The Decline of the Church in Europe

In yesterday’s post we pondered the decline of the Catholic faith in the United States. For us, the exodus began in the late 1960s. In Europe it had begun long before. Hard figures are difficult to come by, but in most Western European countries today, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of Catholics attend Mass weekly. C.S. Lewis lamented the great collapse of the faith in Europe in writings going back to the late 1940s.

Of all C.S. Lewis’ works, a collection known as The Latin Letters, is one of the least well known. They are his correspondence, in Latin, with Rev. Fr. Don Giovanni Calabria. Part of the reason for their relative obscurity is that they were not translated into English until 1998. The full collection of these letter can be found here: The Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis.

The letters covered a variety of topics over the years, among them the decline of faith and the erosion of moral life in Europe. This was linked to the horrifying experience of two world wars, which seem to have both resulted from and further exacerbated the decline of faith there.

At Fatima in 1917, Our Lady warned,

The war [World War I] is going to end, but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pope Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father (Second Secret of Fatima).

Of course, we know what happened: the repentance did not take place. Following one of the most vivid displays of the Northern lights ever recorded (Jan 25, 1938), Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938 and invaded Poland in 1939; World War II was engaged.

Most Americans today do not fully appreciate the horrifying blood bath that was the 20th century. Conservative estimates are that 200 million people died in wars or were exterminated for ideological purposes. Loss of faith was a lasting effect of a century marked by amazing invention but at the same time an almost unimaginable body count.

These letters of C.S. Lewis open a window to that mid-century period of European history. Indeed, I would call his insights stunning in many ways. Lewis argued that Europe was in a far worse state in 1950 than she was under paganism. Would that she were even pagan, for at least the pagans accepted Natural Law. Europe, having cast off the faith, was and is in a state far worse than before she had ever heard of Christ.

In the excerpts that follow, Lewis makes the case and then proffers a solution we may wish to consider in these times that are even darker. The following passages are from the English translation by Martin Moynihan. The text is shown in black, bold italics, while my comments are in plain red text.

Let’s begin with Lewis’ assessment as to how and by what stages Europe lost the faith:

But (this) did not happen without sins on our part: for that justice and that care for the poor which (most mendaciously) the Communists advertise, we in reality ought to have brought about ages ago. But far from it: we Westerners preached Christ with our lips, with our actions we brought the slavery of Mammon. We are more guilty than the infidels: for to those that know the will of God and do not do it, the greater the punishment. Now the only refuge lies in contrition and prayer. Long have we erred. In reading the history of Europe, its destructive succession of wars, of avarice, or fratricidal persecutions of Christians by Christians, of luxury, of gluttony, of pride, who could detect any but the rarest traces of the Holy Spirit? (Letter 20, Jan 7, 1953).

This is a remarkable, sobering description. In effect there grew an appalling lack of love for God, for the poor, and for one another. Greed and sloth also took their toll. To some, even Communism seemed more virtuous than this “lip-service” faith.

The wars of which Lewis writes include not only those of the 20th century but throughout the Christian era. Consider this shockingly long list of wars, most of which involved Christians killing other Christians: European Wars of the Christian Era.

To be sure, the 20th century dealt a mortal blow to Europe. These terrible things happened on the Christian watch. However, good, even wonderful, things happened during that time as well: the building of universities and hospitals, the great flowering of much that is best in Western culture. It can be argued that the faith also prevented things from being far worse. A gradual internecine lack of love also took its toll and after the bloodiest century the world has ever known, Europe woke up to a largely faithless landscape.

Next, Lewis describes the depth of our fall:

What you say about the present state of mankind is true: indeed it is even worse than you say. For they neglect not only the Law of Christ, but even the Law of Nature as known by the Pagans. For now they do not blush at adultery, treachery perjury, theft and other crimes, which I will not say Christian doctors, but the Pagans and Barbarians have themselves denounced. They err who say: “The world is turning pagan again.” Would that it were! The truth is, we are falling into a much worse state. Post-Christian man is not the same as pre-Christian man. He is as far removed as a virgin from a widow … there is a great difference between a spouse-to-come and a spouse sent away (Letter 23, March 17, 1953).

Powerful analysis indeed! The modern European (and I would argue the modern American) is in a state below paganism. At least the pagans believed in the supernatural, had some respect for Natural Law, and accepted what reality plainly teaches.

The pagan world was a virgin waiting for her groom; the modern West is an angry divorcée: cynical, angry and “so through” with Jesus. What will be the fate of the secular West? Will she die in her sins or will the miracle of a broken, humbled heart emerge? Pray! Fast!

