To say merely that it was “inappropriate” would be a gross understatement. On a Sunday afternoon in the great Romanesque abbey church of Maria Laach in the German Rheinland, a mother and father with three preteen children strolled down the aisle casually licking their ice cream cones. All around were paintings and sculptures that spoke of the great mysteries of the Christian faith; in the apse overhead was a powerful mosaic of Christ as judge of the living and the dead, and on each side were pillars and arches of one of the truly great examples of Benedictine monastic architecture. Sadly, both parents and children seemed blissfully unconcerned about Christ in majesty and oblivious to the wonders of this 1,000-year-old sacred place of prayer. They licked their ice cream with gusto.
It is, of course, possible that a religious thought may have passed through their minds, but they certainly seemed to be giving full attention to the creamy chocolate goodness of their cones. Their faces did not show the slightest sign of shame or guilt, or even a hint of embarrassment. They had come on a Sunday jaunt and somehow wandered into this sacred space sanctified by a millennium of prayer. Licking their ice cream cones was not an act of deliberate sacrilege or blasphemy—just total indifference. After all, why not enjoy your ice cream in church?
This happy and insouciant family can be seen as a symbol of a secularized Europe. For unlike earlier moments in Christianity’s 2,000-year history, when there was real anger directed at the church and its clergy, the church is now seen as an enemy not to be crushed but rather as a historical relic best ignored. Was the hatred of Voltaire and his friends, who wanted to stamp out “the infamous thing,” somehow more healthy than a mere shrug of the shoulders?
The extent and depth of Europe’s secularity and the perceived irrelevance of both Catholicism and Protestantism remain difficult for an American to understand. In Belgium, for example, every village has its parish church; cities have their big and beautiful cathedrals and collegiate churches; and the countryside is dotted with massive monasteries, convents, beguinhofs, religious schools, hospitals and seminaries. One’s first impression of daily life is of a society permeated by religion. Even the best beers are made by Trappist and Norbertine monasteries! Church bells count the hours, and there are numerous carillons and large, expensive organs. The Holy Blood procession still makes its way through the streets of Bruges on Ascension Day, and the astonishing number of vigil candles burning in front of statues of the Virgin Mary certainly argues to some residual piety and lingering need to do “something religious.”
But as the local clergy readily agree, faith in a Christian God no longer animates daily life. Instead, some people seek religious answers and ethical directions in Eastern religions and New Age mysticism—the sort of fascination with crystals, horoscopes and oils that Americans associate with California of the 1960’s. But decisions are not made from a Gospel perspective. People turn to religion not for matters of sin and salvation, but for the useful and expedient. The Bible, in only a couple of generations, has become an unknown and unread book, and since so few people regularly attend church or catechism classes, a Christian worldview is not passed on to a new generation of believers.
Many observers would say that the United States and Europe share a culture of consumerism, and it does seem rather obvious that people in New York, Paris, London or Berlin all chase after the same symbols of success. But the work of Jan Kerkhofs, S.J., a sociologist at the Catholic University of Louvain, points to some interesting differences in religious practice. In Belgium, for example, roughly 85 percent of the population are baptized, but no more than 15 percent attend church with any regularity. In the Czech Republic, the most thoroughly secularized European country, the figures are still lower. In contrast, some 50 percent of U.S. Christians worship at church services on Sundays. New churches are constantly being built, and they are bigger than ever. It is no longer unusual for a new church to seat 1,500 or even more. And early reports would seem to indicate that even the accusations of clerical sexual immorality and the lack of good leadership in many dioceses have not deeply eroded the faith of most U.S. Catholics.
What causes the difference? Could it be the long hand of history? The United States has never experienced the types of upheaval that Europe has faced. Europe had to withstand the trauma of the Reformation, fights to the death between Calvinists and Catholics and the iconoclast frenzy of l566, when the churches were desecrated. They were stripped of their paintings and carvings, altars were torn out and replaced with reading stands, and frescos were painted over with whitewash. The United States did not endure the tumults of the French Revolution, when cathedrals and churches were turned into “temples of reason.” Although Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the new nation across the Atlantic were greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, a much stronger and more lasting impact was felt by European intellectuals and their universities. In France and in those countries it occupied, monasteries were suppressed, monks and nuns were dispersed, libraries and art were destroyed or sold, and agnosticism and even atheism replaced the old creeds. Have national psyches ever really recovered from the bloodbath of Ypres and Verdun, from the firestorms of Dresden and Hamburg or the terrors of the death camps?
And the Catholic Church in Europe, which has been so intricately involved in political life for centuries, is now crippled and mocked. The United States, with its separation of church and state and protective oceans, has had a quite different history.
While it is certainly true that Christianity in the United States has not always had smooth sailing, it has never been subjected to religious attacks by so many over such a long time. At least until recently, in the United States there has not been the latent anger and bitterness found among so many European intellectuals. It would seem that a history of wealthy monks, worldly bishops and sectarian wars paved the way for religious minimalism on the European continent. Blatant clericalism and an excess of external pieties led to anticlericalism, and latent disgust with scandals and pomposity could no longer be contained. But much of the anger has now boiled away, leaving only cool indifference and apathy.
Perhaps the number of those studying for the priesthood or the religious life is a fairly accurate barometer of ecclesial commitment. The four Jesuit provinces of Ireland, England, Netherlands and Flanders have a handful of young men in formation. Five men from the huge Archdiocese of Brussels-Mechelen and two from the Diocese of Ghent study in the Pope John XXIII seminary in Leuven, and other dioceses and religious orders have no seminarians at all. Six monks are left at the Benedictine monastery of Keisersberg and seven at the Norbertine Park Abbey, and they are all over 65.
Karl Rahner wrote in an essay in volume seven of his Theological Investigations: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has ‘experienced’ something or he will cease to be anything at all.” Could it be that for millions of secularized Europeans there has been no such experience? They have gone to church now and then, but for many there has been no movement of the heart, no challenge to the will, no stimulus for the mind. Religion has become meaningless and boring. If you see someone in church, it is for a concert, a Bach cantata or a Mozart Mass, or perhaps for a baptism, a wedding or a funeral. But now even the “ethnic” or “cultural” Catholic is disappearing and the sacraments are being neglected. Rahner’s prediction is becoming true. Millions of nominal Christians now “cease to be anything at all.” All those seminaries and convents are almost empty, the great abbey churches and cathedrals are beautiful but underused monuments of a bygone era, though some are rescued from decay by governments who appreciate their value for tourism. Others, like St. Jacob’s and the Dominican church in Leuven, are locked up, with windows broken and roof leaking, quietly waiting for the demolition crew.
The church, of course, is not a collection of sad gray buildings. It is a community of those who have experienced the Lord Jesus. Today, however, that community seems to be dwindling, growing smaller and smaller on the continent of Europe. Is there some lesson here for North America?