Catholicism in Europe

by Ron Diprose



On 18th June 2004, the European Union agreed to adopt a Constitution which avoided all mention of a link between Christianity and the history of Europe. This failure to recognise any Christian roots disturbed the Roman Catholic Church. However, her protests did not lead to any revision of the Constitution on this point.


The degree of secularisation evident in countries such as Italy and Spain is an embarrassment to the Roman Catholic Church as the great majority of the citizens of these countries are baptised Roman Catholics. Thus, in recent years, there has been increasing talk about the need to engage in a new evangelisation of Europe. In October 2011, the Council of European Catholic Bishops met in Tirana (Albania) to do groundwork for the Synod to be held in Vatican City in October 2012. The theme of the Synod is to be The New Evangelisation of Europe.


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It is in this climate that, on 11th October 2011, Pope Benedict XVI announced a Year of Faith to begin on 11th October 2012. This will be the second Year of Faith convened by a Roman Catholic Pope, the first having been proclaimed by Pope Paul VI in 1967. The recent announcement by Benedict XVI can be seen as an admission of the failure of his Confession to adhere to apostolic Christianity in which faith was an essential ingredient (Rom. 11:20,21). In fact, not all parish priests consider personal faith in Christ an essential ingredient of religious experience. So what can we expect from this Year of Faith?


Commenting on John 6:28,29 in a letter entitled Porta Fidei (Door of Faith), at one point Benedict XVI writes: 'Believing in Jesus Christ, then, is the way to be able to attain salvation definitively.'(1) However, elsewhere in his letter he makes the point that his announcement comes 50 years after the opening of the Vatican II Council and constitutes a call for a reaffirmation of the contents of the Vatican II documents. It is the hope of Benedict XVI that the Year of Faith will foster a 'renewed conversion'(2) and that finding the door of faith will do much good and will give certainty to the lives of those who find it. But the mystery remains as to why the lives of the majority of European Roman Catholics are characterised more by secularisation than by faith..



Gilbert Vargas(3) explains that Catholicism in Spain is still practised by the elderly, while for those under 60 religion is not generally a part of everyday life but rather a cultural thing with a particular focus on baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals. Accusations of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the clergy have given the young more reason to disassociate from the church, while for the elderly these revelations have not come as a surprise, as instances of the same were already common knowledge in village life.


As far as relationships between the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations are concerned, Spanish Roman Catholics are open to work with Evangelicals. However, there is little for Evangelicals to gain. Significantly, Emmaus courses have had much success because people can complete them in the privacy of their own home.


In Italy, as in Spain, elderly people tend to be more religious than the young, probably because of the belief that the Church can absolve them from the temporary punishment for sin if they attend mass regularly. Another feature is the prominence given to supposed human mediators such as San Pio and Mary, and the fact that most national holidays are in honour of the Madonna. Mariology has replaced Christology.


So far as cooperation with Evangelicals is concerned, in my role as editor of the theological periodical Lux Biblica, I have received numerous invitations from Catholic associations to participate in projects regarding Christianity and culture. However, I have learned that it is not expected that I make serious contributions in such contexts. The Roman Catholic understanding of Evangelicals is that we do not enjoy a full measure of grace as this is fully available only where there is a direct link with the presumed successor of Peter.


Although most Italians are Roman Catholics, there are far fewer now willing to serve vocationally. Consequently, it is not uncommon to find parish priests from the Philippines, and former monasteries being used as hotels. Italians view the Roman Catholic Church as peculiarly theirs so they tend to turn a blind eye to accusations of sex scandals. Conversely, they are very vocal in criticising the government when it lightens the tax load of commercial enterprises undertaken by the Church.



When Benedict XVI invites Roman Catholics to 'fix [their] eyes on Jesus' (Heb. 12:2), he intends Jesus more as an example of faith than as the unique and necessary object of their faith.(4) Even less does he expect Roman Catholics to meditate on the unique and final value of Christ's atoning death as the only Saviour of mankind. The Christ of the Via Crucis is considered to be the supreme martyr and example of suffering.


Moreover, the call for the renewal of faith extends to 'faith in the liturgy and in particular in the Eucharist'(5) and the sacrament of baptism,(6) both of which are thought to be means of grace. In fact, the faith of which the Pope writes includes the whole 'mystery of faith'. Moreover, he understands this mystery of faith to be a gift rather than an imperative. The mystery of faith can be found when the Roman Catholic Church is considered the spiritual mother, while the Catechism is the indispensable and sure norm for teaching the faith. 'Without the liturgy and the sacraments the profession of faith would lack efficacy because it would lack the grace that sustains the witness of Christians.'(7)


Understood in this way 'faith' does not lead to the joy of salvation and a life of discipleship because it does not include recognition of the unique and final value of Christ's sacrifice. When a Roman Catholic priest, following the example of the levitical priests in Jerusalem in the time of the apostles (Acts 6:7), understands the true nature of the new covenant, he will see the Lord's Supper as a memorial and not as another offering of Christ's body in sacrifice. Accordingly, he will refuse to perform what he now sees to be an inappropriate priestly function (Heb. 7:22-8:4). When news of his decision reaches his superiors, he will be forced to recant or leave his position as parish priest. This happened in September 2011 to Luca De Pero, who has sought my counsel several times over the past few years. When Luca openly declared his faith in Christ and in the sufficiency of His atoning sacrifice, Monsignor Luigi Negri, Bishop of San Marino-Montefeltro and close to the present Pope, made headlines by proclaiming De Pero to be a dangerous heretic. This illustrates the fact that it is difficult for a born-again Christian to live out his faith in the Roman Catholic Church for any length of time.



Roman Catholics need to understand the difference between religion and faith in Christ. So, yes, there is still much need for preaching the gospel of grace in the majority Roman Catholic countries of Europe. Moreover, the downturn in the economy and corresponding delusion with secular values provide a unique opportunity as more people are open to discussing spiritual things.


Orizzonte nuova evangelizzazione, CCEE, Assemblea Plenaria, Il Regno - Attualità , 18/2011, p.589.
Port Fidei, Benedict XVI, Il Regno - Documenti, 19/2011, p. 578.
Ibid., pp. 578,579.
4 Gilbert Vargas is a commended missionary to Spain, with CMML.
Ibid., p.58.
Ibid., p.579.
Ibid., p.580.
Ibid., pp.580,581.




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