Mon, Jun. 05, 2006
When faithful flee
In Europe, anger and disenchantment lead many Catholics to seek spirituality on their own terms. Here and across the country, many who leave do not join other churches.
LIMERICK, Ireland - In late November 1999, Bishop Willie Walsh set out on a 121-mile walk to apologize for the sins of Roman Catholic clergy in Ireland. The road ahead daunted the 64-year-old prelate, but not because of its grueling length.
What he feared was the church's angry, scattering flock.
In less than a decade, Catholicism had seemingly lost its grip on Ireland, as it had across Europe. One lurid revelation had bred another and another until hundreds of Irish priests stood accused of sexual abuse.
The scandals tapped a deep well of disaffection. From the early 1970s to 1990, the percentage of Irish Catholics who regularly attended Sunday Mass had fallen from 91 to 70. The number was down to 48 percent by the time Walsh embarked on his "pilgrimage of reconciliation" across the 1,600-year-old Diocese of Killaloe.
Leaving the village of Kilbaha, where the Shannon River meets the Atlantic, he soon had a crowd of hundreds telling their stories through biting wind and hail. Many confided their estrangement from Catholicism, but only some were abuse victims.
"Young couples practicing birth control felt they were sinful," Walsh recalled in an Inquirer interview. "Gay people, whom I found to be very gentle, caring people, talked of being asked to live a celibate life."
Catholics with Protestant family members longed to take communion together. Divorced and remarried Catholics lamented not being able to partake at all. Several women challenged the ban on female ordination.
Walsh asked forgiveness for their pain, and invited them to renew their faith. When after 21 days he reached Tipperary, "Bishop Willie" was a national hero with an escort of 1,500.
But his celebrated gesture did little to reconnect Irish Catholics, estimated at 3.5 million, with their ancestral church.
If anything, the chasm has widened since then, particularly among the young. Where once he saw hostility in their eyes, Walsh says he now sees something worse: indifference.
"Basically they're saying, 'What you're offering, we don't find meaningful.' "
'In a terminal state'
It used to be called "Catholic Europe." But if declining membership, plummeting church attendance, and shrinking vocations are measures, Roman Catholicism - indeed, Christianity - is headed toward collapse across the continent.
The feeling pervading church circles is that "something important has died, or is in a terminal state," said the Rev. Michael Paul Gallagher, a theologian at Rome's Jesuit seminary, Collegio Romano.
The crisis that lies just beyond the Vatican's big bronze doors is arguably the gravest facing Pope Benedict XVI. But how to shore up the church's dissipating base of 280 million baptized Catholics in more than two dozen countries - without bowing to Europe's postmodern culture - is a conundrum that seems to have even the pontiff baffled.
In his first year, he has called for a return to worship and better training in the faith for youth. He also has pinned some hope for renewal on the small ecclesial movements he promotes; intensely conservative and often lay-led, groups such as Focolare and Regnum Christi devote themselves to special causes - the poor, the preservation of traditional families - and demand utter commitment, even vows, from their members.
Yet Benedict has made it clear that a grand plan eludes him.
"Secularism and de-Christianization are gaining ground... and the influence of Catholic ethics and morals is in constant decline," he told German bishops late last summer.
"What can we do?" he asked. "I do not know."
Some analysts say there is more at stake than one continent, that the church's European troubles may portend its future in North America. Benedict himself is sounding that alarm.
"In the United States, too, the Christian heritage is decaying at an incessant pace," he warns in a forthcoming book previewed in the Catholic magazine New Things.
The European trends that Benedict has inherited were evident in the 1960s, and dramatically visible through the pontificate of John Paul II. Between 1975 and 2000, Catholic baptisms and weddings - two linchpin rituals - were down 34 and 41 percent, respectively.
A low birthrate among whites has helped drive the numbers. The population that has traditionally stocked the pews is not replacing itself.
"To adopt a somewhat poignant metaphor," demographer Phillip Longman wrote in his 2004 book, The Empty Cradle, "if Europe were a woman, her biological clock would be rapidly running down. It is not too late to adopt more children, but they won't look like her."
Hungry for labor, many nations have opened their doors to immigrants, often non-Christians with higher birthrates. Muslims in Europe are estimated at as many as 23 million, more than twice the number in the United States. France alone has five million Muslims, who make up 8 percent of its population.
Demographics are only part, and surely the easier part, of the explanation for the Catholic Church's difficulties. Far knottier is a historic attitude shift away from the institutional faiths that held sway over culture and politics for more than a millennium.
For a blatant sign, look no further than the European Union's unratified constitution. Over the Vatican's vehement objections, the document makes no mention at all of the continent's Judeo-Christian heritage.
