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The Economist on European Catholicism

A fascinating (basically gloomy, although not entirely so) article on the fate of Catholicism in Europe....

About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



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Catholicism has never been fully Christian. At least since the fourth century the church has been so intwined with the state resulting in a Medieval world where they were both one. The article mentions Ratzingers belief that the church is better off with sincere core believers rather than those who are merely born into the faith. He is right but his actions contradict as he keeps his legates and exercises powerful influence throughout the world. My view is the decline of Catholicism is not a bad thing for Christianity. Without the favor of secular powers the church will have to make it on its merits which is as it should be.

It is true that "Italians are less pious than they pretend". The Catholic magazine "Il regno" has published recently an authoritative study on this, and the recent isue of Italian journal of politics "Il Mulino" has a piece on the cultural and political homelessness on Italian Catholicism

A major problem in and for Catholicism is that "smaller and purer" is far from the same as "sadder but wiser." Petulant arrogance will grow in prominence as one of the Marks of The Church.

From the same issue of the Economist, I'd recommended also their editorial: The Church and the Law I don't know whether you have to be a subscriber to see it on the web, and I think it would probably be illegal to copy the text and post it here).The gist is that the Vatican, after all this time, still does not care to understand what the abuse crisis means, still sees it as an internal matter that has no relevance to (secular) law and society, and still digs in its heels when someone like Cardinal Schnborn -- who does understand such things -- tries to convince Rome of the error of its ways. I find the editorial distasteful reading, but only because of its accurate analysis.

When I tell American Italians that American Italians learned to be devout from Irish Catholics, they usually protest or perhaps remain in denial. Italians in Italy have always been wary of the clergy and did not used to pretend piety. Maybe prosperity impels them to be politically correct. For futher evidence of blind Catholicism here is a neat analysis on the church of our youth of those of us of a certain age. How much our eyes have opened in fifty years.

I think it is important to make some distinctions as to the definition of Catholicism. Catholic is really a fourth century term when Augustine, especially, placed the emphasis on everyone being in conformity with doctrine and liturgy. In the East Athanasius and others were doing the same with what we now call Orthodxy in the East. This was a drastic departure from the first three centuries despite countless theologians who claim differently. So the demise of Catholicism and Orthodoxy is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be persuasively argued that those who object to those two constructs may have a better idea and following of Jesus than the officialdom of Christianity. They are attempting to get their ideas heard.

The description of Catholicism in France matches my experience. Maybe it's personal, but I have the impression of a positive evolution; from the sadness and confusion caused by rapid decline, to a new understanding of Catholicism as a minority faith. For example, yesterday in a village church, the congregation sang beautifully, the cantor knew how to make hand gestures in such a way that we were able to chant the psalm (I was very impressed!), and the congregation was a mixture of retired people along with a few young families with numerous children in tow. The retired priest's homily was pointless rambling, and he was often paraphrasing bits and pieces of the Eucharistic prayer instead of saying the words that I know, but overall Mass was a fervent affair.

Jimmy Mac: You're so right about petulant arrogance becoming one of the marks of "the Church." I see it among a cohort of my undergraduates -- often, I must say. the most zealous -- who act and talk as though none of the last decade's scandals ever happened. Ask them to consider what disgrace the gerontocracy has brought upon the Church and the Gospel, and they reply with Pavlovian alacrity about "liberalism," the "homosexual agenda," the liberal media, and did I mention liberalism. And they're encouraged to remain in this intellectual enclave by some younger, JP II-enthusiastic faculty. Small and pure, for sure, but not at all sad and, I think, very foolish. Very, very depressing.We're going to be a people adrift for quite a while, folks. Settle in. Who knows, we may learn a few things. Like how to hope for real.

