Church Scandal Hurts Pope’s Europe Mission

source:? Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2010

BERLIN?The sexual-abuse scandal
roiling the Roman Catholic Church is threatening one of the pope's core
missions, a Christian reawakening in Europe.

Pope Benedict XVI has made reversing the decline of Catholic
influence in Europe a central goal of his papacy. But as clerical abuse
scandals spread across the Continent, they threaten to hasten a growing
movement away from the Catholic Church in an increasingly secular
Europe.

A survey published last week in the German magazine Focus underscores
that threat. Some 56% of 613 Germans polled by researchers at Zeppelin
University in Friedrichshafen, Germany, said they had no confidence in
the church; one-quarter of the survey's Catholic respondents said they
were mulling leaving the church.

 

"This is a real danger for Benedict," said David Gibson, author of
"The Rule of Benedict," a biography of the pope. With alienation hitting
the very places that could be the seedbeds for the pope's push, Mr.
Gibson said, "his great project could be cut off at the roots."

On Monday, Pope Benedict marked the fifth anniversary of his papacy
by lunching with cardinals in the frescoed interiors of the papal
palace. Also on Monday, the Vatican published a letter from Cardinal
Claudio Hummes, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, to
priests world-wide noting that the church "is determined to neither hide
nor minimize" sexual-abuse. Sexually abusive priests, the cardinal
wrote in a letter dated April 12, "must answer for their actions before
God and before tribunals, including the civil courts."

It was just five years ago this month that a freshly elected Pope
Benedict explained before thousands of pilgrims gathered in Rome's St.
Peter's Square the inspiration for his papal name: One was Benedict XV,
the pontiff who guided the church through the turbulence of World War I.

The other was St. Benedict of Norcia, a sixth-century monk who, amid
the ashes of the Roman Empire, retreated to the hills south of Rome to
found a monastic movement that would become the bedrock of European
Christian culture in the centuries to follow. His namesake, the pope
declared, "is a powerful call to the irrefutable Christian roots of
European culture and civilization."

That history has blurred the lines between church and state across
much of Europe. Many countries, such as Germany, Austria, Italy and
Sweden, collect some form of a church tax that provides the lion's share
of Catholic and Protestant churches' finances.

Even countries with small Protestant or Catholic church attendance,
such as Denmark and the Netherlands, observe Good Friday, Ascension Day
and Pentecost as public holidays. Germany and Italy are currently
governed by church-friendly center-right coalitions.

Yet in daily life, Europe has become increasingly irreligious, a
shift rooted in part in its post-war prosperity and the growing chasm
between European social mores and the church's moral teachings on issues
such as contraceptives, divorce and homosexuality.

Even before recent months' clerical abuse allegations, church
attendance in Europe was at historical lows. In Spain, a traditional
Catholic stronghold, fewer than 20% of Spaniards attend mass regularly,
down from more than 30% in the 1980s, according to a 2008 nationwide
study. In Germany, fewer than 14% of Catholics attend church regularly,
compared with 29% three decades ago. In the U.S., by comparison, some
42% of Catholics and 47% of Protestants say they attend church
regularly, according to Gallup Poll data.

Between 2000 and 2008, the number of priests in Europe declined about
8%, based on the most recent Vatican figures. The church's aging clergy
signals a more precipitous drop ahead: In Ireland, for instance, 36% of
its priests are over the age of 65, while only 4% are 34 or younger.

The abuse scandals have further undermined the church's influence. In
Munich, for example, home to some 540,000 Catholics, city officials say
1,691 people, most of them Catholic, left the church in March alone,
more than double last year's monthly average.

Lars Frantzen of Cologne, Germany, a 34-year-old computer scientist
who was brought up in a conservative Catholic family, says he considers
himself religious. But over the years, he says, he found himself
increasingly at odds with the church's message and remoteness from the
issues of his own life. "There isn't the will to engage people," he
said. "It seems more to want to control people." The recent abuse
revelations, he said, were the final straw. "What's happened in the
church is the opposite of what the church should stand for," said Mr.
Frantzen, who left the church in February.

Benedict's approach to reinvigorating the church has been less about
broadening its appeal among the less ardent multitudes and more focused
on cultivating a core of traditional believers in church doctrine. Last
fall, the Vatican stepped up its courtship of traditionalist Anglicans
uneasy with their church's female priests and openly gay bishops.

Some Church observers say the scandals ultimately could lead to
reform and renewal within the church, given that surveys consistently
show the majority of Europeans say they still identify with Christian
messages and values.

"But that requires a thorough reflection on the church's part on how
it transitions into modernity," said Peter Huenermann, retired professor
of theology at the University of T?bingen in Germany, where Pope
Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, taught theology during the 1960s. "I
don't know if the pontiff has the will to carry out such a change."

Others point to the growing popularity of charismatic churches and
pilgrimages as evidence of the role religion continues to play in
Europe. Thousands of tourists and pilgrims have flocked to northern
Italy to see the Shroud of Turin, the ancient piece of linen some
believe was Jesus Christ's burial cloth, since it went on display
earlier this month. "There's no reason the Catholic Church can't take
part in" such a revival, said Grace Davie, professor of sociology at the
University of Exeter in the U.K.

?Stacy Meichtry contributed to this article.

Write to Vanessa
Fuhrmans at vanessa.fuhrmans@wsj.com

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