Lewis reiterates and adds a stunning, biblically based insight:

I certainly feel that very grave dangers hang over us. This results from the great apostasy of the great part of Europe from the Christian faith. Hence, a worse state than the one we were in before we received the faith. For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity, but into a worse state: the difference between a pagan and an apostate is the difference between an unmarried woman and an adulteress …. Therefore many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light, but also the natural light which the pagans possessed (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953).

This is a powerful reminder that leaving the faith does not simply put one back to where he was.

Jesus made a similar warning: When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-25). Having found the house bereft of the Holy Spirit, quite empty of true faith, Satan returns with seven more demons.

St. Peter makes the same point: For if, after they have escaped the defilement of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first (2 Peter 2:20).

Calling for hope, Lewis considers a way back:

But God who is the God of mercies, even now has not altogether cast off the human race. We must not despair. And among us are not an inconsiderable number now returning to the faith. For my part, I believe we ought to work not only at spreading the Gospel (that certainly) but also to a certain preparation for the Gospel. It is necessary to recall many to the law of nature before we talk about God. For Christ promises forgiveness of sins, but what is that to those who, since they do not know the law of nature, do not know that they have sinned? Who will take medicine unless he knows he is in the grip of a disease? Moral relativity is the enemy we have to overcome before we tackle atheism. I would almost dare to say, “First let us make the younger generation good pagans, and afterwards let us make them Christians.” (Letter 26, Sept 15, 1953).

To some extent, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said the same: we have to begin all over again. Lewis’ point goes even further by pointing out that at least the apostles found a Europe where people accepted the testimony of reality as a reliable guide, where people respected the spiritual realm.

We in the post-Cartesian and existentialist West have retreated from reality and into our minds. Reality and Natural Law are no longer common ground on which to meet. There is no accepted reality, only thoughts, opinions, views. Existentialism is everywhere! There is no objective meaning outside ourselves to which we owe allegiance. No, we live not in reality but in a world of thoughts and abstractions.

Think I’m exaggerating? Try telling a “transgender” person that sex is an unalterable reality, that the body manifests our sex. “What’s my body got to do with it? It’s what I feel that matters.” Apparently, our bodies have nothing to say to us (nor does anything else in the real world).

Our task in reintroducing the West to reality, to Natural Law, will not be easy, but C.S. Lewis thinks we need to begin there.

Lewis’ insights are powerful and thought provoking; please use the comment box to let me know what you think.

There were some in America who wondered why the Second Vatican Council was called, believing that there was no crisis that needed to be addressed. That was a uniquely American view, however, flowing from the fact that our churches, schools, seminaries, and convents were filled to overflowing. Not so in Europe, where a crisis of faith was underway, as C.S. Lewis described.

Clearly this condition has reached the Church in the U.S. At some point we could have reached over and drawn our European brethren back to the faith, but instead we chose to imitate them; now we are suffering the same consequences. Perhaps the Church in Africa can help reground us.

Meanwhile, I await a day of redemption from the Lord, when He will, perhaps miraculously, buy us back from the slavery to which we have consigned ourselves. I know only one path to follow: Preach the gospel, celebrate the sacraments with devotion, and wait for the Lord until this storm passes. With the disciples, who in fear woke the Lord during a storm, I cry out, “Save us, Lord. We are perishing!” (Matt 8:25)

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Decline of the Church in Europe

21 Replies to “The Decline of the Church in Europe”

  1. “They will know we are Christians by our love”. The “outsider” of early Christianity such as children, women, slaves, and foreigners were all attracted by the love and dignity afforded them by Christians because all were welcome because all are made in the image of God. The last two centuries on the other hand have replaced God with other idols:romantic love, science, “reason”, equality, patriotism, the state, political parties, ideology, the environment, entertainments, work, money, power, and self. None of these idols bring true joy. Perhaps the answer is as simple as being a true Christian and being as a city on a hill, letting our light shine and sharing with others the source of our joy.

  2. Perhaps Catholicism is slowing making a comeback in Europe. My wife and I were in Germany last May. One Sunday we attended Mass in Nuremberg. The church we attended was not crowed but it was pretty full. We talked to a family after mass, a Dad, Mom and girl about 7 or 8. She was preparing for her first Communion.

    We also spent a few days in Budapest and Mass at the cathedral of St. Stephen was well attended.

