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European Synod

John L. Allen Jr. and NCR Publisher Tom Fox will attend the European Synod Oct. 1-23 in Rome. This is the first in a series of reports on the event.

NCR Staff

Whatever drama unfolds in a synod for bishops comes not in how it ends -- since, according to the official Vademecum Synodi, its final conclusions are reserved for the pope alone -- but in what happens along the way.

Vaticanologists look for the bishops who say the unexpected, for the new wrinkles that find their way into documents or news conferences.

When the second European Synod this decade opens in Rome Oct. 1, those nuances will be of special interest for two reasons: First, because many observers believe the next pope will be among the participants; and second, because Europe today faces challenges of vast importance to the global church.

The European Synod, which meets in Rome Oct. 1-23, follows the first special assembly for Europe in 1991. It is the last regional gathering -- following synods for Africa, America, Asia and Oceania -- in the run-up to a worldwide “Jubilee Synod” slated for 2000.

The point of departure will be the synod’s instrumentum laboris, or working paper. The document is supposed to reflect wide consultation on the basis of the lineamenta, or first draft, issued by the Vatican in March. In fact, very little public discussion took place. Veteran Vatican-watcher Giancarlo Zizola, writing in the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore on July 31, noted the irony that the instrumentum -- allegedly a reflection of input from all over the continent -- is 90 percent composed of quotations from the pope.

Nevertheless, it does contain some interesting elements. Where the first European synod in 1991 was nearly euphoric in hailing the prospect of a newly unified continent, the instrumentum is much more downcast.

“Some unsuspectingly concluded that with the fall of communism all would, almost automatically, be changed for the better,” the instrumentum says. “Others thought that democracy would spontaneously bring riches and prosperity.” Instead, the document points to increasing economic inequality between East and West, violent nationalism and hedonistic individualism as unforeseen negative consequences.

The darker assessment extends to the spiritual identity of Europe. Where the 1991 synod spoke confidently of a Europe poised to recover its “Christian soul,” the 1999 instrumentum warns against attitudes that “can disappoint the church into thinking that European countries are still Christian.”

Zizola sees this as the document’s most remarkable facet. “At least on paper, it accepts the inevitable transition from a Christianity of tradition, equipped with massive social influence, to a personal and adult faith where believers form a cultural minority,” he wrote.

The remedy the instrumentum proposes to the “dark clouds” gathering across the continent is almost poetic: “The church must be the love inside the history of Europe.”

How to achieve that end is not so clear. It’s instructive to compare the instrumentum laboris against six “mega-trends” currently facing European Catholicism:


For the past year, Europeans in 11 nations have been able to buy and sell in a single continental currency. The euro is the most tangible symbol of the push for economic, political and social unification across the continent.

But all is not wine and roses. Immediately after its launch, the euro declined 15 percent in value against the U.S. dollar and has never fully recovered. Unemployment still hovers at nearly 11 percent in Western Europe and is much higher in the East. In some places it runs at more than 50 percent.

A United Nations report documents that the “shock therapy” prescribed for Eastern Europe by Western economic experts -- immediate and massive privatization -- has been a disaster. In 1989, 14 million people in the former Soviet bloc lived on less than the equivalent of $4 per day. During the first five years after communism’s collapse, that figure rose to around 147 million. Though there are exceptions -- Poland, Hungary, Slovenia -- even the conservative London Times admits that Eastern European societies have been “maimed by embracing the market.”

The instrumentum recognizes this threat to genuine integration: “There is an all-too-real danger of a new division of the continent into two parts: one part comprised of countries with a strong currency and another of those with a currency unable to be exchanged, one part comprised of countries with a relatively stable economy and another of those with a weak economy.”

One result of economic chaos has been massive Eastern migration to the West. Accompanied by an influx of new immigrants from Northern Africa and the Middle East, this has confronted more affluent Northern European nations with vast new demands for social services.

At precisely this moment of threat to the poor and newly marginalized, European governments are rolling back their social safety nets. Recently Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany recently issued a joint platform they called the Neue Mitte, or “new middle.” In its particulars, the new middle resembles the old right: a reduced welfare state, less regulation of business and industry, lower taxes, more economic growth.

The instrumentum says capitalism by itself is not the answer, referring to the “grave inadequacies of the free market.” Yet it acknowledges that the church has yet to offer a more constructive vision: “The role of the churches in this matter is still not clear, but there is a major risk that they will be reduced to a minor player in the social system.”

