Could it be, as Christians around the globe prepare to celebrate
the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus' birth, that in Europe, the hearth
of Christian civilization, the embers are dying?
Europe's Roman Catholic bishops wrapped up a three-week synod in
Rome on Saturday proclaiming their hope of warding off such a
prospect. But they pointed to "the serious indifference to religion
of so many Europeans ... the secularism which poisons a large
section of Christians" as a dangerous sign. "There is a great risk
of de-Christianization and paganization of the Continent" that "puts
the cultural identity of Europe in jeopardy," warned the synod's
But while major Christian churches may be on the decline, few
theologians or religious observers share the fear that Europe's
millennial cultural values are seriously threatened.
"Cultural memories and patterns of living are so deeply embedded,
it will be a long time before we find ourselves in a post-Christian
Europe," says Grace Davie, a sociologist of religion at Exeter
University in England.
"Institutional religiosity is on the decline, but personal
religiosity is not in danger," adds Loek Halman, a Dutch scholar who
runs Europe-wide studies of personal values. "People who leave their
churches still go on searching for meaning. They may not be willing
to accept traditional Christian beliefs, but that does not make them
Certainly the signs are not encouraging for the major Christian
churches in Europe, which have seen their congregations and their
priestly ranks shrink over the past half century.
Church attendance is still high in traditional Catholic countries
such as Ireland and Italy, where nearly half the adult population
goes to church at least once a month. But in countries like France,
Belgium, and Germany, less than 10 percent of young people attend
church regularly, and there is not a major city in northwestern
Europe where even half the newborns are baptized. That prompted the
bishops to end their meeting with a call "to undertake with great
zeal and urgency the task of the new evangelization" - missionary
work on the Continent from which missionaries once spread worldwide.
Tolerance for other views
But in a multicultural Europe, where "it is less and less
possible to base pastoral programs on a presumed acceptance of a
generally shared Christianity," as the bishops acknowledged, where
Islam is on the rise, having outstripped Judaism as the second-
largest European religion, and where tolerance of other people's
views is a prime modern value, missionary work is not easy. "The
real issue is how you evangelize a secularized Europe in pluralistic
societies while still showing respect for other people's opinions,"
says the Rev. Jan Kerkhoss, a Jesuit priest and emeritus professor
at the University of Leuven in Belgium. …