Northern Europe has become one of the world’s least religious regions. British Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, has legalized same-sex “marriage” and said that he opposes abortion. . .after twenty weeks of pregnancy. A decade ago, Scandinavian Christian Democrats, whose national flags contain crosses, opposed including references to Christianity’s role in European culture in the European Constitution’s preamble. In today’s Britain and Scandinavia, laissez-faire morality is the reigning political dogma and religious apathy is the dominant worldview.
At the same time, the state churches of the region have retained some social importance. In Britain, the queen remains head of the Church of England, while Anglican bishops are peers in the House of Lords. Meanwhile, polls consistently show that levels of trust in the Lutheran Church are high in Scandinavia. Most Scandinavians are baptized, married (if they marry – over half of births are to non-married couples), and buried by state churches. In Sweden, most families light Advent candles and St. Lucy’s Day processions remain popular.
André Malraux predicted that the 21st century would be religious, or it would not be at all. Sociologists note that, even in secularized societies, people thirst for things spiritual. Despite the aforementioned social and cultural visibility of Protestantism in Northern Europe, however, the Lutheran and Anglican Churches there are dying. British sociologists predict that practicing Anglicans will soon meet the fate of the Dodo and woolly mammoth, falling from 800,000 to just 50,000 by mid-century (Episcopalians face similar disastrous prospects in North America). In Sweden, 4 percent of Lutherans attend services regularly, while the corresponding figures in Norway and Finland are below 2 percent.
By contrast, the Catholic Church is experiencing a mini-renaissance in Northern Europe. There are currently more practicing Catholics than Anglicans in Britain. In Scandinavia, there are about 600,000 Catholics, roughly 3 percent of the region’s population (a proportion similar to that of Catholics in Asia). Certainly, part of this has to do with immigration. Since the European Union expanded to include less prosperous former East Bloc states in 2004, Scandinavia and the British Isles have been deluged by immigrants from the Catholic nations of Poland (2.2 million Poles have left their country in the past decade), Slovakia, Croatia, and Lithuania.
While Mass is celebrated in Polish or Serbo-Croatian across Northern Europe, the region’s indigenous population is also being drawn to the Catholic Church. In the past decade, the number of British seminarians has grown fourfold. This cannot be explained by immigration (young Polish immigrants who enter seminary usually go home) or by short bursts of enthusiasm, such as that after Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in 2010, as this upward tendency has been ongoing for ten years.
Currently, Scandinavia is one of the most vocations-rich regions in the Northern Hemisphere. The Church has 103,000 members in Sweden and 17 seminarians. By contrast, the Archdiocese of Vienna has thirteen times as many faithful but fewer than twice as many men studying to be priests.
In 2009, the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux traveled across Britain, attracting the largest English pilgrimages since the Middle Ages. Young British Catholics are creating new initiatives such as the annual St. John Paul II Walk pilgrimage. The sacrament of reconciliation is making a comeback in the Isles: the number of British Catholics attending confession has mushroomed by two-thirds since 2010.
In Scandinavia, the Neocatechumenal Way – a mission-focused community founded by Spanish painter Kiko Argüello – is playing a key role in evangelization. Denmark, a country with just 40,000 Catholics, has 18 Neocatechumenal seminarians, while Finland, with just 10,500 Catholics, has 15. Meanwhile, a growing number of Scandinavians are becoming nuns; their number has inched up to 680. Cloistered orders are particularly successful in attracting new members. There is one nun for 880 Catholics in the region; in the United States, the corresponding number is one per 1,400. However, the number of American nuns is rapidly declining, while female religious are growing in Scandinavia.
Northern Europe is proving to be fertile ground for converts. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI created the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, allowing Anglican priests to cross the Tiber. Since then, many Anglican clerics, frustrated with Canterbury’s eschewing of tradition, have done so. Scandinavian converts are hoping that the Vatican will create a similar ordinariate for Lutherans. Meanwhile, one of Scandinavia’s best-known Christian leaders – charismatic pastor Ulf Ekman – recently converted to Catholicism along with his wife. He said that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the best book he has ever read.
Northern Europe is clearly one of the world’s most Godless regions. Yet, at the same time, the Catholic Church, while a minority denomination, is experiencing a revival that only Counterreformation popes could have dreamed of. There is an important lesson to be drawn from this.
As Christ said, His followers are to be the salt of the earth. The Lutheran and Anglican Churches have long lost their taste. Other than some fading rituals, they have become largely indistinguishable from the broader secular culture. The fact that the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm is a practicing lesbian perhaps best epitomizes what has happen to Northern European Protestantism. Catholicism has always been countercultural, and while political climates and intellectual currents have changed, it has retained its belief in one moral truth. Despite the pressures by some Catholics, the Church has remained steadfast in its proclamation of truth even while that truth has been unpopular.
Many have jokingly said that the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer. Today, the Church of England and Lutheran churches are secularism at prayer. From teachings on life and marriage to women’s ordination, Northern European Protestant churches have made it seem that morality is something changeable. This makes such churches seem less credible. Yet spiritually hungry hearts like Ulf Ekman and the ex-Anglicans Catholic priests want something more. They want a Church more interested being coherent in its teaching than in receiving praise in the New York Times.