Christ and Secular Sweden: An interview with Klaus Dietz about the Swedish church

Sweden has a population of nine million, of whom approximately 150,000 are Catholic. , a German who is one of 17 Jesuits working there, has been serving in parish ministry in Sweden for 37 years. , an associate editor of America, spoke to Father Dietz recently about Christianity and secularization in Sweden.


How did you come to work in Sweden?

During my time in the Jesuit novitiate, Father Peter Hornung, one of the great Jesuits in Sweden, came and told us that Sweden is the area where we have to prove the future of Christianity in Europe. Many new and important ideas are born in Sweden and go from there to other countries. (Some funny examples: I think Sweden was the first country in the world to have the seatbelt, and also the helmet for bicycle riders.) And Father Hornung said if we can remain a living church in Sweden, then we can do it in all of Europe. If not, then in 5, 10 or 20 years, all of the traditionally Catholic parts of Europe will be without the Catholic religion, too. I found that very interesting and asked to come here.

What does Christianity look like in Sweden?

You have the state church and the free churches. The state church is the Lutheran Church of Sweden, which is called the Church of Sweden. Until the year 2000, when the Parliament officially dissolved the bonds between the Lutheran Church and the state, the state church was a part of the government, involved with state functions. Now there is no official relationship, but there remains a special connection. The king must be a member, and the crown princess, Victoria, must remain a member in order to become the queen. If someday the Church of Sweden were to decide to join the Catholic Church, in theory the Parliament could say no. So there are a lot of connections.

Among the free churches, which are not connected with the government, there are the Baptists, the Methodists, the Orthodox and the Catholics. From the middle of the 19th century up to the Second World War, there were about 5,000 Catholics in Stockholm, and perhaps an additional 5,000 elsewhere. Then came wave after wave of Catholic immigrants from Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Chile and other countries. Sweden has a very open attitude toward refugees. Ive heard it said that since World War II, Sweden has received more refugees relative to its total population than any other country in Europe.

Most recently thousands of Arabic-speaking Catholics have arrived. Södertälje, a little place south of Stockholm, has received more refugees from Iraq than the whole of the United States has taken in.

What is the situation of the Catholic Church today?

Today the Catholic Church is the biggest free church of Sweden. We are nearly 100,000 Catholics, and if you add in the immigrants who were never entered into our registries, you have perhaps double that. Nearly every year we are building new parishes and churches.

We also have a good number of outstanding converts. The best professors of theology in Sweden are Catholic; and four members of the Swedish Academy, which selects the Nobel prize winners in literature, are also publicly known as Catholics. Interestingly, we also have among our converts a few women priests from the Lutheran Church.

Did these women find it difficult that they cannot continue to practice as priests?

Oh yes. One told me, Its so hard to see concelebrationI should be up there, I should be there. She had been a parish priest all her life, retired some years before and became Catholic. Both she and the other woman I know studied theology and came to find the theology of the Lutheran church insufficient; the Catholic Church had the truth on certain questions and was closer to Jesus Christ and his teachings. And they said: O.K., we have to pay the price; we have to leave our jobs. But its a big price to pay.

What sort of challenges does the Catholic Church face?

First, the youngsters: children attend a Catholic parish until 15, 16, 17 years old, then many drop out. Its the same with Boy Scouts, sports groups and all the Christian denominations; at 16 years primary school is ended, the youth start upper education, and many drop out of their old groups.

The second area I would point out is immigrants. During their first three or five years in Sweden, immigrants feel at home in the Catholic Church; but then, when they are established and know the language, two-thirds of these Catholics disappear into the normal Swedish population.

What do you mean by disappear?

In Sweden, we have a very small number of active Christians. The latest European Value Studies report says about 9 percent of the population can be called Christiansthat is, they believe Jesus Christ is the son of God, life after death, the triune Godtraditional dogma. About 3 percent of the population participates in services every Sunday.

In Swedish society, religion is viewed as superstitious, old-fashioned, uninteresting, nonscientific, fanatical. The Catholic Church has the stamp of being fanatical and fundamentalistic because of its stances on abortion, homosexuality, homosexual marriage and the role of women in the church. The evangelical churches are thought too small, too controlling and also too fundamentalisticthey quote the Bible all the time, and they do not take on philosophical or theological arguments. The Church of Sweden has a wonderful framework, but the content is uninteresting.

How would you categorize the rest of Swedens population?

Agnostic. Theyre convinced you cannot speak about God. Is there a God? Is there not a God? I dont know, they will say.

Religious experience in Sweden is such a private thing. In Germany, after drinking a while people will speak about their sexual experiences; in Sweden theyll talk about their religion. And if you ask one of them to make an appointment to talk further, he will not come. Its their most private thing, the most taboo.

Is peoples apathy toward God, then, or toward religious institutions?

Theyre not interested in religion and theyre not interested in God, either. You ask them and theyll say they dont need it. Theyre not aggressive, they dont debate, they dont want to have conflicts. They just tell you they dont feel the need.

Until he became famous in other countries, Ingmar Bergman was not understood in Sweden. There they said: hes so metaphysical; he speaks about the question of God. Its strange. Similarly Dag Hammarskjöld, former secretary general of the United Nations, was viewed in Sweden as this great political leader and outdoorsman. But when his book Markings was published, the Swedish people didnt understand it. In Europe, many students held it as a more important book than the Bible, but in Sweden it was considered strange.

