No institution can be counted upon to provide such operatic drama as the Catholic Church. February opened with sinister hints in the Italian media of yet more scandals involving sex and money within the Vatican bureaucracy’s higher ranks.
Then came the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the first such papal exit in some 600 years. This was followed in March by the (also unexpected) election to the papacy of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, one brimming with its own series of precedents: the first non-European Pope since the 700s, the first from the New World, and the first to choose the spiritually potent name and legacy of St Francis of Assisi as synecdoche for this surprising new pontificate.
For Catholics, their well-wishers in other faiths and perhaps even for some of their adversaries, it has all been an unavoidably diverting set of spectacles. Even so, the pageantry has obscured a rather sobering fact: it is continuity in the Church, rather than change, that is the real order of the day from Pope Francis I on down. In particular, the Church of tomorrow, like that of today, will inevitably find on its agenda a problem even more vexatious than the past decade of sex scandals, because even more intractable. It is a problem that Francis I will no more be able to avoid than was his predecessor — or other occupants of St Peter’s Chair in years to come.
That problem is the conundrum of Western secularisation. Certainly no one was more aware of its centrality than the retiring pontiff, Pope Emeritus Benedict. That great theologian and prophetic thinker made the re-evangelisation of Europe the cornerstone of his pontificate. This was true starting with his very name. As he explained, St Benedict of Nursia — founder of the Benedictine order that kept Christianity alive in the Dark Ages, and one of the two saints from whom he took his papal title — was chosen specifically because his life evoked “the Christian roots of Europe”.
Even before his election as Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had revealed a deep preoccupation with reclaiming Europe for God. Most notably, he engaged the grand old man of the German intellectual Left, Jürgen Habermas, in a debate on faith and reason that demonstrated their symbiosis and appeared as a book, The Dialectics of Secularisation. In 2010, on the feast day of St Wilfrid, who helped to re-evangelise the British Isles, Pope Benedict XVI further tried to institutionalise the battle against secularisation by creating the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation — a body specifically charged with countering what he called “a serious crisis of the sense of the Christian faith and role of the Church”, and “an eclipse of the sense of God”.
No issue, in sum, appears to have been dearer to Pope Benedict’s heart. All of which raises a question entirely overlooked in all the global media attention lately focused on the Vatican: did he succeed in his mission? The answer, so far anyway, can only be: no. But the reason why deserves more illumination than it has received so far. It is hardly the Pope Emeritus’s fault that the Church has not yet figured out what to make of secularisation. Modern sociology hasn’t got it right, either.
The Catholic mission against Western secularisation has sputtered in part because the West, religious and non-religious, has laboured for many years now under what is at best an imperfect understanding of what “secularisation” really is. Until now, the Church has passively let secular thinkers tell the tale of how and why people stop believing in God — all of which would be fine if secular thinkers had succeeded in connecting those dots correctly. But the trouble is that they haven’t, as is evident from several insurmountable logical problems that could not have been foreseen when Friedrich Nietzsche’s madman first prophesied the death of God.
For one, consider the historical timeline. Secularisation has been understood by most great modern thinkers — and by plenty of mediocre ones — as a linear process in which religion slowly but surely vanishes from the earth — or at least from its more sophisticated precincts. As people become more educated and more prosperous, the collective story goes, those same people come to find themselves both more sceptical of religion’s premises and less needful of its ostensible consolations. Hence, somewhere in the long run — Nietzsche himself predicted it would take “hundreds and hundreds” of years for the news to reach everyone — religion, or more specifically the Christianity once dominant on the European continent, will die out.
Exactly which feature of modernity would put the final nail in the coffin has been unclear, but a representative list would include technology, education, material progress, urbanisation, science, feminism and rationalism, among the usual suspects. Once again, this process has been supposed by many to be inexorable. Like candles on a birthday cake the religious faithful, too, will sooner or later flicker out, one by one.
The trouble with this widely accepted storyline is that it does not describe the historical reality of Christianity’s persistence. The American sociologist of religion Rodney Stark, who is a contrarian in these matters, opened a classic 1999 essay called “Secularisation RIP” with an entertaining review of predictions of the demise of Christian faith dating back to 1660 and continuing to the present day — including such secular soothsayers as Frederick the Great, Thomas Jefferson, Auguste Comte, Friedrich Engels, Sigmund Freud, the anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace, the sociologist Bryan Wilson and other notables. As Stark wryly implies, none seems to have grasped the ironic fact that their own obituaries would be written long before the rest of the world stopped believing in God. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge suggest in their 2009 book God is Back, the Almighty has not expired on the timeline predicted by his would-be obituarists.
What secularisation theory has missed is this crucial historical fact: Christianity has not operated in a linear fashion at all. It has instead been cyclical — prospering in some places and declining in others according to a pattern that secular thinkers have neglected to explore. This includes periods of prosperity in this and the last century.
