Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

 It is no surprise that religion, and especially Christianity, has shaped the heritage and history of the European continent. Adopted by the Roman empire in 308 A.D., Christianity in Europe has been at the heart of wealth and war. After one big schism in 1054 and the reformations in the 16th century, we arrive today, with over 70% of Europeans being either Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. However, the numbers are declining by day. Few to none young people are attending mass on a regular basis and the clerical staff seems to be more concerned than ever by participation numbers. Church taxes, very little reformation, and a relatively unpleasant media image are only a few of the reasons for the decline in piety among Europeans. Solutions might exist, but they come at great moral expense for the conservatives in many of the churches. This article will look at the reasons for the secular decrease in declared Christians in Europe.

As previously stated, taxes are one main reason for the religious downturn. Being a constant all throughout the tumultuous past of religion in Europe and with a peak during medieval times, the tithe was dreaded by most since it’s first collection. Tithe ,tenth in old English,represents 10% of your earning that will be forgone to an organization, mostly the local church. Originating with relatively pure intentions of simply founding local parishes, the tax later generated a considerable percentage of the wealth of the national European Churches. Playing a big part in the causes of the 16th-century Reformation and spitting hatred towards clerics, the tithe is no longer mandatory in most European countries. However, the country that was the home of the Protestant reform, Germany, breaks the trend. If you are a declared catholic of protestant, you will see 8%-9% of your earnings going to the Catholic Church of Germany or the Protestant Church. For the past 5 years around hundred-and-sixty-thousand German Catholics of all ages have been leaving the church, as the Kirchensteuer (as locals call it), is a major cause of concern. The situation was further exacerbated in 2013 when a court ruled that, the religious rituals will no longer be available to the people who do not pay. Tying the payment to the sacred practices was taken in with skepticism and eventually reduced the trust that people placed in the religious institution. The incredible wealth of the German Catholic Church does not help either. Scandals exposing personal expenditures of the bishops add to the image that the church is actively seeking money rather than giving true spiritual guidance. The tax is also mandatory in other European states, but to a lesser extent. However, practitioners are encouraged to donate money in most states and by most local churches. Pastors are claiming the tax should rather be viewed as a form of giving and that it should not be contested but among young people the perceived reality is rather different.

On the topic of media image, Catholicism in Europe has not had the best image among nonbelievers, to say the least. At first, Pope Francis seemed to have been the savior of the long spotted image. With a fresh approach and an appetite for reform, he was liked by all, regardless of beliefs. However, his efforts are undermined by conservative Catholics and recent sexual abuse scandals affecting Cardinal George Pell, the man behind many of the reforms that were about to take place at the Vatican. Promoting love and care, the Pope is hardly able to fight a whole institution by himself. His stance on allowing divorces and remarriages and his little commentary on homosexuality make him the enemy of what conservatives are considering the right catholic path. The rift between what Christianity actually stands for, the law of love, and what the church seems to be transmitting is almost unrepairable in the public’s perception. The reform that the Pope and many believers are trying to make is certainly not yet welcomed, but the public and especially the young, are tired of waiting. To stop the numbers of practitioners from declining further, the church should be willing to accept reform and listen to the younger generations. On the other side of the Atlantic, and especially in the liberal and tech-savvy communities on the West Coast, the myth goes that Christians are mostly “in the closet”. This shows that the Church has a rather serious branding problem that must be first solved internally.

Detaching itself from the idea that God is in need of “gifts”, the image of conservatism and unwillingness to accept scientific discoveries are only the first steps in stopping the numbers from declining. What many seem to forget is that Christianity is, in effect, about love. This essence, as simple as it seems, has rarely been understood along history. In an era of progress like never before, it is maybe time that the church also gets on the same trend.