Among the 25 member nations, many of those long considered devoutly Catholic have legalized divorce, abortion and euthanasia. The Vatican claimed a victory last June when Italians heeded its call to boycott a referendum on loosening restrictions on artificial insemination and embryonic research. The elation was short-lived: Two weeks later, Spain ignored the church's protests and became the third European country to recognize gay marriage, following Belgium and the Netherlands.
In April, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern promised that same-sex "civil partnerships" would be legalized there.
Outrage would have been the predictable reaction from Irish prelates. After all, the church had vetted the 1937 constitution, requiring the government to protect the institution of marriage; it had kept contraceptives out of bedrooms until 1979 and divorce illegal until 1997.
Instead, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin gave a cautious blessing to the idea of legal rights for all kinds of caring, dependent relationships, not just gay. He called it the "Christian way."
His friend, Bishop Walsh, has publicly urged Rome to open itself to such profound change.
"If the church in Europe is to be turned around," he said, it must examine why so many people "find it impossible to believe or follow a particular teaching. Divorce and remarriage, the role of women - there's nothing that should be closed to questioning."
The best course, he said in an interview at his residence near Limerick, is the "compromise of Christ," who was "always reaching out to the excluded."
Walsh appears to be whistling into a chill Vatican wind.
Benedict's first papal journey outside Italy took him in August to his native Germany, where 33 percent of the population is Catholic but, as a survey in 2000 found, less than 6 percent of young members attend Mass - and most of those only sporadically. It was a fitting environ for World Youth Day, founded 20 years before by John Paul II to engage an age group that he saw slipping away from the church.
There were no concessions to modernity in the new pope's message to backpacking hordes of young Catholics, an estimated one million from 190 countries, who gathered in Cologne last summer. Benedict warned of "false compromises" that would "water down the Gospel."
"The happiness you are seeking," he assured them, "... is Jesus Christ of Nazareth, hidden in the Eucharist."
In his meeting with German bishops afterward, Benedict staked his position more firmly. Restoring the church's place in European society "is not a matter of pandering to youth."
That, he said, would be "ridiculous."
His surety that the culture, not the church, needs fixing echoes through the Vatican.
The Rev. John Paul Wauck, a professor at the Vatican's Pontifical University of Santa Cruz in Rome and spokesman for the conservative group Opus Dei, said in an interview that there should be no "drastic reformulation of Catholic doctrine to engage a dying generation of agnostic, childless Europeans."
Theirs, he said, is "a mind-set rushing headlong toward demographic extinction."
But are young Europeans actually turning away from God? Or is it institutional religion they're rejecting?
Surveys suggest the latter.
A 2002 poll of 18-to-29-year-old Christians in Western and Eastern Europe found they believed in God, spirituality and life after death even more than their age cohort had 20 years before. But fewer followed institutional churches or attended services, preferring to make their spiritual journeys outside the church.
French sociologist Yves Lambert, who led the study, calls the situation "paradoxical." Yet it is the essence of being a postmodern European, uncommitted to a political party, an employer, a marriage partner, a nation state - or a church.
Andrea Michaziszyn, 37, gave voice to it, even as he stood at 1:30 a.m. in St. Peter's Square last spring in the endless line of mourners waiting to view the body of John Paul II.
"You could say I am Catholic," said Michaziszyn, who as a youth studied for the priesthood in his native Poland. "But if I think about my faith in the context of the Catholic Church, it would fall down... I separate my faith from the institution."
A weaker grip on civic life
The train from Dublin to Limerick has a clanky, old-fashioned feel.
Its smudged windows look out on a countryside of dairy farms and brightly painted villages. The abundance of stone crosses and steeples attests to the days when the very air of Ireland was Catholic.
This once was a pious peasant nation devoted to the church, if not also thoroughly intimidated by it. Break the rules about Sunday Mass or meatless Fridays, or entertain impure thoughts, and you were in a state of mortal sin until you got on your knees and confessed.
It was this Irish Catholicism, rigorous and authoritarian, that provided the model for the hardy immigrant church that rooted in the United States in the 19th century and gave Philadelphia its first bishop, Michael F. Egan, in 1808.
The Catholics of Ireland, though, had more than the fear of damnation to keep them on the narrow path. For much of the last century, the Irish Republic's constitution accorded a "special position" to the Roman Catholic Church, giving it extraordinary influence over almost every detail of civic life.
Today, to hear young riders interviewed at random on the Dublin-Limerick train, the church's hold has never been more tenuous.
"I consider myself a practicing Catholic," said Louise Barry, 31, a mother of one and a homemaker who attends Mass weekly. "I just don't feel I could live without a safety net."
Yet, she added, "the whole institution of the church is wrong," especially its ban on married priests. "Men of that age, not involved in family life, telling you how to live," Barry said, and shook her head.
