Rorate Caeli

The Economist on Thiberville and other matters

The fate of Catholic Europe
The void within
Catholicism is hollowing out in its traditional European strongholds. But signs of intriguing new life are springing up at its periphery

IN THE small world of traditional French Catholicism, everybody knows about Abbé Francis Michel. For the past 23 years this small, stubborn figure in his well-worn soutane has been responsible for the cure of souls in the village of Thiberville in Normandy. The locals like his conservative style, even though his Latin services would not suit all French churchgoers. The village’s 12th-century church, and the 13 other places of worship under his care, are kept in good repair by his supporters. (These days, some priests in rural France must cope with as many as 30 churches.)

Since the start of the year Abbé Francis has been at war with the region’s bishop—in church terms, a liberal—who has been trying to close the parish and move him to other duties. Uproar ensued in January when the bishop came to mass and tried to give the priest his marching orders. Most villagers followed Abbé Francis as he strode off to another church and celebrated in the old-fashioned way. He has made two appeals to Rome, both rejected on technicalities; a third is pending.

To Father Francis’s admirers Thiberville is a pinpoint of light against a sombre background: the near-collapse of Catholicism in some of its heartlands. In the diocese of Evreux, Christianity has been part of the fabric of life for 15 centuries. Of its 600,000 inhabitants, about 400,000 might call themselves, at least loosely, Catholic. But the number of priests under the age of 70 is a mere 39, and only seven of those are under 40. That is just a bit worse than average in a country that, as recently as the 1950s, boasted 40,000 active priests; in a few years, the number under 65 will be a tenth of that. This suggests a body that is not so much shrinking as dying.

On closer inspection French Catholicism is not dead, but it is splintering to the point where the centre barely holds. The brightest flickers are on the fringes: individuals like Abbé Pierre, founder of the Emmaus movement for the homeless; “charismatics” whose style draws on Pentecostalism, and traditionalists who love Latin rites and processions. Meanwhile, the church’s relatively liberal mainstream is almost in free fall. As conservatives like Abbé Francis see it, it is largely the liberals’ own fault: “They keep selling and closing properties, while we [traditionalists] are busy building and restoring.”

Among Europe’s historically Catholic lands, France is an outlier. Its leap into modernity took the form of a secular revolution; that differs from places like Ireland or Poland, where church and modern nationhood go together. Things are different again in Bavaria or the southern Netherlands, where the church inspires local pride; or in Spain, where Catholicism is at issue in an ideological war.

But in many European places where Catholicism remained all-powerful until say, 1960, the church is losing whatever remains of its grip on society at an accelerating pace. The drop in active adherence to, and knowledge of, Christianity is a long-running and gentle trend; but the hollowing out of church structures—parishes, monasteries, schools, universities, charities—is more dramatic. That is the backdrop against which the paedophile scandal, now raging across Europe after its explosion in the United States, has to be understood. The church’s fading institutional power makes it (mercifully) easier for people who were abused by clerics to speak out; and as horrors are laid bare, the church, in many people’s eyes, grows even weaker.

A couple of decades ago Ireland defied the idea that modern societies grow secular: churches were packed. But last year, after a decade of mounting anger over clerical malpractice, the nation was stunned by two exposés of cruelty by men and women of God. First, a nine-year investigation found that thousands of children had been maltreated at church-run industrial schools and orphanages. Then a probe of the archdiocese of Dublin, over the three decades up to 2004, not only found widespread child abuse by priests but police collusion in hiding it. Five Irish bishops offered to step down; the pope has accepted three resignations and is considering the others. When a new bishop, Liam MacDaid, took office on July 25th, he presented a stark picture: “Society has forced us in the Irish church to look into the mirror, and what we saw [was] weakness and failure, victims and abuse.”

Ireland is still a churchgoing nation; about half claim to attend mass weekly, and there has been an uptick since the economy turned sour. But in a land that used to export priests and nuns to the world, vocations have dried up. In a couple of decades there could be a French-style implosion. That need not imply a collapse in Christian belief; but as one Catholic history buff puts it, rural Ireland could go back to its early medieval state, when a largely priestless folk-religion held sway. Already, popular religion—local pilgrimages, or books on Celtic prayer—does better than anything involving priests. And Ireland’s political class, once so priest-ridden, now distances itself from the clergy.

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