The dramatic loss of Christian faith in Europe is historically unprecedented. While some countries are slightly better off than others, the continent as a whole can no longer be described as a Christian civilization. The causes of this loss of faith are numerous – and somewhat mysterious. The consequences are self-destructive and perilous.
Even the latest horror of the beheading of an 85-year-old priest in Normandy and the revelations of the brutal tortures of victims in the Bataclan Theater in Paris in November (finally leaked to the press), don’t seem to have much raised understanding of the nature of the threat.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this radical collapse of Christianity is the fact that it increased rather than reversed or slowed down after two major world wars, especially the Second World War, which devastated most of the European countries.
You might have expected just the opposite effect of that most horrific of wars; that having seen and experienced the devastating consequences of the godless ideology that thrust all of Europe into conflict, the tendency would’ve been to turn back to God as the basis of civilization.
Yet just the opposite has taken place. Europe is now almost godless, an almost totally secularized continent with little or no spiritual dimension in the various nations that constitute the European Union.
To be sure, the loss of faith among these peoples and the de-Christianization of their cultures and public life had its origins long before the First World War: back in the Enlightenment and the total secularization of the European states and public life, beginning with the French Revolution and then expanding throughout Europe.
Two centuries of increasingly secularized education and de-Christianization had taken their toll prior to the two great wars of the 20th century. It is not that the Church failed to proclaim the Gospel, but rather that the effects of this gradual secularization had closed minds and hearts to the word of God.
When Christ first proclaimed the Gospel, he met resistance, especially among leaders: intellectual, religious, and civil authorities. Then, it was due to a kind of extreme, external religious piety that had emptied many souls of their receptivity to the word of God. Jesus succinctly summarized the problem: they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.
In our day, the same is true, but the cause is different. Secularization has deadened receptivity to the Gospel, and even to religion in general.
This historical development is far worse than the disunity and religious hostility that followed the Protestant Reformation, for today it leaves Europe in peril, facing a grave threat to the very survival of its culture and way of life, coming from an ancient foe, the revival of a militant and determined form of extreme Islam bent upon, at long last, the domination of this formerly Christian continent.
For a thousand years of Islamic expansionism, Christianity, and more specifically the Catholic Church, played the dominant role in the defense of Europe. With the defense of Vienna in 1683 (by a Catholic army from Poland), the Islamic threat to Europe was essentially thwarted until modern times. The Ottoman version of this millennium-long effort of Islamic powers to conquer Europe had effectively come to an end. But that threat has now revived under a new form, held together loosely by modern means of communication rather than by a well-defined empire. But the threat is very real and no less perilous than in previous times.
Indeed, the threat is, in one sense, even more perilous today for two reasons. First, there has been a widespread blindness among Europeans individually and among governments as to the precise nature and gravity of this threat. It reminds one of Jesus’ words, “seeing they do not see,“ and so they do not understand.
Having become almost totally irreligious, they simply cannot understand what they are seeing, that is, they cannot understand the kind of religious motivation that is behind the terror attacks, a deep religious conviction that believes in total war and the inevitability of a world domination. That lies at the heart of this existential threat to European civilization.
Second, the greater peril stems from the decision of Europeans not to reproduce themselves. Again, they seem to be blind to the future consequences of this demographic collapse. No European nation is at the replacement level, where births at least equal deaths. And many European nations are far below the replacement level, and will begin to lose population rapidly.
Population loss, together with the growing needs of an aging population and a cradle-to-grave welfare state, will inevitably require huge immigration to keep things going. That immigration will have to come mainly from Muslim countries, which have the opposite demographic curve. These new immigrants will continue to have more children, and the conquest by sheer numbers will be inevitable. Current terrorism is merely the opening salvo; the victory will come eventually at the ballot box.
The ancient Jews who were blind to Christ’s Gospel were not blind to the threat to their very existence coming from an external enemy, and they were not so blind as to decimate their population by refusing to have sufficient children to perpetuate and defend their civilization. The almost daily terrorism we’re now seeing is a serious threat. But it seems that the blindness of souls caused by extreme secularization is far more serious.
Sadly, it may be too late for Europe since such religious blindness and demographic trends are not quickly remedied. Let’s pray – and hope that it’s not also too late for us – and that we can learn from Europe the terrible consequences of blindness to the Gospel.