It is well known that organized Christianity in Europe faces a crisis of abandonment and disinterest. This is even true in the predominantly Catholic countries of Mediterranean Europe, which are still popularly regarded as traditionally devout.
In terms of daily cultural habits, yes, plenty devotion still survives: belief in miracles is widespread, genuflection is spontaneous, and a glimpse of the procession of Virgin Mary can still freeze traffic. Yet in terms of church attendance, the decline is astonishing. In today’s Spain, only 20 percent of the population goes to church weekly (versus 40-50 percent in the United States). Roughly half never go to church. And rest are “holiday” Catholics, going only on Easter and Christmas.
What happened? Very simply, a large share of Spanish Boomers (born roughly in the same years as in America, perhaps a few years later) simply stopped going to church when they married and formed families in the 1970s and 1980s. To some extent, American Boomers did the same thing–but then they came back to churches later on, and most Xers and Millennials followed them. In Spain and Portugal and Italy, Boomers didn’t come back, and younger generations never followed them back. (Similarly, a cynic might point out, the ’60s and ’70s-era declining birth rate eventually rebounded in the United States, but has just kept trending downward in southern Europe.)
This generational shift has produced a very conspicuous age gradiant: Namely, those who do attend church today tend to be old. Italians who attend an ordinary mass in the United States are shocked by the sight of so young families with small kids; they simply don’t see that in Naples, Rome, or Milan. Even more dramatic is the aging of the clergy. As of 2009, according to one report, the average age of priests in Spain has risen to 63; in some regions, it has risen to 72. Ireland has responded to its own priest shortage by bringing in legions of zealous Nigerian clergy. Spain, thus far, is simply spreading what is has a lot thinner. In roughly half of Spain’s 23,286 parishes, there is no permanent priest in residence. In some rural areas, a single priest ministers to ten or more parishes. Seminaries, especially during the huge economic boom of the mid-2000s, saw almost no new young people knocking on their door. As of 2009, Barcelona (an urban area of well over four million) had only 30 seminarians. Total.
Now comes the crash after the boom. Now we see one quarter of all working-age Spaniards–and one half of Spaniards under age 25–unemployed. Vast numbers of Spanish youth have been hanging around public urban areas for months, where they are known as the indignados (the outraged) and carry signs saying Juventud Sin Futuro (youth without a future). With Euro-credit drying up, with new businesses and real estate in free fall, with economic deleveraging in high gear, with secular dreams dying… could this be a good moment for the Church to recoup its losses?
In 2011, seminary recruitment actually rose by 4 percent–the first rise in decades. Will it continue?
Before answering that question, let me digress briefly. Anyone who has followed my writing knows that organized religion typically experiences great challenges entering the “crisis turnings,” 2Ts and 4Ts.
Entering a 2T, the problem is that churches have come to represent the “salvation by works” establishment–in an era when society as a whole (and especially the young Prophet archetype) yearns for values and meaning and “salvation by faith.” (This collision has defined all of the great awakenings in American history.) Long-term winners? Those who know how to place their bets with young Prophet archetype.
Entering a 4T, the problem is very different, but no less severe: Society as a whole (and especially the young Hero archetype) is looking for practical, material, collective solutions to Establishment breakdown–at a time when the leadership of organized religion is most apt to emphasize the most moralistic, individualistic, and exclusive aspects of its doctrines. Long-term winners? Those who know how to place their bets with young Hero archetype. Very likely, this is going to be a movement that champions the Social Gospel, an emphasis on serving God by doing good deeds in the service of the great mass of His people.
This is the light in which I would like you to reflect upon the following video, produced by an association of Spanish bishops together with an ad agency. The video has recently gone epidemically viral in Spain. Note the shrewd focus on youth, service, community, and hope. (Almost nothing about salvation, conversion, truth, or morality.) I will show the bi-lingual youtube version here. My sincere thanks to Deon N. (Xer living in La Habra, California) for point this out to me.
Will this new appeal by the Spanish Catholic Church succeed? I have no idea.
But I do know a lesson of history. It often happens that one ideology and institutional framework, after triumphing over its rivals and delivering great success, suddenly and epically fails. And when that happens, societies sometimes switch their allegience back to the ideology or belief system that was devalued. I’m not judging here, just observing. Look at what happened in Eastern and Central Europe after the fall of Communism, a system of thinking which suppressed or marginalized any expression of religious faith. Result? Today, several (though certainly not all) of these countries now show rates of (Catholic) church attendance that are much higher than in any western European country–most notably Poland, but also Rumania, Slovakia, and Croatia.
The odds are still long against the Spanish Church making a comeback. But they’ve been around for nearly twenty centuries. And they’re are giving it their best shot.