It’s no secret that Christianity in Europe is on the wane. By the 1970s and 80s church attendance across Europe, especially in Scandinavia, had sunk to critical levels. At the millennium it had become clear that the downward trajectory of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, had taken the religion well below sustainable numbers, making the European Christian an endangered species facing unavoidable extinction. Secular commentators have repeatedly made the claim that Christianity has lost the modern argument, that it has had the same opportunity as any other idea or movement to present its case and ultimately the listening public have not bought it.
Admittedly there is a degree of truth to this position, and our many attempts from within the churches to insist that European civilisation owes its existence to Christianity are simply petulant. High ideals like compassion and forgiveness existed before the advent of the Church, and while Christianity played a significant part in inculcating such ideals into the social and legal fabric of Europe it is altogether likely that Europe would have arrived at these eminently rational ideas without the help of any given religion. We have to acknowledge that we have lost the argument, but in so doing we can ask whether the argument itself is part of the problem.
Since as early as the fourth century Christians have been engaged in the socio-cultural argument of and for Europe – providing religious, moral, and rational foundations for governance, the rule of law, and so forth. To those aware of the origins of Christianity the problem with this relationship of the Church with Europe is obvious. Not that it is necessarily a bad thing in all places and at all times, but Christianity was engaging in this discussion as a component of the power structures. With each revolutionary social and political change in European history, of which there have been many, the Church has found itself continually recalibrating its arguments so as to ingratiate itself anew to each new system of political power. So much of its energy is and has been invested in the task of clinging to power that the dynamism of its original appeal has been lost.
Here in Ireland, for example, for the better part of a century the prevailing national narrative has been one of to be Irish is to be Catholic. In England too the idea of the national church has been a fusion of religious and national identities. Such dilutions of ideology have made it nearly impossible for the faith to criticise the behaviour of states, and this has had disastrous consequences for the Church and the state. Now in the aftermath of the secular state revolution Christianity and all other religions have lost their great patrons. Its historical sycophantic behaviour apropos the state, given that those systems are now also the enemy of the secular state, has won the Church few friends, and the knives are drawn. Yet even the secular state has not done away with the first constituents of Christianity – the poor, the marginalised, and the powerless. A greater problem for Christianity is the task of returning to those it was called to serve and liberate.