Belgium, one of Europe's smallest countries, has existed as a nation for less than 200 years. Its modern birth was the result of a division within the Netherlands that was forced across the traditional chasms of tribe and religion. In the southern part, which became Belgium, the Dutch-speaking people of Flanders were united with the French-speaking Walloons. What united these two groups was their Roman Catholic heritage. The people living in the northern portion of the Netherlands, now called Holland, were primarily Dutch and German Protestants.

There are Protestants in Belgium, but they are minuscule in number. There are also Catholics in the Netherlands; but they are not only a minority, they are also particularly nonconformist from the Vatican's point of view. It is a rebellious, some might even call it a Protestant, form of Roman Catholicism, resulting in what people refer to as two Catholic churches in one small country--one faithful to Rome, and one acting out a significant rebellion.

Recently, I spent five days in Belgium meeting with Christian leaders who were also conversant with the state of European Christianity. Our focus was on Belgium, but what I saw there, I was assured, is not different from what is happening across the Continent.

Christianity in Europe is sick, perhaps mortally sick. Across this continent, only 5-6% of the population still has some connection to any church tradition, according to church leaders I talked to. Rome, despite its proximity to the Vatican, has become one of Europe's most secular cities. Things are not different in the Netherlands, Denmark, northern Germany, and Scandinavia.

Antiquity has bequeathed to this generation of Europeans magnificent structures, which once housed the faithful in worship. Today they are significantly empty and increasingly old. The cost of maintaining these structures is not insubstantial. The ability to staff these churches with priests, sisters, religious educators, and the host of assisting people is almost nonexistent.

In the early '60s, following the post-World War II religious revival, Belgium had 12,000 Catholic priests. Today, the total is approximately 3,000, and the descending spiral has not yet leveled off. I visited a theological seminary in this country that once produced some 50 new priests a year. In 1997, that number had shrunk to two. In 1998 it was one. In 1999, 2000, and 2001 there was not a single graduate, and none are currently studying there, so there are no priests even in the pipeline. The faculty members are for all practical purposes unemployed. They still draw their salaries from the state but spend their days doing lay education around the nation. At other Belgian theological seminaries, I was told, the situation, though perhaps not as extreme, is not significantly different. When one adds to that reality the fact that the average age of Belgium's Catholic clergy and the members of its religious orders is growing older and older, the future looks bleak. I was told of one convent where the average age of the sisters was 83. There are few, if any, replacements along the way.

There is, quite naturally, a deep morale problem that accompanies the dying of a great institution, and that feeling was visible in Belgium. Death normally elicits guilt and blame. In a declining institution, people look for scapegoats. If someone else has caused the problem, people believe that maybe by purging the cause, health might be restored; so blame is handed out in a variety of directions.

The conservative part of the Belgian Catholic Church appears to believe that the demise is the result of the liberalizing trends initiated by Pope John XXIII in the Second Vatican Council. They regularly rehearse their litany of complaints: Liturgical changes created doubt, made light of faithful practices and took away certainty. The mystery of the Mass was dissipated when Latin was no longer used. Free-standing altars made the priest more human, more part of the people. When meatless Fridays were ended, the faithful realized that no custom or practice might remain forever, so all traditions were weakened.

In time, these conservative voices assert, faithfulness in religious matters came to be thought of not as the demand of God but as a matter of personal choice or personal piety. In the minds of the Catholic right wing in Europe, these are the things that underlie the church's present sickness.

Given that diagnosis, it is not surprising that the prescription this group offers is to reinstitute the machinery of the past. This means that Roman Catholic scholars are under pressure from conservatives to support the traditional theological line, regardless of the direction their scholarship carries them. Catholic scholars watching a dying church are thus experiencing what can only be called double jeopardy. They are forced to grieve the loss of something they love, while finding themselves blamed and held responsible for that loss.

I met one young representative of this blame-casting conservative point of view in Belgium. Though he was a citizen of another European country, he regularly came to Belgium to identify with conservative Catholics. I found listening to him quite amazing and quite difficult. He regarded such modern theological giants of European Catholicism as Hans Kung and Edward Schillebeekx to be revisionists who would and should "burn in hell." He was radically offended when anyone came to Mass who was not fully part of the "club," as he called the church. The Eucharist for him was to be the guarded doorway to salvation, and none but conservative Catholics need apply. Its whole purpose was to exclude everyone but the true believers and thus to separate the faithful from the Protestants, the liberals--including liberal Catholics--the heretics, and the infidels--categories to which he assigned anyone who disagreed with him, thus most of the world. When one believes that God's truth is one's own possession, it is a very short step to both religious imperialism and religious persecution. To this frightening, young, hostile, 21st-century true believer, anyone who deviated from traditional Catholic piety was the enemy of God. I saw in him shades of the Inquisition. He dismissed Protestants as members of a sect, but his greatest wrath was saved for liberal Catholics.

Liberal Catholics, of course, defend themselves against these charges by pointing to conservatives as the real culprits. The conservatives refused to adapt to new knowledge, new insights, new truth, according to the liberals. The conservatives were reminiscent of church leaders who tried to prove Galileo wrong by quoting the story of Joshua stopping the sun in the sky, clear evidence that the sun rotated around the earth. They were the ones who still thought God sent the weather to punish or bless, and that sickness represented divine judgment. Those attitudes, the liberals asserted, are what has caused the churches of Europe to empty.

Church scholars have also been introduced to the academic discipline of higher criticism. They know that much of the church's doctrine could not be supported today by its presumed scriptural basis. They have studied the history of the great ecumenical councils of the church enough to know that the creeds actually came into being as a result of political wheeling-dealing and compromise among competing bishops. If the creeds were human documents imposed on the church, the liberals argue, then they can be rejected by the church. Yet that idea counters everything they have been taught. So these liberal academics can no longer pretend that what they had been taught about church authority is still valid. That, however, is not an admissible thought in their church--and to hold it, or even to entertain it, is to be disloyal to the church they love.

These liberal Catholic scholars are deeply aware of the fate that befell their colleagues who, trusting the spirit of Vatican II, dared to be openly critical of church teaching. They say to themselves that if world-famous figures like theologian Hans Kung and ethicist Charles Curran can lose their professorships at the hands of the Vatican, then no one is safe. Morale among Catholic scholars is very low. That means no reforms are likely to arise from their ranks. It is another death sign.

My conversations with this group in Belgium kept ricocheting between their deep and genuine love of the Catholic Church and their depression that no reforming passion was coming from any source to reverse the decline of Catholicism in Europe.

The future of Christianity in Belgium looks grim.

When I enquired who were the rising young European theological stars, I received only blank stares. The Bultmanns, Barths, Brunners, Pannenbergs, Tillichs, and Bonhoeffers of the previous century are no more. Even the troublers of Rome, like Kung and Schillebeekx, now in their 70s and 80s, appear to have no successors.

Belgium as my window onto the continent did not present me with a pretty vision of Christianity's future. The choice between conservative xenophobic religion on one side and fearful liberal paralysis on the other is rather sterile. Neither side shows signs of life.

I go next to Great Britain. It is basically a secularized Protestant country. One wonders if that will make any difference. We will see.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad