VATICAN CITY — When nearly one-third of Ireland’s Catholic population came to see Pope John Paul II celebrate a papal Mass in Dublin in 1979, divorce, homosexual acts and abortion were all illegal in the country. Ireland, like much of Europe, toed the line on Roman Catholic Church teaching.
In August, Pope Francis will return to Ireland for a World Meeting of Families event attended by the church’s most committed anti-abortion activists. But they will find themselves, after Saturday’s historic repeal of an abortion ban in a landslide vote, in a country that is clearly part of Europe’s secular sprint out of the Roman Catholic fold.
Across Western Europe, the church’s once mighty footprint has faded, in no small measure because of self-inflicted clerical sex abuse scandals and an inability to keep up with and reach contemporary Catholics. Church attendance has plummeted, parishes are merging, and new priests and nuns are in short supply. Gay marriage is on the rise, and abortion is widely legal.
And yet, Francis is not sounding the alarm or calling the faithful to the ramparts. He seems resigned to accept that a devout and Catholic Europe has largely slipped into the church’s past.
Instead, he has shifted his focus on the faith’s future to the global South from which he came. At the heart of Francis’ vision is a closeness of priests to the poor and desolate whom he believes the church should most serve.
This turn has drawn criticism from conservative Catholics like those in the Continent’s most faithful country, Poland, who have allied with a nationalist government to keep out migrants.
But the Argentine pontiff clearly believes that emphasizing a poor church ministering to the world’s outcasts is a more authentic, appealing — and ultimately evangelizing — global message than a defense of orthodoxy and Europe’s Christian roots.
The challenge for Francis is to keep the present decline of the church in Europe from becoming a preview of its future in South America and Africa.
Inoculating the Southern Hemisphere from the growing scourge of sex abuse scandals, spreading secularism and out-of-touch clergy that devastated Catholicism in Europe is no easy task and will require much of the pope’s attention.
This may explain why Francis, while silent about Ireland before the vote, has been remarkably focused this month on a sex abuse scandal in Chile, threatening the church’s credibility there.
“The sex abuse scandal and the negligence of bishops in Chile has done enormous damage,” said Juan-Carlos Cruz, a sex abuse survivor who recently met with the pope. He said he hoped the Vatican would hold bishops accountable and give that strategy a chance to succeed in Chile. The failure to address the crisis, he said, had caused a “rapid climb of secularism in countries that were the hope of expansion for the church.”
The church’s looming problems outside Europe’s borders don’t stop with sexual abuse.
In Latin America and Africa, where the future of the church seems most promising, there are also signs it is losing ground in a bustling religious marketplace.
In Brazil, which has the world’s largest Catholic population, evangelicals preaching prosperity gospels are giving stiff competition to Catholicism, which is projected to become a minority faith in 2030. Francis made Brazil his first trip overseas after his election.
Whereas Francis sees a focus on the poor as the church’s greatest hope, his predecessor, Benedict XVI, a German, saw secularism as the greatest threat to the church’s future. His pre-election homily against the “dictatorship of relativism” helped get him the job, and his papacy was considered by many as a last-ditch effort to save Europe and its Christian roots. But the European erosion continued unchecked, and Benedict called it quits in 2013.
To find his successor, cardinals searched “the ends of the Earth,” as Francis said, and chose the first non-European cardinal in nearly 1,300 years. Vatican analysts said the church had recognized that its future lay elsewhere.
Five years into his papacy, Francis’ radical reprioritization on the world’s poor has imbued much of the Vatican. In Sunday’s L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, news about the referendum in Ireland sank below headlines about Libyan human smugglers opening fire on fleeing migrants, and about the pope’s advocacy for a more ethical financial system.
In wealthy Europe, though, the church’s woes show few signs of abating.
Last week, in an address to the Italian Bishops Conference, Francis suggested that it was time to cluster together some of the hundreds of Italian parishes around the country. He asked the Italians to be creative in thinking about how to revive the church.
In Italy, many Catholic parishes are now operated by clergy born outside the country.
In mostly Catholic Luxembourg, the government, led by a gay prime minister, abolished religious teaching in state schools in September. In 2012, the Archdiocese of Vienna consolidated its 660 parishes into 150.
Only one-in-five Catholics attend Mass in Spain now. In France, it’s one in 10. In the Netherlands, Mass attendance among Catholics is down to about 5 percent. In Germany, financial contributions to the church have thinned.
In Ireland, this week’s vote was only the latest leap away from a church that long dominated the country’s culture. Ireland had already voted to legalize gay marriage.
“The Catholic Church’s hold on the people has diminished,” said Mary McAuliffe, a lecturer in gender studies at University College Dublin. “There is no denying that, and particularly largely through self-inflicted wounds.”
The church largely kept out of the referendum campaign, in part because anti-abortion activists believed the involvement of an institution so tarnished by scandals would only help the repeal effort.
Benedict recognized the danger of the sex abuse scandals to the church in Ireland, and in 2010 sent an extraordinary pastoral letter to Catholics there, saying “I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced.”
The letter also argued that the church operated as a force for good in Irish society, through schools, hospitals and charities, and that the country’s Catholics “helped to consolidate the spiritual identity of Europe.” But he also noted that the abuse scandals occurred amid “secularization of Irish society” with the result a “weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church.”
The Irish church never really recovered. But there are pockets of the devout in Europe — it’s just that they often disagree with the current pope’s priorities.
By most measures, Poland is the most faithful Catholic country in Europe. About 40 percent of Catholics attend Sunday Mass, nearly everyone is baptized, and it actually exports its priests to other European countries. The strong faith is in part because of Saint John Paul II, an enormously charismatic pope who became central to Polish identity and its sense of liberation from Communism.
But there is also a more contemporary convergence between the traditional Christian values that John Paul promoted and the nationalism of President Andrzej Duda’s governing Law and Justice Party, which opposes Francis’ calls to accept migrants and to combat global climate change.
Anger toward Francis sometimes rises to the surface.
Monsignor Edward Staniek, a prominent Polish priest who is intent on protecting traditional Catholic values from secularization, said earlier this year that he prayed Francis would agree with his thinking on the problem or have “a quick passage to the house of the Father.”
In Hungary, many church officials have allied with the anti-immigrant prime minister, Viktor Orban, who comes from a Protestant background and was once ambivalent about religion but who now says, “European identity is rooted in Christianity.”
He considers his fence against migrants a defense of Western civilization, and Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, the church’s top official in southern Hungary, apparently agrees, having said that the pope doesn’t understand the situation and that Hungary is under invasion.
Populists in Italy have said Francis is essentially abandoning the fight for Europe’s Christian identity. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrants League party, has talked about how Pope Benedict understood the needs of European nations to keep their religious and cultural identity in the face of Muslim migration.
If the landslide vote in Ireland bothered Francis, he didn’t show it on Sunday afternoon. He smiled broadly as he blessed tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square and urged them to pray for Africa.
Kilvia Passos, 47, cheered the pope as she held a flag of her native Brazil, the country with the world’s largest Catholic population. She said despite the growing competition of evangelicals there, the country still felt deeply Catholic.
But so, until a few decades ago, did Ireland and the rest of Europe.
“We’re worried about what’s happening here,” she said.
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