    1. Louis,

      I travelled to Germany almost every year between 2009 and 2018. Sometimes I was there for four Sundays. Over those ten years I attended lots of Masses. Some in the north, some in the south. Some in the west, some in the east. The churches were never empty but were far from full. Most people were middle-aged to elderly. The only exceptions were people who were obviously not Germans. They were either foreign workers and their families or tourists. (You can tell the foreigners: they stand up or sit down at different times to the Germans.) The other thing I noticed was the number of priests who came from Africa or Asia. There’s a more in-depth analysis of the situation here:
      https://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/11971/fewer-catholics-but-more-income-for-german-church-
      The Church in Germany is dying and the actions of most of its current bishops aren’t helping.

  3. Father, I really enjoyed this post along with the accompanying one on the state of the Church in America. I have lived in Europe and believe that C.S. Lewis accurately described the situation. But I would point out that Christendom is not the same thing as Christianity, and many individual European and American Catholics are still faithful, even if we are a minority. We should take our example from the Apostle John, who alone remained at the foot of the cross…which was certainly the darkest day for the Church. John’s love and faith was validated. So will ours, I have no doubt.

  4. It’s sad to admit, but what awakes the sinners is suffering. I mean, either the awareness of eternal pain in Hell or the actual suffering that sin unavoidably brings to us in this life.
    This is why Jesus presents the teaching on the Four Last Things so many times in the Gospels: to allow us to avoid suffering.
    In current times we already are in big pain, but the worst is yet to come if we don’t convert. And, I believe, one big reason for the current disaster is that people are no longer warned about the big risk of spending eternity in Hell.
    Sometimes, it looks like the Gospel is not as good as before. It looks like the purpose of the Church is keeping people comfortable in this life rather than saving their souls. And, sadly, this policy is going to make people very unhappy also on this earth, besides jeopardizing their final state.
    Difficult as it may sound, we need to be ready to risk everything to announce the true Gospel (not the watered-down version that the world would like to hear – and that we often hear in many churches), even though this will mean persecution, maybe by the Church as well. This is how the Gospel has got to us and still is announced in some countries. This is the only way to make it reach the generations after us.

  5. The penny Catechism in the hands of every parent when their child is baptised. They have seven years until they are ready to make first Holy Communion and there is plenty of time for the child to learn the Catechism. That would be a good start.

  6. I had made numerous attempts to post over the last few years and could never get one to appear on the screen. A post has just worked in reply to your request to let you know what we thought. While the Catechism idea is one I firmly hold on to, CS Lewis was amazingly gifted with insight and wisdom about human nature. He tells us greatly what not to do. Men like you Msgr. are a lifeline for hope and encouragement to hand on to our Faith. God bless you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  7. The Lord has intentionally put each of us in this time, and our specific missions will differ greatly. The pastor does not have the same mission as the parent who does not have the same mission as the singe person, etc. The way to find it is through prayer (especially in His Eucharistic Presence), Scripture, fasting, and the sacraments. It probably won’t be the mission we have in mind for ourselves or the one we prefer. For most of us it will probably seem small and insignificant. And it will entail suffering, which is not a bad thing.

    In “The Priest Barracks” (which is an actual account of what priests suffered at a concentration camp in WWII), a former prisoner commented (after the end of the war) that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. No one wants to suffer, but when we persevere through it with faith, the Lord gives us a tremendous gift – the gift of turning that suffering into beauty and goodness for us – and even a love of our suffering. I have experienced this in my own life.

    There is a reason why we have been given the Divine Mercy painting with “Jesus, I Trust in You”. Listen, trust, and follow Him wherever He leads you in your mission in these times. Trust Him with confidence and not just wishful thinking. You can’t trust Him too much.

  8. The thought that paganism at least embraced a concept of spirituality and a recognition of Natural Law vs today’s self absorbed existentialism is actually chilling to think about. And our young people today have been deprived of the historical truth of how and why we are at this point in time. WOW What a fabulous article this was. THANK YOU Msgr

  9. In the Summa Theologica, which can be said to be divine revelation in human words, almost like sacred scripture is divine words, there is a distinction between four kinds of citizens: pagans, Jews, catholics, and heretics. This also seems to imply some kind of religious liberty. Then, the arrow of time also goes through these four stages, one may speculate, and from paganism Europe is now mainly in heresy. Nominalism, humanism, materialism, nihilism, existentialism, et.c. have in common denial of natural law that is departure point of theology. In stead, politicians claim positivism of law, as our first parents tasted with original sin, and this cannot go on forever, but will ruin Europe. The world as a whole is, however, not Europe, and there is no universal decline of the Church. On the contrary, the west exists by the gospel, and it was Europe who went beyond the west, so that its sun has now set, and it is gone mad. Thus paganism awaits sunrise, but heresy is beyond sunset, and soon history is forgotten. Positivism of law will give way to pagan power. People will rediscover their bodies and souls. The holy Church of Rome keeps history open.

