Death in the European church family?

You had to know this was coming. During the days before the conclave in which Pope Benedict XVI was elected, many commentators predicted this would be the papacy that furthered the transition to the “global Christianity” reflected by many of the appointments made by Pope John Paul II.

Well, that’s true. But there are two ways to look at that.

One way is that this would be a papacy that symbolizes the rise of the Third World. The other is a papacy that symbolizes the fading of the First World.

What would this second reality look like? As has often been noted (Andrew Sullivan leaps to mind), Cardinal Ratzinger is a traitor to his class. He emerged from the heart of chilly European liberalism and has turned into a champion of the old ways and traditions of pre-modern Europe. He is a modern intellectual who does not worship modernity or postmodernity.

So this Associated Press report by Nicole Winfield is not really a surprise. But the language is blunt. If this keeps up, it is clear that many journalists are going to need to catch up on their Philip Jenkins (click here for that classic Atlantic Monthly article called “The Next Christianity”).

The bottom line: The rise of the “Next Christendom” does imply that some other Christendom has to fall.

Thus, the bold headline: “Pope Laments ‘Dying’ Churches in West.” This has been the story for some time in the Anglican drama. At some point, the heat will increase in the Church of Rome.

Here is some of what Big Ben had to say, during an informal talk to some Italian priests in the northern Valle d’Aosta region:

Benedict . . . said the “joy” at the growing numbers of churchmen in the developing world is accompanied by “a certain bitterness” because some would-be priests were only looking for a better life. . . .

Benedict also touched on another his favorite themes: the state of the church in Europe. He said in contrast to the developing world, where there is a “springtime of faith,” the West was “a world that is tired of its own culture, a world that has arrived at a time in which there’s no more evidence of the need for God, much less Christ, and in which it seems that man alone can make himself.

“This is certainly a suffering linked, I’d say, to our time, in which generally one sees that the great churches appear to be dying,” he said, mentioning Australia, Europe and the United States.

At the moment, it is hard to think of an oldline and liturgical church that is not really being affected by this global tension, other than some that are so elite or tired that they literally have no ties to a vital faith community in the rest of the world. This is one news story that will not fade any time soon. It seems this pope will talk about it openly, even if it does represent a death in his immediate cultural family.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ted Olsen

    So here’s one reporting assignment that could come out of this: Is the split between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist World Alliance part of this story? Or is it evidence of different global vs. U.S. tensions? Or is it, as some might say, a reveral or this story? Or is it a case Americans using the global church as proxy for a purely U.S. fight (SBC vs. CBF)? My initial take is here, but there’s definitely a story there.

  • Brandon

    This morning when I was on the Toronto subway, I picked up Metro, which is a free newspaper that summarizes stories from various news services. Their headline was much bolder: “Pope fears demise of the church.” Slightly parochial, perhaps.

  • david

    this whole thing may be an issue of mistranslation. in the catholic news report based on the same material, the pope refers to “mainline churches”, clearly refering to the protestant churches. in the reuters version, “traditional churches” with a follow up quote that also references protestants. the associated press article above seems to make it seem like he is talking about the catholic church.

  • Terry Tee

    There is another aspect. The Third World is here in the West. Here in London our parishes show a vitality and a vigor which owes much to the faith, hope and love of Catholics from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Even in the Church of England, where the church attendance figures go remorselessly downward, one diocese has bucked the trend – step forward London, home not only to Catholics but also Anglicans from all over the world.

  • Brandon

    That’s likely; it was from the Reuters service.

  • Susan F Peterson

    My local paper had a headline which said “Church in the US is dying, Pope says.”

    Count on us in the US to think it is all about us.

    But is it true here? Our churches aren’t empty the way the churches in Europe are. We aren’t growing the way we should be, and we aren’t inspiring vocations. But there are still a lot of Catholics here who go to mass on Sunday. There isn’t a lot of social life around the parish, especially around Sunday mass, the way there is around most Protestant Sunday services. So what brings them out of their gardens, away from their soccer games, off the golf course? The mass has to mean something to them.
    Susan F. Peterson

  • Terry Tee

    I am tired of hearing this US assertion that our churches in Europe are empty. Here in London, as I said, we are booming. When I was in Salamanca in Spain they were full for DAILY Mass. In Ireland attendances have dropped: only HALF the Catholic population go to Mass on Sunday. Not bad, when you think of it. Go to Catholic Churches in Moravia (but not Bohemia) and in Slovakia, and they are full. Italy and Poland are doing reasonably well, but in Italy it varies from region to region.

  • Stephen A.

    “I am tired of hearing this US assertion that our churches in Europe are empty.”

    Is Pope Benedict from the “US”? I didn’t know that. After all, he’s the European that’s been most vocal in pointing out Europe’s slide toward agnosticism.

    If, in fact, this Full Church phenomenon you speak of is widespread throughout Europe, I say: They could be bursting at the seams but if the fruit they bear isn’t holy, and the society they create is Godless and narcisistic, who cares?

    Western Churches, I think you’ll find, were Ratzinger-now-Benedict’s intended subjects for criticism over the last few decades.

    I note the examples you site are mostly in Eastern Europe – traditionally more relgious and devout than the secular West. Though I leave open the chance for stereotype-breakers like post-Bombing London.

    I’m just glad you didn’t try to make the case for full French, Dutch and German churches, because by all accounts, they are a *bit* less full.

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