The Second World War was followed by a religious boom in every Western country. In an essay reviewing the role of religion in the British, American, and Canadian armies the British historian Michael Snape concludes that the soldiers of all three nations “were exposed to an institutional process of rechristianisation during the Second World War, a process that was widely reinforced by a deepening of religious faith at a personal level”. This experience, he concludes, further reinforced “a religious revival that was stirring in the war years and which was to mark all three societies until the religious ferment of the 1960s”.
The British historian Callum G. Brown agrees. As he has put it, summarising evidence of a religious boomlet across the West in the mid-20th century, “Between 1945 and 1958 there were surges of British church membership, Sunday school enrolment, Church of England Easter Day communicants, baptisms and religious solemnisation of marriage, accompanied by immense popularity for evangelical ‘revivalist’ crusades.” That trend also held elsewhere in the Western world — in Australia, West Germany, France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands.
As for the United States, the same postwar religiosity appears in retrospect as the high-water mark of Christianity in America. So pronounced was public religiosity and so vibrant were the churches that Will Herberg, perhaps the foremost sociologist of religion in America during the mid-20th century, could observe in his classic book Protestant-Catholic-Jew: “The village atheist is a vanishing figure . . . Indeed, their kind of anti-religion is virtually meaningless to most Americans today . . . This was not always the case; that it is the case today there can be no reasonable doubt. The pervasiveness of religious identification may safely be put down as a significant feature of the America that has emerged in the past quarter of a century [emphasis added].” In the gap between his assessment of the religiosity of his day and our assessment of its decline less than 60 years later, we see once more that Christianity ebbs and flows even in the modern world, in ways more mysterious than first understood and that point away from the conclusion that decline is inevitable.
Nor has secularisation been synonymous with material progress, as a great many other people have supposed. Consider the significant variables of social class and education. Christianity, in the minds of many sophisticated secular people, is Marx’s famous “opium of the masses” — a consolation prize for the poor and backward. Everyone “knows” that the better-off have less use for God than poor people, and that educated people have less use for religion, frankly, than do duller heads. Certainly that is a stereotype to which many people would assent — one rather flagrantly displayed in a notorious piece in the Washington Post in 1993 that described the followers of leading American evangelicals as “largely poor, uneducated and easy to command”.
Everyone “knows” these things — yet few people, especially those who use stereotypes like these to explain the weakening of Western Christianity, seem to know the empirical truth. Once again, if the conventional account of secularisation was sound — if it correctly predicted who was religious, and why — then we would reasonably expect that the poorer and less educated people were, the more religious they would be. So the fact that these stereotypes are not correct, and that the opposite has been the case in some significant instances, would appear to falsify conventional accounts of what happened to the prevalence of Christian belief.
The British historian Hugh McLeod’s painstaking work on London between the 1870s and 1914, Class and Religion in the Late Victorian City, found that among Anglicans in London, “the number of . . . worshippers rises at first gradually and then steeply with each step up the social ladder.” Put differently, “the poorest districts thus tended to have the lowest rates of [Church] attendance, [and] those with large upper-middle-class and upper-class populations the highest.” In other words — and in contrast to the Dickensian image of the pious poor morally and otherwise outshining a debauched and irreligious upper class — reality among the populace seems to have been the opposite in Victorian London. “Only a small proportion of working-class adults,” he observes, “attended the main Sunday church services” (Irish Catholics being the sole exception). Callum Brown, another expert on the numbers, makes the same point about religiosity in Britain during those years: contrary to conventional wisdom, “the working classes were irreligious, and the middle classes were the churchgoing bastions of civil morality.” Much the same pattern can be found in the United States today — and it is one more pattern subversive of the idea that economic and intellectual sophistication are somehow the natural enemies of Christian faith, or that personal enlightenment and sophistication explain the current condition of Christian practice.
A widely praised book by the political scientists Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, similarly refutes the notion that religiosity in the United States is a lower-class phenomenon. During the first half of the 20th century, the authors observe, the college-educated participated more in churches than did those with less education. This pattern changed during the 1960s, which saw church attendance fall off most among the educated. But following that “shock” there emerged another pattern, according to which attendance tended again to rise faster among the educated than it did among the less educated (or depending on how one looks at it, the drop in attendance then became more dramatic among the less educated than it was among those with college degrees). As Putnam and Campbell observe, “this trend is clearly contrary to any idea that religion is nowadays providing solace to the disinherited and dispossessed, or that higher education subverts religion.”
In another wide-ranging recent book on American social class, Coming Apart: The State of White America, the political scientist Charles Murray analysed recent data on churchgoing, marriage, and related statistics to conclude that “America is coming apart at the seams. Not the seams of race or ethnicity, but of class.” Most interesting of his proxies for our purposes was religion. The upper 20 per cent of the American population, data from the General Social Survey show, are considerably more likely than the lower 30 per cent to believe in God and to go to church. Among the working class, 61 per cent — a clear majority — either say they do not go to church or believe in God, or both; among the upper class, it is 42 per cent. “Despite the common belief that the white working class is the most religious group in white American society”, Murray explains, “the drift from religiosity was far greater in Fishtown [his imaginary working-class community] than in Belmont [a better-off suburb].” As a headline on msnbc.com once pithily summarised research by the American sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Andrew Cherlin, “Who is Going to Church? Not Who You Think.”
