The Faith of Europe

Through Amos, the Lord asked rhetorically, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3) and the European Union is a striking, modern illustration of the problem. Though member states may reach accords on currency, passport, and tariffs, they face deep divides at the most basic level of religious faith and worldview. Where once the land from the Urals to the west coast of Ireland, from the Artic Circle to the Mediterranean, was the bulwark of Christendom, today, one finds a patchwork of faiths and departures from the faith:

Czech Republic: University of Chicago professor Mark Lilla has observed that contemporary Europe is “the closest thing to a godless civilization the world has ever known,” and the Czechs are a prime example of that spiritual malaise, with only 19% of the population believing in God. Only Estonia has a lower percentage. Catholic priest and Prague philosophy professor Tomas Halik gives much of the credit to Cold War Moscow, which made the country “an experiment in the total atheism of a society.” The result is as much widespread ignorance as hostility. As Baptist missionary Lori Gregory puts it, “When we bring up the subject [of faith], it’s like asking if you believe in UFOs. . . . In the States, you can assume most kids know why Christmas is celebrated. In the Czech Republic kids think baby Jesus is like Cinderella or Shrek. . . .”1

England: Though 72% of the population called itself Christian in the 2001 census, only 8% regularly attend church. Furthermore, studies project 2% church attendance by 2040, with two-thirds of that being people over 65. For many, “Christian” means merely “Englishness or Britishness.” As a result, former Archbishop of Canterbury Carey has compared Anglicanism to a feeble old lady “who mutters away to herself in a corner, ignored most of the time.” Some blame the demoralizing casualties of World War I. Others, such as University of Dundee historian Callum Brown, point to the 1960s which spawned the sexual revolution and feminist movement; beginning then, women, once pillars of piety, forsook the Church, and their families followed; so now, “Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die.”2

France: Opposing reference to the continent’s Christian heritage in the EU constitution, President Chirac explained, “France is a lay state, and as such she does not have a habit of calling for insertions of a religious nature into constitutional texts.” His nation reflects this studied indifference to the faith: Though 88% identify themselves as Catholic, only about 5% (mostly elderly women) attend church regularly. Not surprisingly, Islam is France’s fastest-growing religion, mainly through immigration from North Africa. But even among them, France’s secularization is having an effect—their birthrates are declining, and 64 % say they do not practice their faith. Still, that leaves 1.5 million devout French Muslims, and their number is growing in the spiritual vacuum that is France.3

Poland: With 57% of its vast Catholic majority attending mass each Sunday, Poland cuts across the European grain of unbelief. Her president, Lech Kaczynski is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. In 2003, the Polish government led the push to include reference to God in the EU constitution, and in 2006 the Polish delegation to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, upset many by erecting an anti-abortion display in the hallway. Here and there, one finds embarrassments to the Church, such as hints of anti-Semitism on Catholic Radio Maryja, but much of the Church’s influence is wholesomely vital.4

How then shall the EU proceed as a mixture of vital faith, dead faith, non-faith, and rival faith? Perhaps it will not, for a people must share something to be a people, and it seems unlikely that the dominant secularism can either emerge triumphant or provide a hope for common ground.

Footnotes :

1 Tom Hundley, “On Holy Ground, a Hollow Sound,” Chicago Tribune, April 30, 2006.

2 Tom Hundley, “Church of England Flock Strays Far from Its Pews,” Chicago Tribune, May 11, 2006, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0605110197may11,1,6901929.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-utl (accessed August 4, 2006).

3 Tom Hundley, “A Crucible for Secularism,” Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2006, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0606190200jun19,1,1195704.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-utl (accessed August 4, 2006).

4 Tom Hundley, “Poland Digs in against Tide toward Secularism,” Chicago Tribune, May 23, 2006, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0605230186may23,1,343732.story?coll=chi-newsnationworld-utl (accessed August 4, 2006).

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