DUBLIN, Ireland - "I don't go to church, and I don't know one person who
does," says Brian Kenny, 39, who is studying
psychotherapy and counseling
Dublin Business School. "Fifteen years ago, I didn't know one person who
attendance in Ireland, though still among the highest in Western
Europe, has fallen from about 85% to 60% from 1975 to
2004, according to
While it is still illegal for a woman to have an abortion in this
Roman Catholic country, Health Minister Mary Harney made front-page news in
July when she said birth control
pills should be available for girls as
as 11 in some circumstances. And for the first time, according to church
not one priest will be ordained this year in Dublin.
Mary Haugh, who has gone to Mass here seven days a week for almost
79 years, is saddened by these changes. "It's a Godless society," she says.
Ireland is not an exception.
Every major religion except Islam is declining
in Western Europe, according to the Center for the Study on Global
at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton,
Mass. The drop is most evident in France, Sweden and the
church attendance is less than 10% in some areas.
Last month, Pope Benedict XVI lamented the
weakening of churches in Europe,
Australia and the USA. "There's no longer evidence for a need of God, even
Christ," he told Italian priests. "The so-called traditional
look like they are dying."
The forces driving
the decline include Europe's turbulent history, an
increasing separation between the church and government - and perhaps
most of all, the continent's unprecedented affluence.
"For most of history, people have been on the borderline
of survival," says
Ronald Inglehart, director of the World Values Survey, a Swedish-based
that tracks church
attendance. "That's changed dramatically. Survival is
certain for almost everyone (in the West). So one of the reasons
drawn to religion has eroded."
Though many Europeans say they consider themselves Christians, far fewer
attend services. One need only see the overwhelming number of
gray-haired heads in church pews to know attendance will
keep falling if
something doesn't change dramatically.
Benedict, who visits Cologne, Germany, next week for World
Youth Day, is
expected to tell some 400,000 young people there that they are the future
the church. But the pope
and other leaders of traditional churches admit
their struggle for souls in Western Europe is their greatest challenge.
result: Fewer children
DECLINE BY COUNTRY
A 2000 study by the Swedish-based
World Values Survey shows nearly half -
more - don't regularly attend church in several Western European countries.
of people who "never" or "practically never" attend church in 14
Source: World Values
The need to revive the Roman Catholic Church in Europe was among the main
a German cardinal, was chosen to succeed Pope John Paul
"Nobody is better informed than Pope Benedict on the European
scene and the
secularism of Europe," British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor told the
Associated Press shortly after
Benedict was named pope. "I think all of us
... are concerned about this question."
One result: Fewer children
the most striking consequences of the decline of religion has been
fewer children. The birth rate throughout much of Western
Europe has fallen
so drastically that the population in many countries is shrinking,
that women throughout
Europe now routinely use artificial birth control, in
defiance of the Roman Catholic Church's teachings.
single consequence of the declining role of the church is the
huge decline in fertility rates," Inglehart says. With fewer
the workforce, countries like Italy, Germany and France won't be able to
maintain the generous welfare
programs that have given most workers a
lifetime of economic security.
The waning influence of religion also has
brought a change in attitudes and
laws on issues such as divorce, abortion, gay marriage and stem cell
June, for example, Spain became the fourth country in the world to
legalize gay marriage, after the Netherlands, Belgium
and Canada. The
was supported by more than 60% of Spaniards, according to a poll in
by the Center
for Sociological Investigation. In the USA, where religion
church attendance are comparatively stronger, 11 states
voted last year to
amend their constitutions to ban gay marriage.
Europeans debate whether these changes are positive
or negative for
But it is evident people feel freer to make decisions within their own
declining (church) attendance is really dramatic, but what is even
important is that the churches are losing the
ability to dictate to people
how to live their lives," Inglehart says.
The Roman Catholic Church still wields some
power. In May, the Vatican
defeat a referendum in Italy that would have made fertility treatments more
The Vatican urged people not to vote. Because turnout was less
than 50%, the results were invalid.
slightly more than a mile from the Vatican, at the Sant'
Anastasia church, there were just 28 worshipers at a recent Sunday
mostly gray-haired women sat in pews built to hold up to 400. "Now, it's
a wedding or maybe the
funeral of someone important that can fill the whole
church," says Giovanna Lutti, 79.