  10. “Lewis argued that Europe was in a far worse state in 1950 than she was under paganism.” Actually this isn’t true. As insightful as Lewis was, he didn’t have the benefit of later archeological and anthropological research. Several authors including Jared Diamond (The World Until Yesterday) and Lawrence Keeley (War Before Civilization) exposed the myth of the “noble savage”, pointing out that warfare and violence in the pagan world were unceasing. As terrible as the violence of the 20th century was, it was not as bad as the violence of the pagan world, in terms of savagery and percentage of the population directly affected by violence.

  11. I attended elementary Catholic school in the 1960’s. Being a Catholic was clear back then. Only Catholics went to heaven unless of course, you were to die in a state of mortal sin such as eating meat on Friday or missing Sunday mass in which case, without absolution, you would spend eternity suffering in pain the unquenchable fires of hell.

    I started serving the Latin mass as an altar boy in the 4th grade and by the 8th grade, the new Saturday evening service was a “Hootenanny Mass” with guitars, drums, cymbals and flutes. Overnight the worship at holy mass was turned into love-dove hug-fest.

    We had a large church that could seat 500 worshippers and there was always an overflow crowd in the back and side aisles at the most popular of the eight masses held on Sundays. At mass this past Sunday in a Manhattan church, there were about 30 congregants, the large majority of whom were over sixty.

    I come from a large Irish Catholic family of eight children, all of us who had eight years of Catholic education, most importantly taught by nuns in full habits. Discipline was firm and immediate, necessary to keep order in the baby boom years with sixty students to a class. Today they would be arrested for child abuse.

    Now only half my siblings attend Sunday mass sporadically. As best I know, it’s not that they have problems with the church, but that the church no longer holds a place in their lives and they just drifted away. I don’t think any of my thirteen nieces and nephews ever go. Without the Catholic education we had and growing up in families that attended mass together as a family regularly, the Catholic faith is just a label to them, like being Irish. I can easily imagine that the generations to follow not having even a nominal notion of being Catholic. It is ironic that our Irish ancestors preserved their Catholic faith through 700 years of English suppression of the faith, only to lose it in two generations of the modern secular world.

    The time of the Vatican Council II was a period of enormous social change. The old institutions were being cleared away for the new era of relative morality and situational ethics. The reverential beauty and holiness of the Latin mass was replaced with a mongrel mix of feel-good hugs and discordant styles of liturgy and music. I occasionally make the hour-long Sunday drive to my closest Latin mass. Each time I do I am reminded that mass is a celebration of the Eucharist in worship of our almighty God our Father. I never get that sense of awe from the ordinary mass.

    While I mourn the great loss of tradition and ritual that was discarded with the Latin mass, I also believe that the Church could be worse off had it been retained. I can’t imagine any of my millennial next generation of our family ever having the patience to sit through a Latin mass.

    With the diminishing ranks of priests, our parishes are combining and cutting the number of Sunday masses offered. In my small rural upstate New York town, we had one Saturday vigil mass and two Sunday masses along with weekly confessions, CCD education and all the various Catholic groups that every parish typically had. Today we have one Sunday 8:00 AM mass and all the parish functions moved to our joint parish 25 miles away. Needless to say, our one Sunday mass has fewer attendees than any of the three masses we had. The last parish church that was merged with our co-parish church was closed after three years.

    I don’t know what the future church will be like. God has taken the church through difficult times over and over, yet it remains the oldest human institution in the world. I can only keep faith that all that happens is part of God’s plan and He will always prevail.

    God bless you and God bless the Catholic Church.

  12. My experience in evangelizing (small as it is) has led me to the same basic conclusion as C S Lewis. Recently I found a fallen away Catholic and began to talk with him about the existence of God.
    He vehemently denied my statement that God exists. ‘That’s what you believe’.
    I said, “And it’s reality.”
    “In your opinion”.
    I said, “Well, do you believe in objective or subjective truth?”
    “Explain that.”
    “Okay, I was talking to our coworker about what happens when you die, and he believes each person’s beliefs before death come true after. Everyone has the afterlife they believed in. ”
    He was shocked. “Well that’s crazy.”