European Catholicism faces the challenge of being a voice for justice without isolating itself from the era’s dominant economic and political currents.

The spiritual legacy of Marxism

Because religion played an immense role in resistance to communism, when the Soviet Empire collapsed many people assumed Eastern Europe would witness a new religious renaissance. In fact, Western observers may have underestimated the impact of a half-century of atheism as the official ideology.

In their 1999 study Gott Nach Kommunismus, Miklós Tomka and Paul Zulehner found that in two former Iron Curtain nations -- East Germany and the Czech Republic -- atheists form a majority, at 62 and 51 percent respectively. An additional 13 percent in East Germany and 19 percent in the Czech Republic are agnostics. There are strong atheist minorities in Hungary (28 percent), Slovenia (28 percent), and Slovakia (22 percent). Only in Poland are believers above 90 percent of the population.

“It now appears that religious leaders underestimated communism’s intellectual heritage,” said Cardinal Miloslav Vlk of Prague in early 1999.

Data from the European Values Study between 1990 and 1998 show that in most of these countries the younger generation is increasingly alienated from the churches.

Research by Andrew Greeley, Wolfgang Jagodzinski and Peter Robert shows that while religious faith -- as measured by variables such as belief in life after death and belief in miracles -- is increasing somewhat in Eastern Europe, religious practice is not.

Tomka and Zulehner conclude that where religious faith was intimately bound up with national sovereignty -- as in Romania, Poland and Croatia -- it thrived. Where the connection between church and nationality was less tight, the Marxist critique of religion was more persuasive.

The instrumentum indirectly acknowledges this reality: “Although a Marxism imposed by force has collapsed, practical atheism and materialism are certainly present throughout Europe; and though they are no longer imposed by force or explicitly proposed, people still think and behave as if God did not exist.”

The remedy proposed is a “new evangelization” of the continent, a new dedication of missionary energies. Why the communist critique -- that the church is too rich, too powerful, too little engaged in the struggle for social change -- might seem persuasive to many Europeans is not addressed. If evangelizing activity is to succeed, the synod fathers will have to work out a more compelling response to these points.


Though Europe is the birthplace of Christendom -- an entire continent united in a single political and religious unity -- today that idea is mere nostalgia. Europe, especially Western and Northern Europe, is among the most religiously and culturally diverse places on the planet.

Islam, with more than 6 million adherents, is the fastest-growing religion in Europe; there are 3 million Muslims in Germany (mainly Turkish), over 2 million in France (mainly North African), and 1.5 million in the United Kingdom (mainly from Pakistan and Bangladesh).

Buddhism is expanding in similarly dramatic numbers. The European Buddhist Union estimates there are today 3 million Buddhists on the continent, mostly Asian immigrants, though it is also attracting new Western practitioners. There are more than 1,000 Buddhist worship and meditation centers in Europe, most of which have sprung up in the past decade.

On the one hand, the instrumentum embraces pluralism. “The co-existence of diverse peoples, cultures and religions can be an opportunity … to work towards a cultural unity which today can no longer be understood in terms of ‘Christianity only’ but as a ‘pluralism of dialogue and collaboration.’ ”

Other sections of the document see pluralism as a threat. “Pluralism has taken the place of Marxism in cultural dominance, a pluralism which is undifferentiated and tending towards skepticism and nihilism,” the document says.

The instrumentum also expresses a strong Christocentrism. “Jesus Christ alone is the true liberator of humanity; only he can indicate the proper way to follow in Europe’s new-found freedom,” it asserts.

How to reconcile this language, which seems to revive the notion of Europe as a Christian continent with Europe’s immense new diversity, will be among the synod’s most serious challenges.


It is commonplace to speak of Western Europe as the world’s most secularized culture. To take just one example -- the Netherlands -- as documented by Jan Kerkhofs in a recent article in the London-based Tablet: “Between 1992 and 1996 Catholic baptisms in the Netherlands decreased from 36 percent of all newly born children to 24 percent. According to the forecasts of the state planning bureau, only a quarter of the Dutch will be Christian by the year 2020.”