Bill Mazzella will not be convinced but the term "catholicity" and "Catholic" first entered the Christian vocabulary in the first decade of the second century to describe the whole church as opposed to this or that local community; by the end of the second century (in Irenaeus, for example) it meant the faith of the apostles as opposed to the teachings of, mainly, the gnostics. When Augustine uses the term he does so with a lot of theological history behind him.I recommend the late Avery Dulles' book on catholicity - it is a reprinting of the D'Arcy Lectures he gave at Oxford. What Mazzella writes is just simply piffle.And now for something completly different: the state of the contemporary Catholic Church in Italy is the topic of an important post made by Sandro Magister just recently posted.

I should have said that the fourth century extended the term Catholic to the point where other viewpoints were not allowed as they were in earlier centuries. Iraeneus was much more tolerant than Augustine. The fourth century created the church as we know it today. Many reputable historians hold that view. The linear view of Catholicity is a theological not an historical conclusion. continually marvel at the talent for dialogue that Lawrence Cunningham displays.

Mazzella,Nothing happened in church history from the 4th C to today? Have you heard about Trent? Vat I and II? Celibacy for clergy?(12th C.) The Great Schism (1000s)? The growth of papal monarchy(11th/12th C.) The sacrament of marriage? Conciliarism? The Gregorian reform (which you might be interested to know was a process of separating the church from the state by elevating the church above it)?Need I go on? There are no historians who believe that nothing happened for 1600 years. Do you consider your pontifications dialogue?

Hello All,I subscribe to The Economist as well as Commonweal. (In fact, these are the only periodicals to which I subscribe.) I finally had a chance to study the article Professor McGreevy has pointed us to (in the print version). I found the article rather dismal reading as I expected. With only one exception nothing in this piece surprised me. But my jaw dropped when I read the report of the survey claiming that 12% of the priests in Poland had "a stable relationship with a woman". I've never known The Economist to cite unreliable data.I'll admit it (with advance apologies to the participants here who are priests), I have never been in favor of the discipline of celibacy for our priests. But what does it say about we Catholics if, in a country that is supposed to be a crown jewel of Roman Catholicism in Europe, such a large fraction of its priests simply disregard one of their solemn vows?

"French Catholicism is a battered tree, but it can still sprout new and unexpected branches," In 1982, at a symposium in Rome on the Holy Spirit, I heard Fr. Yves Congar give one of the last public talks of his life. He spoke with some emotion of the pain he experienced at seeing so many of the evangelical and apostolic works and movements he had known decline or disappear entirely; but then he spoke--his voice again breaking--of the new springs of life that the Spirit was causing to bubble up, and, in an image I will never forget, he compared the Holy Spirit to an aquifer whose life-giving waters lie silent and unknown deep beneath the earth but here and there, and unpredictably, arise to renew the earth once again. I have read that the original metaphor of ressourcement, often translated as "return to the sources," has the meaning of re-springing or causing to spring up again. Veni, sancte Spiritus!

Father Komonchak - thanks - I love the richness of the comparison between the life-giving Spirit and an aquifer. I also can relate to the emotions of Fr. Congar. It is heart-wrenching for me to think daily about my wounded Church. Thus along with Veni, Sancte Spiritus I continue: Lava quod est sordidum Riga quod est aridum Sana quod est sauciumTo my wonderful Church throughout the world:"For the tree there is hope,if it be cut down, that it will sprout again and that its tender shoots will not cease.Even though its root grow old in the earth, and its stump die in the dust, yet at first whiff of water it may flourish again and put forth branches like a young plant." (Job 14:7-9)"He probes the wellsprings of the streams, and brings hidden things to light." (Job 28:11)

Jim S.your continuation of the hymn made me go further: "da perenne gaudium" and, I saw Teresa Benedicta's "Ewiger Jubel!" Thanks.

JC,You are misinterpreting what I wrote. I did not say that nothing happened between the 4th century and today. My point was the forced uniformity of dogma began then.

It looks as if "the crown jewel of Roman Catholicism in Europe" has a few paste stones in it.

