This week, millions all over Europe are crowding into churches for the carols, the cribs and the celebration of the birth of a baby to a single, probably teenage, mum a couple of thousand years ago. Christmas church attendance will be the last shibboleth of Christian devotion in Europe to fall: it has a wealth of sentiment, mid-winter cheer and good tunes to keep pulling the crowds.
But the crowds are deceptive, most among them don't darken a church doorway between one Christmas and the next, and each year there's a little more room in the pews and not quite such a crush at the back as the slow decline of Christian belief throughout Europe inexorably continues.
The Catholic Church has been slow to grasp this historic phenomenon. Perhaps, as a global Church with the faith thriving in other continents, it hasn't felt the issue quite so acutely as, for example, Methodists -- who openly acknowledged a few years ago that at the present rate of decline there would be none of them left by 2050. No such statistical calculations have been produced by anyone in the Catholic Church, let alone put out in a press release. Asking about something as basic as the rate of decline in the number of Catholic priests in this country leads to a fruitless chain of answering machines. These are facts that the Catholic authorities have no interest in publicizing.
One has a sense that among the upper levels of the Catholic hierarchy -- average age probably well over 60 -- there is utter bewilderment and confusion. Most of them will have grown up in the profoundly traditional Catholic cultures that simply no longer exist in Spain, France, Italy or Ireland. Their frame of reference, their understanding of faith and life, is quite literally of another world -- that of deeply conformist, often peasant societies, where the priest was a figure of unquestioned authority and power. When they became priests, full of idealism, no one wrote into their job description that they would be managing the decline of a 2,000-year-old institution; no one warned them that they would be steering the Church into a new dark age. I'm reminded of the poignant sculpture on the corner of San Marco in Venice where the Holy Roman emperors cling to each other, looking over their shoulders with barely concealed panic.
The Catholic hierarchy, it seems, has very little idea of what to do to stem the tide, let alone reverse the decline. Apparently, the pope is wont to suggest that some persecution would do the job nicely -- it obviously worked in Poland through much of the 20th century, generating an intense Catholic devotion. But since there is no prospect of a Nazi or Russian invasion, the Church will have to come up with something else.
The paradox is of course that while the Catholic hierarchy struggles to come to terms with the de-Christianization of Europe, some of the most devout religiosity in Europe is now among Muslims -- Islam is being Europeanized and the neighborhoods of some European cities, such as Rotterdam and Birmingham, are being Islamicized. The conversations I hear among Muslim contemporaries are far closer to the religious principles I was brought up with than anything I hear among Catholic contemporaries: devotion to God, self-sacrifice and the preoccupation with an orthodoxy of belief. Alongside the political identification with Islam among Europe's Muslims, there is also a profound spiritual revival. This latter gets all too easily overlooked by a secular society that, for example, finds it easier to understand jihad as a form of terrorism as opposed to the much more orthodox understanding of a personal inner struggle to subjugate the ego.