    I came away from this encounter greatly encouraged about his possible return to the faith compared to many I’ve talked to, simply because he accepts there is a reality. I struggle much more to explain even the most basic concepts when I meet someone who doesn’t believe in a single, true reality. They seem to think we all are, in effect, our own god of our own universe. That’s hard to work with!

  13. Does the church have a creed like the Nicean etc defining what it means to be human, natural law, made in the image of God, even creation itself?

    1. Pope Paul VI promulgated an enlarged creed, with some good theology, Haec Solemna Liturgia, by Peter’s and Paul’s feast, 30th June 1968. English: Creed of the People of God. (I am not sure if my information is correct)

  14. This is a personal comment, because I am an European, a former Lutheran, and a scientist. Who am unmarried, with no children, and have been psychiatric patient almost half of my life, and have had minor jobs until Danish wellfare.
    The world is wild, and God is holy. Mental disease and demonic possession are the same phenomenon of self-world mixing, as seen from the complementary points of view of the world and the self, respectively, science and religion. But then scientific psychiatry can only help the world with their patient, but not the patient with his world, because it was his point of view of the world that tore down his boundaries. Only Christendom cures a soul.
    While paganism is religion, heresy is science, and in the ancient world those two grew apart. Only with Jewish religion and catholic science, the human being is friend with God and world. It is probably true, as pope Pius X said, that modernism is the sum of all heresies. It is of course atheistic science, which takes only the point of the view of the world, and denies God. When psychiatry claims to be values neutral, it repeats Pontius Pilates’, “What is truth?” not for its patient to answer, for they do not listen. Europe’s heresy is obvious: atheistic sciences. At least, in Latin paganism you had language, with persons, first, second, and third, and times, present, past, and future, and modes, indicative for reality and conjunctive for mere possibility, cases for relations of things, et.c. This reflects the point of view of the self, and while scientific psychiatry does seek to train social abilities, in the end, patients are things. As were, of course, slaves in Latin paganism. So, it is my duty to conscience, not to eat my compulsory medicine, but to dismiss their science, irrelevant for me as a lawful citizen. Not that their science is false, but my point of view must be that of my self, not of the world.

  15. After the Apostles said “Save, Lord; we are perishing.” Jesus said them “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?”. In the natural order of things faith exists to fulfill achievement. In business we must have an absolute faith to succeed at anything. Persistence, planning and determination to win cannot endure without our decision to embrace and built our faith. Faith can move mountains and we have seen it in those individuals who have brought positive and significant change to the world. People have lost faith because they have forgotten, or not learned how to think. If a person is taught to engage his own mind and truly think for themselves they will ultimately come to understand the Natural Law. Nature gives 100% in its efforts. A tree will grow to the best of its ability. A lily will blossom to the best of its beauty. But, man, given free will has lost this virtue. We have forgotten, because we don’t think. We have allowed those demons access thus becoming the cold steel ball in a pin ball machine flung around making noise by the power of someone else pulling the plunger. If we can teach people to actual think, I know the Lord will open their eyes to the natural order of things. Then, they will begin to look up to the heavens once again in wonder. We begin this process by building relationships, one by one, and teaching this. When people internalize this and own it, they find Peace. In this I have faith.

  16. Personal comment on Lutheranism and psychiatry: these two work well together, from the point of view of the system, according to Luther’s two-regimentes-doctrine. Luther praised God’s power, in the spiritual regimente, and psychiatry is replacement for parents, in the secular regimente. The wellfare state is built on the power of the system to please. There is no place for free will in Lutherdom. With my twenty years as psychiatric patient, I also played the doctor towards my friends, the best way I had learned from the system, as a child who mimics its parents. Luther was evil. Danish catholic bishop Hans Martensen did his doctor’s dissertation on Luther’s psychology, picturing him as mentally ill, but he was not. Of course, I was, because I subscribed to Luther. And so, I was the mentally ill criminal, trying as a child to please society, friends, and family. Doing acts of human violence against charity. God’s power is an honest matter to catholics.

  17. I apologize for the language, being and living in Italy. I heard an interview to Saverio Gaeta, a well known contributor of Radio Maria Italy, who studied and published a lot about mystics and private revelations
    (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/47149726-three-fountains). He said that there are an incredible and synchronic correspondences in describing our western post christian world and the answer of God. Synthetically, there will be a quite near new universal Pentecost, followed by an unruinable sign. Obviously, mankind will not be conditioned by this – I would say- sort of contemporaneus and brief state of general confession inspired by God, in front of the Holy Spirit, or by, likely, seeing the Cross. There will be then other events. But we well be winner by fidelity to the Pope, the Eucharist, the Rosary, humility and fasting.

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