Seamus Brady, a 26-year-old supermarket manager, was on his way home to Limerick from a visit to his parents in County Longford. Religious observance is something "you see more in the rural areas," he said.
"I go [to Mass] regularly enough. It's something you're brought up with... . You just go with the flow."
Sitting nearby was Aisling Keane, 27, project manager for an environmental group and, lately, a practicing Buddhist.
"I'm certainly liking the whole concept of Zen," she said. "No rules. No regulations... . You could say I'm more drawn to the spiritual side of things than to religion."
Frank Stafford, a 24-year-old actor, said he was leaning toward Eastern religions, having concluded that "the Catholic religion is far from the truth."
He has not, however, abandoned the faith passed along to him by his devout mother, who sent him to Catholic grammar school and Jesuit high school.
"I can still go to Mass and take out what I want," he said. "It still has meaning. I believe in God, Jesus and Mary. But not Jesus the son of God. I think we're all sons of God. I see him as a holy man. A prophet."
The train they were riding had embarked from an archdiocese staggered in recent years by claims of child molestation by Dublin priests. In March, following an internal investigation, Archbishop Martin announced that 102 clerics were suspected of abusing more than 350 children since the 1940s. Having already paid the equivalent of $7 million to settle cases, he said, the archdiocese would have to begin selling off property.
At the end of the rail ride was Limerick, where a clerical order that had been a presence since 1241 was about to disappear.
Unable to attract enough new priests, the Franciscans decided last year that they would not assign any more religious to Ireland's third-largest city.
A typical Sunday at the downtown Franciscan Church near the Shannon River wharfs drew 50 worshippers, nearly all gray-haired. The Gospel reading was the story of the prodigal son.
"We pray for all those who have abandoned the faith," said the 92-year-old priest who led the Mass. "May we help them see our love, and God's love, for them."
Young people turn out for family weddings, funerals and baptisms, but aren't very likely to show up otherwise, observed the Rev. Ralph Lawless - at a mere 68 years old one of the more junior of the Franciscans left there.
"There's been a great rejection of the institution," he said. "It's spirituality they want now."
Bumping up against Islam
The man who coined the term postmodernism, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, describes the European state of mind today as "liquid."
"Everything is short-lived and nothing stands still," he has written. "Nothing keeps its shape, and social forms are constantly changing at great speed, radically transforming the experience of being human."
Thus the European future of the Roman Catholic Church in particular, and Christianity in general, becomes anyone's - and everyone's - guess.
"Right now we're at the early stages of an epic without name," said Wauck, the Pontifical University professor. "My sense is that Benedict would like to give it a Christian name."
Ahead, he predicts, is a long and difficult period reminiscent of the Middle Ages, beset by "conflict, occasional chaos and perhaps violence, intermittent heresies and various sects."
Some of the speculation centers on the continent's growing Muslim population.
Few observers share Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis' vision of Europe as "part of the Arabic west" at the turn of the next century. Yet there is no overlooking the emerging assertiveness of Islam on the continent.
In the Netherlands, the Muslim community wants Islamic courts to have jurisdiction over the marriages, divorces and child-custody disputes of its nearly one million members.
In Spain, whose Muslim population is estimated at 500,000, the Islamic Council has asked that Muslim worship be allowed at the Catholic Cathedral of Cordoba, which had been a mosque in the 13th century.
Benedict's answer has gone beyond just an emphatic no. The Vatican is insisting that Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia permit public Christian worship.
More hawkish toward Islam than John Paul II - who in 1999 kissed the Koran during a Vatican audience - Benedict has vigorously pressed the European Union to preserve its Christian foundation by barring Turkey from membership.
In April, the pontiff devoted much of his Holy Thursday Mass for clergy to a priest slain in February in the Turkish city of Trabzon on the Black Sea. The Rev. Andrea Santoro was praying when a teen shouting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") shot him in the back. Benedict praised Santoro for sacrificing his life to work for Catholicism in Muslim Turkey.
How two powerful faiths intersect in a spiritually free-form Europe will be a 22d-century history lesson.
"If a hundred years from now a muezzin is calling the faithful to prayer from the bell tower of Notre Dame cathedral, we'll recognize that what we're seeing now is the civilizational challenge of Islam," said George Weigel, the official biographer for John Paul II and author of the 2005 book, The Cube and the Cathedral, about the Catholic crisis in Europe.
But it's not time for "the catacomb-building kits," he joked in an April interview, referring to the labyrinths where early Christians worshipped out of sight of the Romans.
Weigel and others suggest the eventual effect could be the opposite: a backlash surge of Christian identity on the continent.
"It is far too early to write off Europe" from the future of Catholicism, Wauck said. "Things have been bad before. The history of the church is full of crises - and recoveries.
"If any institution has the right to take the long view, it is the Roman Catholic Church."