Culture, Christianity, Catholic Dogma & The Death Of The West

Culture, Christianity, Catholic Dogma & The Death Of The West

Open Book
Light Bulb


Here is an excerpt of a recent interview with Phillip Jenkins, a professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, about his new book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis, that appeared at Virtue. His book is about the religious future of Europe. Portions of the interview follow:

Explain the "rule of ten."

Jenkins: If you're trying to track the decline of institutional Christianity in Europe, you can take a point in 1960 or 1965 and compare that to today. Whether you are looking at vocations or number of seminarians, we are now at one tenth of where we were, across the continent. People are not going to seminaries. They're not choosing vocations in anything like the number they used to.

How effective was the Soviet Union at stomping out religious belief, in Russia and in its satellite countries?

Jenkins: They were very effective in transforming it. What they did was almost a Darwinian process. In some areas, they drove away a lot of the more lukewarm believers and created a very fiery hard core. The great example of that would be in the Caucasus with the Chechens. Middle-of-the-road tolerant people got purged and that just left the very hardcore Sufi-run resistance. Sometimes the scale of the destruction was so total they did uproot the whole apparatus. The Buddhists in Central Asia were basically utterly destroyed-it was a very bad century for Buddhism. But they couldn't be as effective in Eastern Europe, in Poland, where they did a wonderful job of making the Catholic Church the symbol of anti-Communist resistance. They just made going to mass a way of ticking off the Soviets.

Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that post-Vatican II relaxation of distinctive cultural markers-such as the prohibition against eating meat on Friday-led many Catholics to identify less strongly with their religion. In your opinion, was that a major cause of lowered religious observance?

Jenkins: I think it contributed in a big way. In fact it's interesting to think of an alternate world where Vatican II never happened. A lot of the spiritual upsurge in the 1960s and 1970s would probably have done what it had done in the past-would find its way into the Catholic Church-as opposed to going off in some of the New Agey directions. It contributed [to decline] but I don't think it was enough on its own. I think there were demographic trends already in progress which were contributing. Vatican II just came at the worst possible time because it aligned the Church with a kind of modernity that was already looking dated. Stark is right to say it's important, certainly. But I think the single biggest factor of decline in the 1970s and 1980s was the decline of children.

How does the rate of Christian observance in the U.S. compare to Europe if we count only mainline, well-established denominations?

Jenkins: Well, until you added the last clause, I had a great answer. In terms of church attendance, it's probably about three terms larger. In terms of how people identify and how they assume that religion is part of the landscape, it's even higher. There are obviously regional peculiarities. Much of the West Coast, such as Seattle and San Francisco, tend to look more like Europe. Agnosticism is an option. Generally, American churches are doing better. However, some of the churches which are among the best and oldest established are in steepest decline. One of the strengths of American churches is that they're always falling and always rising at the same time. It's a very dynamic religious landscape.

Why are the rates of religious observance so much higher in America?

Jenkins: There are all sorts of possible answers. Two things I pay attention to. One is the constant history of migration in this country. You continually have new waves of people coming in. They are looking for community. They find it in churches, synagogues, religious institutions. Europe, traditionally, was a much more static society. Linked to that, America is a vastly larger country. It's best to think of it as a subcontinent by European standards. When people move around within the United States, they look for community, they look for somewhere they can send the kids. The obvious place for that is a religious institution. Historically, Europe, a much smaller society, much more compact, much less mobile, has not had those kinds of forces. Belgium is about the same size as Maryland. If you move from one side of Belgium to another, you haven't actually gone all that far. If you move within the United States, then you are cutting yourself off from your older, established community and roots.

Between 1986 and 2000, average births per woman in Iran have fallen from 6 to 2, which is slightly lower than the replacement rate of 2.1. Indeed, birthrates almost everywhere are plummeting. Why is that?

Jenkins: That's right, across the Middle East. The Middle East in the last 15 years is going through the great demographic transition and that is one of the great facts in world politics. What it should mean is that in about 15 years these countries should be vastly more stable. The next 15 years could be a very rocky ride, but the long-term trend is to underpopulation. These countries will have to figure out how do deal with all those old people. Sometimes-and I'm not speaking about Steyn particularly here-when people talk about these astronomical birthrates, they're using pretty dated figures.

You write that the U.S. has managed to "resist the trend of sharply falling fertility" nearly everywhere. What explains that?

Jenkins: Partly, it's very very high immigration rates. People who migrate tend to be the young and the fertile and the ambitious and that creates a particular kind of population profile. Also, you still have this strong religious commitment which is usually reflected in larger families. Increasingly, the U.S. looks like a very weird society on the global stage. On religious affiliation, it's half way between Europe and Africa and in some ways it looks like that in demography too. It's not a European society, it's not a Third World society, it's something very distinctive. So there I am back to American exceptionalism.

After detailing the current state of Christian observance in Europe, you say that "there are intriguing signs of growth within that secular framework." What are some of those signs?

Jenkins: In all the major churches, including the state churches, there are smaller hardcore activist minority movements, like the evangelical congregations within the Church of England, some Lutheran movements, but above all all these new religious movements, new religious orders within the Roman Catholic Church. Opus Dei is probably the most sensational but there are also a lot of different ones. Though they don't include a huge number of members, they do command a lot of influence.

Pope Benedict XVI many years ago was talking about the future of the church and he seems to have this idea in mind.

Jenkins: Right. [Thus] the "new evangelization." He's very frank about that. He uses the example of the city of Magdeburg and he says, "If eight percent of the population claim to be Christian, in what sense can you be living in a Christian society?" So you have to go back to square one and try again. The analogy I use is the Counter-Reformation. What the Catholics are trying to do is very similar to the Counter-Reformation. If you look at where Benedict comes from in Germany, in that area of Bavaria, I think that's his model.

A substantial subset of recent immigrants to Europe is not Muslim but Christian. What effects are these immigrants having on religious life in Europe?

Jenkins: There is a huge network of immigrant churches, in Britain certainly, but also in basically every country there are some very large congregations. When people look at immigrant areas in France, they tend just to see Muslims, but a lot of the folks are actually black Christians-there are networks of Congolese churches-and they really provide a whole alternative religious structure across Europe. In London on an average Sunday, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of people in church are nonwhite, and a lot of those are very recent immigrants. The best known congregation is probably that one in Kiev in the Ukraine which claims to be the largest congregation in Europe these days, with 30,000 members. It's Nigerian.