Your weekend think piece: Doing the math (think demographics) in post-Christian Europe

Just when you thought it was impossible to find another new layer of meaning in the brutal murder of Father Jacques Hamel, who was slaughtered at the altar of a French church dedicated to the memory of the first New Testament martyr St. Stephen, columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times dug a bit deeper.

This Sunday piece ran under this headline: "The Meaning of a Martyrdom." In it, Douthat -- a pro-Catechism Catholic, to one of my own pushy labels -- reflects on the current debates about whether Hamel was or was not a martyr for the Catholic faith. This also happened to be the topic of my Universal syndicate column this past week. Click here to check that out.

But in the midst of that discussion, Douthat made this blunt observation, noting that Europe, and our world today in general:

... is not actually quite what 1960s-era Catholicism imagined. The come-of-age church is, in the West, literally a dying church: As the French philosopher Pierre Manent noted, the scene of Father Hamel’s murder -- “an almost empty church, two parishioners, three nuns, a very old priest” -- vividly illustrates the condition of the faith in Western Europe.
The broader liberal order is also showing signs of strain. The European Union, a great dream when Father Hamel was ordained a priest in 1958, is now a creaking and unpopular bureaucracy, threatened by nationalism from within and struggling to assimilate immigrants from cultures that never made the liberal leap.

This reminded me of a sobering Catholic News Agency piece that ran recently at Crux about a blast of statistics from Catholic pews, pulpits and altars in postmodern Germany. To be blunt about it, Catholicism in Germany is not producing new babies or new believers, according to findings released by the German bishops' conference.

Check this out:

With more than 23.7 million members in Germany, Catholicism is the largest single religious group in the country, comprising 29 percent of the population. Yet people are leaving the Church in droves: in 2015, a total of 181,925 people departed.
By comparison, 2,685 people became Catholic, and 6,474 reverted to Catholicism.

There has been a tiny uptick in some crucial statistics in the past year or so, but that cannot hide the overarching trend.

When compared to the official statistics of twenty years ago, the number of baptisms has declined by more than a third, from almost 260,000 babies baptized in 1995 to just over 167,000 in 2015.
The situation is even worse for marriages. Twenty-one years ago, 86,456 couples tied the knot in Church. Last year, the number was down by almost half: In a nation of 80 million people, only 44,298 couples were married in the Church last year.
Further official numbers confirm this precipitous decline: average church attendance is down from 18.6 percent in 1995 to 10.4 percent in 2015.

You know all of those dark statistics about how Catholics have given up on going to Confession, a crucial element in the church's Sacramental theology? The first time I read the following sentences I thought there had to be a typo somewhere.

It appears that many priests and the overwhelming majority of the most active laypeople in Germany -- those trained to help distribute Communion in the Mass -- have stopped going to Confession on a regular basis. Read this carefully:

No numbers are provided by the German episcopate about how many Catholics went to confession last year. However, a recent academic study of the priesthood in Germany showed that even among the clergy, more than half -- 54 percent -- go to confession only “once a year or less.” Among pastoral assistants, a staggering 91 percent responded that they receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation once a year or less.

Amazing. Staggering. This leads me to a recent think piece by the famous historian Philip Jenkins, focusing on the ticking time bomb in studies of religious faith and demographics. I am talking, once again, about the link between higher birthrates and devotion to religious faith.

Think about those earlier comments on life in Europe, then read this from Jenkins:

The lower the fertility rate, the smaller the family size, the greater the tendency to detach from organized or institutional religion. Fertility rates supply an effective gauge of trends towards secularization.
Of itself, such an idea is not entirely new, and it has been explored to some degree as a causal factor in the secularization of contemporary Western Europe, Recent projections, though, strongly suggest that European-style declines in fertility are now affecting much of the globe, and that those trends will become ever more marked over the next three or four decades. If that is correct, then we would expect the religious character of those other non-European areas to be transformed much like Europe itself, that is, in the direction of sweeping secularization.

Wait. There's more. And, yes, you could say this is linked to the whole "nones" trend that is getting so much attention -- with good cause -- here in America. How many times have your GetReligionistas linked to this Pew Forum study in the past few years?

Back to Jenkins:

Much of the Euro-American world today is profoundly secular, to the extent that some scientific surveys project the total evaporation of faith of all kinds from several nations by the end of the present century. A study reported to the American Physical Society in 2011 predicted that by the end of the present century, nine nations would be entirely free of religion, namely Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland. Whether or not such predictions are valid, the reasons underlying that religious decline have some predictive value for understanding the world’s religious climate.
One critical statistic for understanding any society is its fertility rate, the average number of children born to a typical woman over the course of her lifetime. If that figure is around 2.1 children per woman, then the population will remain broadly stable, and that level is termed “replacement rate.” If the rate is much higher than that, say 5 or 6 per woman, then we will see a rapidly expanding population with many young people and young adults, with all the restlessness and turbulence that suggests. A fertility rate below 2.1 will produce a contracting population and an aging society. (Death rates are also significant of course, but less so for present purposes).
Not coincidentally, the Europe that has become so secular has also, since the 1960s, pioneered an epochal demographic revolution of historically low fertility rates.

Read it all.

Journalists! There are all kinds of news stories hiding in here, and not just in Germany and France. Any struggling seminaries near you? In any brand? Catholics closing local schools? Parishes being merged?

Connect the dots, folks.

Please respect our Commenting Policy