Ninety percent of funerals, however, are church funerals. And we have national traditions like the feast of Santa Lucia, the 13th of December; in every school class and every factory on that morning, people will sing traditional songs. Every Swede knows them. A lot of people also read mystical texts like the Carmelite books, John of the Cross and Teresa of ávila. Again and again I will meet people who say, I have read John of the Cross, but Im not going to church.

What is the appeal of these writers to them?

I think people prefer their symbols and poetic descriptions, open to many interpretations. They find their own hazy feelings and insecurity affirmed in the mystical books. But they wont pay attention to the mystics active, incarnational theology, their words about God, Jesus Christ, the virtues, the church. Its like Francis of Assisipeople say, Ah, this wonderful young man who speaks to flowers and then birds and the fish. But do they know what he says about poverty or the strict life in imitation of Christ? No. Its just the romantic side.

Convertswhat attracts them to Catholicism?

Many times what attracts them is the reality of truth, the reality of sacraments, prayer life and liturgy. Most evangelical and Lutheran churches would say, if you feel this is the body of Christ, then its for you. But its your subjective feeling. Others feel differently.

For us Catholics what is important is the conviction that what is going on is the truth. To understand that is reality. Of course you have a connection with feelings; every song in the Mass and every silent prayer should help you not only to say in your brain, I believe God is here, but to respond in feelinglike, God I love you, I admire you. Thats a part of it. But in the Church of Sweden and the evangelical churches, its the main part.

Does the Catholic Church in Sweden have anything to teach the whole church?

One thing is democracy. When the church is not so clerical, this helps build up its identity. In Sweden laypeople play an important role in the life of the parish and diocese. They oversee the finances of the churches, and the priest must follow the will of the majority of the parish council. Even on the level of the bishops there is some lay involvement, though it could be better.

A second thing is what I call the reality of liturgy. The sacramental life in the Catholic Church is more traditional in form, in contrast to the Church of Sweden and evangelical churches, which adapt to Swedish trends. If you have a good liturgy combined with the atmosphere of the mysticsnot too rational, with holy water and incense and processions and picturesit will provide a sense that something special is happening. But you have to connect that with the humana living parish, a community of many different people living together.

Does Christianity have a future in Sweden?

The European Value Study showed Sweden on the top in the development toward individualism. Each person has his or her own patchwork of individual convictions in theological and ethical questions. Every new generation, then, must be won for God and for the church one by one. And we have to inform our Catholics again and again that you have to swim against the stream at every point.

On the other hand, even besides the refugees, the number of Catholics is steadily increasing. Every year about 100 Swedes convert to the church; the Jesuit review Signum is the most respected national religious newspaper; and our Bishop Anders Arborelius is perhaps the best accepted Christian leader in Sweden. Therefore we look with confidence and optimism to the future.

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lLetha Chamberlain
11 years 3 months ago
Can I move to Sweden?
11 years 3 months ago
A friend of mine said. when I told him there were now five Catholics on the Supreme Court, that the only real Catholic on the Supreme Court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the same way, Sweden is the only real Catholic country in Europe, given its compassion for the poor, the immigrant, the handicapped and homosexuals. France, Italy, Ireland and Spain don't have nearly the Catholic sense of social justice found in Sweden. This is a most accurate portrayal of Sweden. If you don't believe me, read the excellent crime novels of the Swedish author Henning Mankell.
Keyran Moran
11 years 3 months ago
Three cheers for O’Leary. His is a superb comment. I know lots of graduates from the 1950s’ Jesuit schools. As far as I can see, few still believe in the spirit of the law, the majority in the letter of law, or better, party doctrine! How can one be ardently pro-life, but at the same time silent about the War Party which controls both the Democrats and the Republicans? How can one be for FAMILY values, but not even notice the millions of Palestinian families who live as refugees scattered throughout the Middle East… not to mention, the imprisoned families in Gaza and the West Bank? How could Father Drinan have been a Zionist and a Jesuit at the same time? It makes no sense that the bishops protected the sexual predators with silence and now they protect the absolutists in Israel with not of word about the Lobby. Do they imagine that behind it all Israel is really pro-life and pro-family? I would say there are a great number of editors and bishops and Catholic laity are greatly confused about what they believe. The believers of a previous generation were admirers of the Hasidic injunction: “The just man knows what he feels, says what he means and does what he says. “ How many of the editors and bishops could pass the Hasidic test?
11 years 3 months ago
Thanks, Dr. Brady. You found the words for it. First, the reason Fr. Drinan was a
Fred Close
11 years 2 months ago
The article about the experience of Fr. Dietz made me check the map, thinking for sure this must be Sweden! Youngsters leaving the Church; immigrants arriving, but later buying into another Gospel (here we call it "the American dream"); influential Protestants, including female clergy, converting, and thus becoming incomprehensible to an agnostic society; we have it all in "the States". And this too: Individualism there, as here, must be countered one heart at a time. "As it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be,... Fr. Fred Close, St. Anthony of Padua, Washington, DC


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