In 1900, almost everyone
in Europe was Christian. Now, three out of four
people identify themselves as adherents to Christianity. At the same time,
percentage of Europeans who say they are non-religious has soared from
less than 1% of the population to 15%. Another 3%
say they don't believe in
God at all, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
In 12 major
European countries, 38% of people say they never or practically
never attend church, according to the World Values Survey
in 2000. France's
60% non-attendance rate is the highest in that group. In the USA, only 16%
say they rarely go to church.
the trend began varies from country to country. Wars and revolutions
have played a decisive role in shaping faith in Europe.
The spread of
religion and the conversion of the masses often were bloody affairs - from
the Crusades and the papal
wars to the Spanish Inquisition and the
Reformation. Uprisings against ruling religious powers were equally
as was the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland pitting Protestants against
Catholics. That battle may only
now be nearing an end with last month's
promise by the separatist - and Catholic - Irish Republic Army to disarm.
Gen. Francisco Franco seized control of Spain during the civil war in
the 1930s, for instance, he worked with the clergy
to spread a "National
Catholicism" that enforced his social and political codes. Since Franco's
death in 1975, Spain
has become more secular. Socialist Prime Minister José
Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, elected in March 2004, has eliminated the
separation period before a divorce, authorized stem cell research and is
working on a bill that would make
religious education in public schools
The government initiatives are a response to a changing society,
López Guerra, the undersecretary at the Ministry of Justice in charge of
religious and social affairs. "Spain's
a Catholic country in the sense that
virtually everyone born here is baptized a Catholic," he says. "But Spanish
has become much more open, more tolerant, more secular."
Not just the Catholic Church
Andrew Greeley, a priest,
professor at the University of Chicago and
author on Christianity, argues that despite the drop in church attendance,
is not on the wane everywhere in Europe. "Religion declined
abruptly in England and the Netherlands. It is stagnant in
it is flourishing in Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia," he says. "I get upset
about the sweeping generalization
about the decline in religion. Religion
always declining and always reviving."
It is not just the Catholic
Church that has seen its numbers fall; some
Protestant churches have been affected. Among the most striking examples is
Swedish Lutheran Church. For generations, "You didn't become a member
when you were baptized. You became a member when
you were born," says Carl
Johan Lidén, a priest for the church in Stockholm.
In 2000, the church was separated from
the state as part of the country's
secular trend. People now can write to their local parish telling the vicar
no longer wish to be members and opt not to pay taxes to the church,
which range from 2% to 3% of their income.
some 85% of Swedes are church members, only 11% of women and 7% of
men go to church, the government says.
and throughout Scandinavia, the decline of the church also has
been matched by a drop in the number of marriages. There
is virtually no
social stigma for unmarried parents. More than half of the children in
and Norway are born
to unmarried mothers, according to the European Union.
Denmark, it's 45%.
The separation between church and
state in Europe is becoming standard.
vigorous debate, European leaders rejected any mention of the role of
in a new constitution for the 25 European Union countries.
Italy's nominee for justice minister of the EU, Rocco Buttiglione,
rejected because he was openly religious and condemned homosexuality.
Asked by USA TODAY about the consequences
of the decline of religion,
Buttiglione said, "If we ignore our pasts and try to create a Godless
like money or ambition or property are worshiped, then the
society loses. ... It is a battle we are fighting at the current
The battle is more apparent in Western Europe, where a half-century of
has meant economic and political
stability. World Bank data show the per
capita gross domestic product in Western Europe has tripled since 1980.
a different story in Eastern Europe, where the economies are weaker -
and citizens less secure. That partly explains why
religion remains strong
countries such as Russia, Poland and Ukraine. "For the masses, religion
provides a sense
of certainty in an uncertain world," he says. And since
collapse of communism and its anti-religious ideology, people
Europe are taking advantage of their new freedom to worship.
As Western Europeans have moved away from
traditional worship, more people
say they are "spiritual" rather than religious. Steve Hollinghurst, an
says, "It's very much what's appealing to people now -
spirituality that works with my lifestyle. ... Faith and spirituality
viewed as consumer products. And that's had an impact on the way people
has taken over. It has replaced God," says Haugh, the Dublin
But Kenny, the Dublin student, says he's
merely typical of his generation.
"I'm very spiritual," he says. "I speak to an energy force I call God, and
answers," he says. "If you can get a spiritual connection without going
to church, why go to church?"
Geoff Pingree in Spain and Eric J. Lyman in Rome. http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2005-08-10-europe-religion-cover_x.htm