What (European) Catholics Believe.

The Economist this week has an excellent analysis of the state of the Catholic Church in Europe . Headlined  “The Void Within“, it argues that the church is “hollowing out” at it’s centre. It’s not a flattering picture, but is worth reading in full.

The bottom line is that barring a few exceptions, the Church in Europe is in precipitous decline. There has been a gradual erosion of loyalty and attendance for many years, but this has accelerated since the abuse crisis, and is compounded by a dramatic collapse of church structures and clergy:

….in many European places where Catholicism remained all-powerful until say, 1960, the church is losing whatever remains of its grip on society at an accelerating pace. The drop in active adherence to, and knowledge of, Christianity is a long-running and gentle trend; but the hollowing out of church structures—parishes, monasteries, schools, universities, charities—is more dramatic. That is the backdrop against which the paedophile scandal, now raging across Europe after its explosion in the United States, has to be understood. The church’s fading institutional power makes it (mercifully) easier for people who were abused by clerics to speak out; and as horrors are laid bare, the church, in many people’s eyes, grows even weaker.

Even Ireland, which for so long resisted the declining trend, has now joined it, particularly since the abuse crisis broke in that country,earlier and more explosively than elsewhere in Europe.

However, I do not intend to discuss the full article -there’s too much, and you should read it yourself – but I do want to pick up on just one aspect: a few snippets on what European Catholics really do believe – which, as in the USA, is not at all what the Vatican has told them to believe.

I have reported before on research evidence from the USA that demonstrated how far actual Catholic belief differs from that of Vatican theory. Some research quoted in this survey confirms what could have been guessed – European beliefs differ at least as much or more from Vatican orthodoxy.

For example, in Italy, where the Church remains politically powerful,

66% backed liberal divorce laws and 38% supported euthanasia. Only 19% favoured abortion on demand, but 65% could accept the practice in cases of rape. Strikingly, more Catholics than non-Catholics supported cohabitation by unmarried couples.

Pause a moment, and reflect: the Vatican insists that abortion is wrong in all circumstances, and a professional medical ethicist who consented to one where the mother’s life was seriously endangered, was said to have “excommunicated herself”. In Brazil, all the parties who participated or consented to an abortion for a child who had been raped, were excommunicated – but 65% of Italians could accept abortion in cases of rape. A small, but significant minority would accept rape on demand.

The one exception to a church in decline is Poland, where churchgoing remains strong and seminaries are full. But even here, loyalty is not what the Vatican would like, even from priests:

a survey of Polish priests found that 54% said they would like to have a wife and family, and 12% said they already had a stable relationship with a woman.

That’s one priest in eight who acknowledges not only to occasional lapses in his vows of celibacy, but to a regular, stable vow with a woman. How many should be added who have less regular or sable sexual adventures with women – or with men?

The decline in church numbers of course is worrying, but the causes are not. I see this as cause for celebration:

Across much of traditionally Catholic Europe, there is massive dissent from the church’s teaching on morality. If the Vatican has lost credibility in this area, says Mr Giordan,(an Italian sociologist of religion) it is for reasons that go beyond sex: it has failed to see that since the 1960s, there has been “a huge anthropological change in favour of…freedom of choice. People are no longer prepared to obey instructions.” The pope’s defenders—like Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano—would insist that Pope Benedict does believe in human freedom: he would prefer a small church of freely committed believers than a giant flock herded in by custom or constraint. But in many parts of Europe, critics of the Vatican feel it still tries to tilt the playing-field—by clinging on to old privileges—rather than embracing religious freedom.

Much as the Vatican oligarchy would prefer to think otherwise, blind obedience to authority is not central to authentic Catholicism, but simply a device fostered by the oligarchy to maintain their own power and control – and the wealth that goes with it.  What is central to authentic Catholic teaching, is the idea of the sensus fidelium, the idea that for teaching to be valid, it must have the consent of the faithful. Sooner or later, those ivory tower theologians in the Vatican must surely face the plain truth that has long been evident to the rest of us – the doctrines on sexual morality that they proclaim clearly do not have that consent, and thus cannot be valid as they stand. As the Catholic faithful demonstrate that they do not accept it, and show their non-compliance by simply staying away or leaving the church, the Vatican will find sooner or later that they have  no choice but to come skeltering along to catch up with the rest of us.

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