The Future of Religion in Europe

Measured Optimism in New Study

By Father John Flynn, L.C.

ROME, JULY 15, 2007 ( Many predict a bleak future for Christianity in Europe, but in his latest book Philip Jenkins argues that the situation is not all bad. “God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe’s Religious Crisis,” published by Oxford University Press, is the concluding volume in a trilogy on the future of Christianity.

The first two volumes — “The Next Christendom” and “The New Faces of Christianity” — concentrated mainly on the rise of religion in the global South of the world. The third volume takes a look at Europe, affected by a marked decline in practicing Christians, combined with a growing presence of Muslim immigrants.

Could Europe go the same way as North Africa, with Christianity supplanted by Islam? This is what some prognosticate, notes Jenkins. In reply he admits that the current situation is far from ideal in terms of Christian religious practice, but the situation is not as grim as some would have us believe.

In spite of a declining fertility rate and immigration from Islamic countries, Jenkins points out that in most West European nations, Muslims constitute only around 4-5% of the population. By comparison, in the United States, there is a minority presence of Latinos, Asians and other groups of around 30%.

There are varying projections for the future. Jenkins cites data from the U.S, National Intelligence Council that calculates the current Muslim population of around 15 million in Europe could rise to 28 million by 2025. The numbers, however, will not be evenly distributed. France, Germany and the Netherlands could have a Muslim minority of 10-15% by 2025.

Jenkins points out that if we take a wider definition of Europe, as being everything west of the former Soviet Union, then the Continent will have around 40 million Muslims by 2025. This is, however, only about 8% of the population.

Moreover, he argues that both Christianity and Islam face difficulties in surviving the secular cultural ambience in Europe and that is a mistake to suppose Islam will be immune to this pressure, which could well moderate the more strident elements.

Jenkins also advises against an overly alarmist view of the Muslim presence. It would be a mistake to lump the entire Muslim population in Europe in the category of radicals or religious extremists. Certainly, he admits, there are a number of extremist Muslim leaders and communities that are alienated from mainstream society. Yet alongside the radicals there are also moderate Muslims whose presence should not be forgotten.

When it comes to problems stemming from the Muslim presence in Europe Jenkins asserts that we need to distinguish their origins. In addition to tensions deriving from Islam itself we need to allow for economic, racial and social factors, as well as cultural traditions in the countries of origin of immigrants that are not an integral part of Islam.

Two paths

Jenkins contends that Europe could well take the path of the United States, which has managed to integrate large numbers of immigrants with varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. He does admit, however, that another path exists, that typified by Lebanon where religious identity becomes linked with economic and social grievances, leading to a far grimmer future.

In this challenge of deciding which path the Continent will take Jenkins notes that one factor handicapping European governments is a pervasive secularism that impedes authorities from treating seriously religious concerns and motivations.

In fact, Jenkins chronicles the impact of secularism on the Christian churches in one of the book’s chapters. The decline in Christianity has been particularly marked in Protestant areas and in the countries that were under the dominion of the now defunct Soviet Union.

The Catholic Church has maintained a higher level of participation, but Jenkins adds, faces considerable challenges. The social and cultural forces have influenced the population to the point where family size in Catholic countries has dropped to the lowest levels in Europe. In addition, Church attendance in countries such as Italy and Spain has declined sharply in the last decade or so. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life have fallen notably, with little sign of any turnaround.

Nevertheless, Jenkins continues, along with this negative trend we need to consider other, more positive, elements. Despite the decline Europe is still home to a considerable Christian population. In Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, religious participation is still very high. In Britain Polish and Croatian immigrants have brought about a religious resurgence in some areas.

Pilgrims on the rise

Other encouraging trends include the high level of popular appeal enjoyed by Benedict XVI, who is attracting large numbers to his public appearances. The continuing popularity of religious pilgrimages is another sign of life in European Christianity, Jenkins points out. In the 1950s Lourdes drew around 1 million visitors a year. The number now is close to 6 million. The Polish shrine of Czestochowa draws several million a year, many of them young people.

Fatima reports around 4 million visitors annually. In Spain numbers of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela have risen to around half a million a year, with up to a million in holy years. Italy too sees large numbers of visitors to shrines such as Loreto.

Jenkins also argues that the large numbers of new saints created by John Paul II has helped to strengthen popular piety. In fact, he compares the efforts of John Paul II and Benedict XVI to the era of the Catholic Reformation, when the Church brought about a revival in its fortunes after a period of grave difficulties.

The founding of dynamic new religious orders and movements in the Catholic Church is, for Jenkins, another indication that Christianity is far from dead in Europe. Evidence of this were the gatherings of members of the new movements held in Rome at Pentecost in 1998 and 2006. Charismatic groups within the Catholic Church have also flourished in many European countries.

Thus, while clergy numbers may be declining increased participation by lay people is providing a source of renewal for Church life. The large numbers of young people who attended the World Youth Day activities in Cologne, Germany in 2005 is another positive sign for the future of Christianity in Europe. Evangelical and charismatic groups within the Protestant churches are also growing, Jenkins points out.

Another source of strength for Christianity in Europe is immigration. In addition to the Muslim immigrants a portion of new arrivals are Christians. Birthrates have plummeted in Italy, but Rome, for example, can count on the presence of tens of thousands of immigrants from the predominantly Catholic Philippines.

There is also a growing presence of clergy from other continents that is helping to make up the shortfall in local vocations. Great Britain, says Jenkins, is host to around 1,500 missionaries from some 50 nations, many of them African. Another example he cites is that of a French Catholic diocese that hosts around 30 priests from former colonies in Africa.

Why then is the public impression regarding the future of Christianity in Europe so negative? Jenkins accuses the European media, which he judges to be more secular and hostile to religion than in the United States, of ignoring these positive trends for faith. In addition, Europe’s governing elites tend to be very secular and unresponsive to public pressure, a situation that leads them to an anti-Christian stance not in line with the sentiments of many citizens.

Thus, Jenkins argues that while we cannot deny that European Christianity is going through a period of crisis it would be a mistake to oversimplify matters by ignoring the diversity of the situation.


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