The scary truth about young Europeans and the Church

Picture: Mazur/

In his 2003 exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, Pope John Paul II addressed at length the “de-Christianisation of vast areas of the European continent”. Citing Christ’s query as to whether, upon his return, he would find faith left on earth (Luke 18:8), the Polish saint asked: “Will he find faith in our countries, in this Europe of ancient Christian tradition? This is an open question which clearly reveals the depth and the drama of one of the most serious challenges which our churches are called to face.”

Fifteen years later, this “open question” remains. In some European countries, moreover, it is one to which no glib assurances are either possible or advisable.

This week the Benedict XVI Centre, in partnership with the Institut Catholique de Paris, launched another of its free-to-download research reports, “Europe’s Young Adults and Religion”. Our main hope is to help inform the synod of bishops this October, which will focus on “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment”.

The report analyses recent (2014/16) data from the highly regarded European Social Survey to explore the religious affiliation and practice in 22 European countries of 16- to 29-year-olds – the synod’s working definition of a “young adult”.

Large-scale, nationally representative surveys are, of course, decidedly blunt tools. They do not, in themselves, give a remotely full picture of something so complex and richly textured as daily Catholic life. Nevertheless, they can tell us a great deal.

The proportion of 16- to 29-year-olds identifying as Catholic in 22 countries

Most obviously, such surveys are the only reliable means of gauging the proportion of Catholics in a given population and, critically, the proportion of those who are (or are not) practising. Practising, committed Catholics are relatively easy to count and interview: after all, they congregate in set places at set times on a Sunday morning. Meanwhile, lapsed Catholics, by definition, do not gather en masse.

So, how is Catholicism doing among Europe’s young adults? It’s a mixed picture.

As is clear from the first chart, the proportion of young adults identifying as Catholics varies wildly across our sample of countries: from four out of every five in Poland to too few to appear in the sample in neighbouring Russia (yes, Twitter pedants: Kaliningrad counts). Similar extremes exist elsewhere in post-communist Europe: Lithuania and Slovenia up near the top, Estonia and the Czech Republic down at the bottom.

While none of these cases are exactly surprising, the placing of a number of Western countries ought to be. That only seven per cent of Dutch young adults identify as Catholics, in a country that once had a strong and influential Catholic community, is certainly striking.

So too are the relatively small percentages of Catholics among Belgian, French and German young adults. At the other end of the scale, note the presence of Portugal and Ireland as the only western European nations to make the top five. (Not every western European country is included in the sample. Malta and – one hopes – Vatican City would also rank high.)

Religious identity is one thing. Its having some observable effect on a person’s life is, however, quite another. Accordingly, the second chart shows the proportion of Catholic young adults who say they attend church either weekly (or more), or never, outside of special occasions such as weddings and funerals. Only 15 countries are included here, owing to sample sizes.

Again, it is the sheer variation that is most notable here. Europe is not all that big as continents go, but to speak of “European Catholicism” as though it were a uniform thing is evidently mistaken.

In geographical terms, the distance from Brussels to Warsaw is about a thousand miles. In pastoral and evangelistic terms, it is more like a million. A Polish Catholic twentysomething is roughly 24 times more likely to be a weekly Mass-goer than is a Belgian one. The Belgian, vice versa, is 10 times more likely never to set foot in church than is her Polish co-religionist.

Poland and Belgium are, admittedly, extreme cases. By and large, though, the majority of countries in our sample are rather closer to Belgium than to Poland. This is true even of several countries where Catholic affiliation is very high.

Measured by identity, Lithuania and Austria are among Europe’s Catholic strongholds. But measured by young adults actually turning up at Mass on a regular basis, they’re as much mission territories as swathes of the rest of the continent (our little north-west corner – where one in 10 Catholic young adults is a weekly Mass-goer – included).

Once again, though, there are signs of genuine hope. Czech young adults, for example, have a strong claim to being the world’s least religious: fully 91 per cent say they have no religion, and 70 per cent say they never attend religious services. This religiously bleak backdrop does not, however, seem to deter the country’s young Catholics, a quarter of whom attend Mass at least weekly.

Frequency of church attendance among young adults identifying as Catholic

When flying to Prague for a 2009 apostolic visit, Benedict XVI spoke powerfully of the importance of “creative minorities” for leavening heavily secularised cultures. He could hardly have picked a better example. Countercultural Czech Catholicism? That’s a form of Bohemianism I think we can all get behind.

In other news, Irish Catholicism might not be quite so dead as it is often portrayed. True enough, if compared with Irish young adults 30 or 40 years ago, there has undoubtedly been significant religious decline. Compared with the young adult population of pretty much any other Western country, however, Ireland is still bearing up remarkably well, all things considered. (Let’s just pray that they all turn out to #Savethe8th. It’s literally a matter of life or death.)

Let us conclude by quoting again from St John Paul II’s 2003 post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Church in Europe: “The Church cannot shirk the responsibility of making a courageous diagnosis which will make it possible to decide on appropriate therapies.” The methods of the social sciences are by no means – thank God – the only diagnostic tools we have. But they undoubtedly have, or ought to have, a role to play in pointing us in the right direction.

As John Paul also put it: “Church in Europe, the ‘new evangelisation’, is the task set before you!” On the current evidence, it’s going to be a big task. Where to begin? Well, learning Czech might not be the worst start…

Stephen Bullivant is professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and a consulting editor of the Catholic Herald. He is the author of “Europe’s Young Adults and Religion”, a joint report by the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society and the Institut Catholique de Paris, which was launched in Paris on Wednesday, March 21. It is freely available to be downloaded online, in English or French

This article first appeared in the March 23 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here