-so-called-progress and anti what is known as democratic. It was good to be reminded in Olivier Roy’s book that the encyclical Non expedit (1868) forbade Catholics to vote in Italian elections, a ban only lifted in 1919. A similar ban from Pope Francis, forbidding all European Catholics, on pain of excommunication, to take part in all the spurious electoral processes and referendums on offer today, would be a useful backward step towards what Eliot would have called a Christian Society. If no Christians voted, we should at least be clear that none of the political options on offer are even faintly compatible with Christianity, as the brave leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, conceded at the end of the last general election in Britain. His resignation signalled that it was no longer “acceptable”, that adjective so beloved of liberal prigs, for a modern European politician to espouse traditional Christian values vis-à-vis homosexuality.
Roy begins his book with the reminder that of the four founding fathers of what became the modern European Union, three—Robert Schuman of France, Alcide De Gasperi of Italy and Konrad Adenauer of Germany were devout Catholics. (Not Jean Monnet of France.) Yet the post-Vatican II Church, in conjunction with the modern European Union, have created a climate tolerant of economic liberalism, based on usury and sexual license. Every now and again, in the sexual department, the Church seems to realise what it has done, and a bewildered pope, as it were, comes up for air and condemns some aspect of the sexual revolution (same-sex marriage, or gender fluidity), but, on the whole, the secularisation of Christian values, at the very heart of the Church, has been relentless. It is hardly surprising if society has responded by not going to church.
Two thousand years ago, a man walked the earth who was believed by His followers to be the Word of God made flesh. They told of His resurrection from the dead, a belief which, from the beginning, they were prepared to die for. They believed themselves, as they gathered round the Eucharistic table, to be citizens of a Kingdom which is not of this world, a Kingdom specifically founded by Him to redeem humankind from its sins, to save us from Hell. That is Christendom. The Catholic Church claims, not to be a holy club founded in His memory, but the very institution which He used, and uses, to unfold His revelation of truth to the world. In every generation since His ascension into Heaven, as Christianity spread to every corner of the globe, the successors of St Peter have wrestled with the tension between being the Kingdom on Earth and being Not of this World. Many is the pope, patriarch, worldly abbot and cynical university professor who has been a scandal to the Church, but the Church has not officially given up on its calling to be a scandal to the world. Or had not done so until the Second Vatican Council.
Whether Catholicism, as in the days of the desert fathers, needs to be driven out to the wilderness to rediscover its anti-worldly roots is a question which the secularisation of Europe urgently suggests. We certainly have come to a strange pass if the only major world leader who is seen to be actively defending Christianity (in his active defence of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Syria) is the openly criminal Vladimir Putin.
I commend Olivier Roy’s book, because it raises questions which must be faced. But I am baffled by its conclusion. He writes, “We have no choice but to go back to fundamentals, in particular to those of European liberalism as well as what remains of its Christian heritage. Ultimately Europe is the only entity in which it remains possible to instil some spirit”.
John Henry Newman, soon to be made a saint, was converted to Catholicism because he saw that “European liberalism” and the Christian faith were ultimately incompatible. The spirit of toleration promulgated since Vatican II has persuaded many Catholics that they should appear to endorse the false non-values of their contemporaries. Of these non-values, the most pernicious is what Newman called Liberalism. We look in vain for a Christian prophet who will say, it is not just one crisis in 2008 which is the trouble—it is the whole system on which the economy of the world now depends. The World Bank, the IMF, the financial markets of the world are all citadels of Satan.
More than this, however, the true Christian prophet would denounce the whole liberal con-trick which has been played on Europeans at least since 1789: the belief that liberation of the human spirit would come to pass when religious faith had been cast aside in favour of a slavish and superstitious belief in science, combined with the curious mishmash of liberal “values”—that all countries of the world should embrace democracy, for example (why?) and the economic liberalism, based on usury—which goes with it. So total is our enslavement to these “values” that it is almost impossible to prevent them entering into what we think are our religious ideas. If Dante or Cardinal Newman reappeared in our midst to tell us the truth, would any of us be able to hear them? I suspect that, if heard at all, they would at once be deemed to be mentally ill, and prescribed a “chemical cosh”, courtesy of the pharmaceutical industry, who in turn shore up our modern European equivalent of a church or sacred space—state-sponsored health services.
What Dawson, in The Making of Europe, wrote 90 years ago remains true, but there are no indications—none at all—that the leaders of either the Catholic Church or the European Union see the point: “The unity of our civilisation does not rest entirely on the secular culture and the material progress of the last four centuries. There are deeper traditions in Europe than these, and we must go back behind Humanism and behind the superficial triumphs of modern civilisation, if we wish to discover the fundamental social and spiritual forces that have gone to the making of Europe.”
Is Europe Christian?
By Olivier Roy
C. Hurst, 112pp, £14.99