The Economist article didn't mention Austria, that once-profoundly Catholic country; but today's Der Standard online has an article on the number of Catholics who have left the Church in the first six months of 2010 compared with the samer period in 2009. The number has doubled: about 8,650 this year, 3,950 last year. The statistics are given for the districts outside Vienna; the Archdiocese of Vienna, apparently, refuses to give statistics for the half-year. The Archbishop's spokesman, however, expresses great hopes for the youth pilgrimage to the great Austrian shrine, Mariazell, for the Feast of Assumption, which is supposed to foster informal communication between the presiding bishop and the young people who attend. Good luck! I know from experience that most of the people who attend Mass in Vienna are elderly, mostly elderly women. I also attended Mass, occasionally, with a young family in a nearby suburb: there was a youngish Italian priest, who made every effort to include the young children in the Mass - he made a warm and inviting spiritual home for them, and the old Baroque church was usually pretty full on Sundays, and the median age was perhaps 40. But for the most part, the Church in Austria has become a kind of cultural museum.i myself have withdrawn from the Church - not for the first time, but probably for the last. This spring was too weird: I spent hours watching the Vatican drama on EWTN, while singing the Latin liturgy at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Maine, where I moved last winter. I enjoyed singing the ancient liturgy, immersed as I am in history; but finally I couldn't support the whole web of hypocrisy, deceit, hiding behind what is left of ancient privilege. I feel sorry for Pope Benedict, whose encyclicals display an acute sense of what is wrong, economically and politically, in the world today; but I do not see any possibility of real renewal in the Church at this time - only increasing irrelevance in a world which desperately needs both moral grounding and to remember its cultural roots.

Suzanne - real renewal is coming, but much slower without reflective people like you - the Church leaders in general are beginning anew in their thought process (Law versus Love) - for example, 3-5 years ago the Church would have been at the forefront regarding the same-sex marriage case in California ranting and raving uncivilly - now we see a Church who first sees discrimination (new mindset), is beginning to understand the hurt to people, and is acting charitably in words and actions - and yet, she is confident in her teaching. We need to be patient - maybe a Vatican III soon.

Sorry but I found the article dated and treading ground that has already been gone over and over and over and over.For those who have been called, it is simply a time to move forward and keep moving forward. I heard a Bishop once give a talk on all the externals, latin masses, etc, etc and said that if anyone is here for that - that is "the Church that never was". It was a very good line that stuck with me. That form of worship was an expression of the spirituality and of the age. There is a new expression now. That expression is individualism and the Church simply needs to adapt its language and practices to accommodate this new reality. That does not mean community still does not happen. It simply means that it needs to be interpreted differently.Consequently, I have little time for articles that lament a church that in point of fact never was. We are in the Church that is now. That is what needs to be discussed and reflected on. Those practicing the faith as it is being practiced in the present moment.Now I admit that part of the problem is that bishops, etc. tend to sometimes want to prop up a dead structure which is why we need good leaders and there are some. A few years ago I saw a Bishop on one of the Sunday shows and he was being asked about the scandal. He was asked what would happen if the Church went broke and had to give up all its holdings. Without missing a beat the Bishop said, then we would celebrate Eucharist in the garage. Would that we had more like him!

George D. - we Americans first see the Catholic Church in terms of money and property and possessions (individualism) - that is because we ourselves see those things first in everyone we meet - even when I am asked how my sons are doing, I catch myself talking about their "great" jobs (is it "great" when you make a lot of money?) and their nice homes - instead first I should be thinking and saying: " they have become wonderful, considerate, virtuous young men and I love them. My point: your last two lines hold the truth - without the Eucharist there is no Church (nothing else matters!!!!!!!!), thus, the Church will exist till the end of time as long as the bread is broken - Walter Ciszek in With God in Russia celebrated Mass on tree stumps in minus degree weather joining his mind and heart with Christ and the rest of the Church throughout the world - that is the Church! Not as we Americans or Europeans see the Church! We complain when there is no air conditioning in the Church yet in other countries where the Church is vibrant, you have to bring tissues with you to Mass in case the birds do their business on you during the celebration. The Church is alive. You are right. It is our mindset that has changed from denying ourselves to aggrandizing ourselves. That is not the Gospel message and certainly not the way Jesus lived.

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