Christianity in Europe is fading. A vague and symbolic identity is replacing belief in God, belonging to denominations, and attendance at religious services. Olivier Roy documents these changes in Is Europe Christian?, and shows how long-term secularism, recent populism, and the cultural shifts of the 1960s are responsible for this fall from grace. Yet it bears emphasizing that the Roman Catholic Church itself is complicit in ensuring Christianity’s disappearance in Europe, even more fundamentally than the disenchantment of Vatican II or the more recent pedophilia scandals.
Even as the Church recognizes the distinct realms of Caesar and God, it has repeatedly demanded that its religious tenets become policy. In areas ranging from education to divorce to stem cell research to same sex marriage to, above all, abortion, the Roman Catholic Church often takes for granted that its views construe the moral framework within which public policy can be legislated and enforced. It has met with varying levels of success. In Italy, referendum after referendum defeated its policy preferences. In Ireland, the Church went from being a near-oracle on public policy, firmly in control of multiple domains of public services, to a near-pariah whose stances were denounced in both the 2015 referendum on same sex marriage and in the 2018 referendum on abortion. In Poland, the ruling populist PiS party has made a point of showing its Catholic credentials and gone out of its way to meet the Church in its policy demands—but so has every single other democratic government after the collapse of communism in 1989, whether conservative or liberal, whether with roots in the former anti-communist opposition or the communist successor parties. In many cases, the Church in Poland does not even have to openly pressure the politicians to do its bidding. (In Protestant Europe, whose story both Is Europe Christian? and this essay brackets, churches have been largely suborned to the state, and so we rarely see such demands or insistence.)
Here, the irony is that even in religious countries, there is no popular demand for religious influence on public life. Public opinion polls have repeatedly shown that large majorities do not want the churches to exert influence on governments, voting, or policy. Nor does religious faith or observance increase the popular demand for religious influence: in both highly observant countries and in secular ones, in both Catholic- and Protestant-majority countries, respondents in Christian democracies overwhelmingly reject church influence on politics.
This popular distaste for clerical politicking has had two consequences. First, the churches cannot count on popular demand to legislate their preferred policies. They instead have to actively push for given policies. Without this pressure, we would be unlikely to see either the legislation of theological preferences into policy, or the broader prominence of religion in politics. Second, if the moral authority of churches in society is based on their ability to stand above petty worldly politics, in a defense of sublime ideals and the common good, then open involvement in politics undermines the churches’ moral authority and their standing in society.
As a result, forming coalitions with political parties, or openly pressuring voters and politicians to support given policies contribute to the Church’s loss of moral authority. Churches that openly try to influence politics by electioneering or by entering into coalitions with governing parties, as the Italian Church did for most of the post-World War II era, can thus suffer a twin misfortune: they dissipate their moral authority as defenders of the common good, and they are likely to be met with the decreasing patience of politicians who see the churches able to deliver less and less as their moral authority frays. Critically, these alliances were with mainstream parties governance, not with populists or extreme parties (for churches interested in policy influence, the only coalitions that make sense are with parties that are likely to enter or influence governments: marginal parties need not apply.) Nor are they a recent phenomenon: the Democrazia Cristiana in Italy, for example, was a centrist Christian Democratic party that all too happily exchanged policy concessions for the Church’s continued electoral support after World War II, until the party’s demise in the early 1990s.
So how can churches influence policy without losing moral authority? As I argued in a prior book, churches can lobby indirectly, behind closed doors, as the Church did in Poland (vetting state officials, quietly proposing own policy alternatives, bargaining with the government over issues such as religion in schools, the 1997 Constitution, or the 2004 EU accession). They can also, in the name of serving the people, take over swathes of state services: in the 1920s in Ireland, the Church took over primary and secondary education, health care and hospitals, poverty relief, and welfare services, and retained these for over 80 years. In both cases, Church support was critical to the survival of the new democracies and new independent states—and so secular officials gladly made concessions and exchanged Church support for the survival of their new polities. In other words, rather than relying on overt, partisan politicking, these churches tacitly pressured governments and covertly shaped policy.
Churches can quietly obtain their goals where they already have high moral authority, often by dint of a strong identification of the nation with the religion, as in pre-1970s Quebec, Poland, Philippines, or Ireland. In both Poland and in the Philippines, these narratives of the Church’s defense of the nation and the common good have proven extremely resilient. To those who have much, much is given.
Yet such religious nationalism can also prove brittle, as Ireland bitterly illustrates. Once it became obvious in the 1990s that the most vulnerable of Irish citizens had endured decades of horrific abuse at the hands of nuns, clerics, and church employees, and that the Church’s own hypocrisy in enforcing sexual morality did not prevent multiple priests from indulging in sexual affairs, the bubble of trust that protected the Church in Ireland broke. Its loss of morality was immediate, rapid, and irreversible. Its stances were roundly rejected, on divorce, same sex marriage, and most recently, abortion. The Church lost its moral authority, never mind its political influence—and this was less the result of the pedophilia scandals themselves (which have also rocked American, Polish, and other churches.) Rather, it was the wholesale betrayal of the promises the Church had made to society, to defend the weak, to protect the vulnerable, and to act as a moral bulwark.
Catholic churches, then, are responsible for their own moral authority and for popular religiosity in their respective countries. The forces of secularism, cultural shifts, and populism identified by Olivier Roy are surely important—but they alone have not determined the fate of Christian Europe. Despite the rise of secularism, most Europeans continue to identify as Christian, as recent public opinion polling has found. And neither the 1960s nor populists are the main forces to blame. The cultural shifts of the 1960s left some very religious countries untouched, such as Malta, Poland, or Ireland. Nor is the recent upsurge of populism to blame: populists are only the most recent political parties who mobilize their voters by cynically manipulating religious symbolism, and entering into mercenary coalitions with local churches. Mainstream centrist parties of governance, the mainstay of European politics, have long utilized Church support. The Church in turn has attempted to make use of them. The difference is that few voters blame political parties for seeking coalitions of convenience—but many fervently oppose the Church’s attempts to legislate its preferences via instrumental coalitions with political parties.
A perfect storm of cultural change, generational shifts, and socioeconomic transformation have attenuated the “Christian” character of Europe. But even as these winds of change began to blow, the Church’s own record of intervening in politics, and its instrumental use of religion, made it increasingly ill-equipped to withstand these challenges, much less mobilize against them. The Church’s open politicking has generated a backlash in several countries—and these are self-inflicted wounds.