Titans of sociology such as Emile Durkheim and Max Weber understood in their own ways what most thinkers today, including the new atheists, do not — why religion might, from a secular perspective, exist in the first place. But neither they nor their contemporary heirs gave satisfactory attention to this other question: what causes it to come and go? In all likelihood, most of them did not believe it could wax as well as wane. Yet the evidence suggests that Christianity has done just that.
So if the conventional accounts have been wrong about what drives some people away from church — money, education, personal enlightenment — why are the churches of Europe as empty as they are? Why do increasing numbers of young people in the West identify themselves as “none of the above”? What is the real causal force turning a civilisation that once widely feared God into a civilisation that in some places now widely jeers at him?
The answer, I believe, has to do with a variable so seemingly humble as to have been overlooked by the titans of sociology no less than by their many descendants. That variable is the human family — more specifically, the relationship between the health of the family and the health of Christianity.
Consider once again the remarkable vibrancy of Christian practice across the West in the years following the Second World War — the religious boomlet much remarked upon by sociologists of the time, and still within living memory of some today. That boomlet was pan-Western in scope. It applied to the vanquished as well as the victorious, the neutral as well as everyone else, the economically devastated as well as the prosperous. So what explains it?
To study the timeline is to see that the years of postwar religiosity coincided precisely with another much-studied phenomenon of those years: the baby boom. Across the Western world, the war was followed by an increase in marriage and babies. Is it not just common sense to think that the baby boom and the religious boom went hand in hand — indeed, that each trend powered and reinforced the other in a way highly suggestive of this overlooked aspect of what makes Christianity tick?
In brief, the idea is that something about families (and in all likelihood, more than one “something”) increases the likelihood that people will go to church, for all sorts of reasons: because they will seek out a like-minded moral community in which to situate their children; because the experience of birth, of simply being mothers and fathers, transports some into a religious frame of mind; because the idea of loving someone enough to die for him arguably comes more easily to the parents of the world than to mortals who do not know that primal bond. In these ways as in others, one can argue, communal life within the family might incline people toward religion generally, and specifically toward Christianity — a religion that begins, after all, with a baby and a Holy Family, and whose revolutionary notion that a valid marriage requires consent of both parties remains one of the most family-friendly human rights innovations of all time.
From the point of view of the new occupant of the Papal Apartments, as well as to his well-wishers in a time of flickering Western faith, there are two ways of looking at this new understanding of secularisation. On the one hand, the family is in parlous shape across the West. More people are being raised in broken homes; more are living alone; many are openly hostile to traditional Christian sexual morality, and legal norms not only in the West but across the world increasingly reflect that fact. All of these and related facts about the shattered hearth put up new barriers to religious belief. (To offer just one potent example, how does one explain the idea of God as infinitely loving father to someone whose own father has abandoned the home, and whose experience of other paternal figures is a series of Mom’s abusive boyfriends?)
On the other hand, this new way of dissecting secularisation brings the heartening news that most secular thinking on the subject has got rather a big thing wrong: there is nothing inexorable about Christian decline after all. Family, like faith, fluctuates throughout the historical timeline. And surely the pragmatic, interlocked relationship between the two gives prospective New Evangelists something meatier to go on, perhaps, than they have had before.
Specifically, because the churches need vibrant families — including families that reproduce themselves, as secular people tend not to do — they must also understand that strengthening the natural family is the first order of business in bringing people back to God. As has been amply documented by the British political scientist Eric Kaufmann in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? and the American author Jonathan Last in What to Expect When No One’s Expecting, believers have many more children than do non-believers. In an increasingly secular and childless age, the churches need to make that job easier.
This is not an abstract call to rhetorical arms, but rather one to grassroots efforts, one parish at a time, dedicated to all manner of things that might make family life easier or more attractive to secular people. More babysitting, support groups, marriage counselling, meal drop-offs, healthcare volunteering, car pools, prayer groups that double as social hours, free tutoring, and other seemingly humdrum but systematic efforts might do more to re-evangelise Western culture than all the pontifical councils in Rome.
Put differently, the welfare state has been an ineffective and hideously expensive substitute for the fractured Western family. If the churches are to succeed, they must compete successfully against it.
This brings us to the fact that there are other forces at work that might also contribute inadvertently to religious revival. Will the almost certain collapse of some of the West’s now untenable welfare states launch a massive return to the hearth? Will people tired of shrinking pensions and record unemployment rates and other factors that show the welfare state to be an inefficient substitute for the family make different familial decisions from those of their parents? In America during the years immediately following the 2008 crash, to offer small but intriguing suggestive evidence, divorce declined slightly, and young people moved back home rather than into the atomised life so characteristic of the generations of young adults before them. Could wider economic catastrophe itself spark a revival of the family — and with it, a revival of the Christianity that has for so long protected and nurtured the family even as it benefited from it? Those are the questions looming not only over St Peter’s Square, but the entire Western world.
Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.