The sense of “default Christianity” is vanishing
EVEN in Europe, the world’s least religious continent, a dramatic turn of events can turn a little-known public servant into a posthumous hero hailed as a kind of modern martyr.
Arnaud Beltrame, a police colonel, died of his injuries over the weekend after voluntarily taking the place of one of the hostages seized by a fanatical Islamist in a small French town. As it happens he was a devout Catholic who devoted much spare time to pilgrimages and helping with religious instruction. He won praise of two different kinds. Speaking for the French republic, President Emmanuel Macron described him as a man who had “fallen as a hero” and deserved “the respect and admiration of the entire nation.” In the Catholic circles to which Beltrame belonged, another vocabulary was used. He was praised as a man whose self-sacrifice reflected the faith that he had eagerly professed since a conversion experience a decade ago. Comparisons were made with Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish friar who in 1941 stood in for a fellow prisoner, a man with children, whom the Nazis were preparing to execute.
A French priest who had been preparing to solemnise the policeman’s marriage (he was already married civilly) instead found himself sitting at his friend’s bedside, conducting the last rites. With understandable emotion, the cleric described Beltrame as a man who “had a passion for France, her greatness, her history and her Christian roots which he rediscovered with his conversion.”
But whatever the truth of that statement about cultural roots, how much longer will such language be comprehensible, let alone appealing, to people growing up on the continent? A study of religious attitudes and practice among Europe’s young adults, published a few days ago, found that faith was shrinking almost to vanishing point in several countries, although there was huge variation across the continent. Europe’s secularisation, reflecting a break-up of traditional communities and more materialist attitudes, is familiar to sociologists. But its impact is highlighted in recent numbers.
Among people aged 16 to 29, the Czech Republic showed the lowest level of piety, with 91% of that age group saying they had no religion. Similarly high levels of indifference to religion were found in Estonia (80%), Sweden (75%) and the Netherlands (72%). Majorities of young adults in Britain (70%) and France (64%) were equally untouched by organised faith. (Even in Russia, whose leaders contrast their nation’s healthy traditionalism with the decadent West, almost half (49%) of young adults acknowledged no religion.)
But some countries remain quite devout, in particular Poland where only 17% of young adults called themselves non-religious and 82% identified as Catholic. In France, the study found, some 23% of that generation called themselves Catholic, compared with 10% who professed Islam and 2% who were Protestants. In Britain, only 7% of young adults identified with Anglicanism, the established faith of England, less than the 10% who described themselves as Catholic. Followers of England’s state religion may soon be outnumbered by Muslims who now amount to 6% of the young cohort.
Stephen Bullivant, a professor of theology and sociology at St Mary’s University in London, produced the figures by crunching data in the European social survey of 2014-16, an academic project which spans the continent and also includes Israel.
He concluded that the sense of being Christian by default was vanishing across much of Europe, though loyalty to Catholicism remains quite robust in certain countries. In some places (like Poland and Portugal) Catholic allegiance was accompanied by comparatively high church attendance, whereas in others (Lithuania, Austria) many had a cultural loyalty to Catholicism but only a minority seriously practised. Generally, loyalty to Catholicism was holding up better than loyalty to what he called state-affiliated Protestant bodies, such as the national churches of Scandinavia. And Europe has no equivalent to America’s zealous evangelicals.
Catholic figures for England and France are boosted by immigration from more devout places, such as Poland, the Philippines, West Africa and Christian pockets of India. In any case, they do not portend any huge religious revival. Among young adults in France who called themselves Catholic, only 7% said they attended Mass weekly. In Mr Bullivant’s view, the figures point not to the extinction of European Christianity but its confinement to small and perhaps quite passionate sub-cultures.
So perhaps the only feature of Arnaud Beltrame’s life which is typical, rather than extraordinary, is this: for the first 33 of his 45 years, he was barely conscious of the Catholic faith of his forebears.