The general trend holds up elsewhere. Sunday observance by Catholics in West Germany decreased from 51 percent in 1950 to 43 percent in 1965, and to 22 percent in 1989. In 1960, only 1 percent of the Swiss said they didn’t belong to a church; that rose to 4 percent in 1980 and to more than 7 percent in 1990. In urban areas the slippage was much faster: in Basle it went from 2 percent in 1960 to 35 percent in 1990. In Geneva it went from 2 percent to 19 percent.

The same holds true for the United Kingdom, where today 89 percent of Britons don’t go to church regularly.

At the same time, Europe seems gripped by a strong new wave of spiritual interest. According to the Turin-based Center for the Study of New Religions, 90 percent of Europeans think there’s a God -- up an astonishing 20 percent in the last decade. The growth of esoteric and New Age movements is rapid enough that the European Parliament recently voted to create an “observatory” to keep tabs on these groups.

The actual religious phenomenon in Europe therefore is not secularization, but deinstitutionalization of spirituality. Most Europeans maintain vestigial ties to a church -- 95 percent of European funerals are religious -- but few turn to it for nourishment. They look to new movements and to an eclectic blend of spiritual practices.

The instrumentum reserves its harshest words for this phenomenon. “There is a great risk of a progressive and radical de-Christianization and paganization of the continent,” the document says. “In some countries, the number of those unbaptized is very high. Oftentimes, basic tenets of Christianity are not sufficiently known … All this puts the cultural identity of Europe in jeopardy, a situation which one person hypothetically described as a kind of ‘European apostasy.’ ”

The synod will have to consider revitalizing the institutional forms in which Christian spirituality is offered to Europe.

Ecclesial Demographics

Nowhere else in the world is the number of active priests so perilously low. Kerkhofs concludes that in many European dioceses by the year 2000, between 30 and 50 percent of parishes will have no resident priest. The secular and religious clergy in Europe decreased from 241,379 in 1976 to 217,275 in 1995.

Even those figures, grim as they are, mask the depth of the crisis in many European nations. When since-retired Bishop Reinhold Stecher of Innsbruck, Austria, criticized the Vatican for its negative attitude toward lay ministry in 1997, he said he knew some French priests who were covering six or seven parishes.

Of 13 nations studied by Kerkhofs, only Poland showed growth in the number of priestly vocations from 1976 to 1995; and even in Poland, the numbers have actually been in reverse since 1987.

The instrumentum offers one diagnosis of the phenomenon. “The decrease of priestly ordinations in many European countries is due to this altered vision of the church which no longer perceives priestly ministry as a sacramental state of life but rather as a function in the church’s organizational structure open to substitution,” it says.

This is the conviction that led to a November 1997 document from several curial offices on the distinction between lay and ordained ministry.

Some critics saw in that document a revival of clericalism. The instrumentum is aware of the concern. “Numerous situations, however, continue to exist in which priests maintain a rather domineering, authoritarian mentality which does not properly acknowledge the maturity of the faithful laity and their condition as adults who have responsibilities in many sectors of family and social life, nor the precious contribution which they can offer to the ecclesial community,” it says.

How to balance these two ideas -- boosting the status of the priesthood without diminishing the role of the laity -- will form another of the synod’s challenges.

Pressure for Reform

The pressure for church reform is insistent in Europe. It was here that the 1995 Kirchenvolksbewegung garnered more than a half-million signatures in Austria and more than 2 million in Germany demanding reform on clerical celibacy, women’s ordination, sexuality, the rights of laity, and the negative tone of church pronouncements.

The “We Are Church” movement has since spread to 11 European nations. An offshoot, the Forum of European Christians, is meeting outside Rome Oct. 7-9 to prepare its own recommendations to the synod. Its preparatory documents are available on-line at www.we-are-church.org/forum.

The instrumentum refers to this phenomenon only indirectly. “There is also the tendency to question everything, even within church,” it says, “insisting that the democratic principle of the majority ought to be applied in church matters, especially in doctrine and morality.”

Yet there is also a more balanced appraisal elsewhere: “Some also mention that the crisis in authority towards pronouncements of the church is due to the fact that oftentimes the magisterium is perceived as making assertions in the field of faith and morals without presenting the underlying reasons in a convincing manner and without seriously responding to opposing positions and arguments.”

It will be interesting to watch for signals from the synod as to which of these attitudes -- critical or conciliatory -- will dominate.

NCR will offer daily reports from the European Synod on its Web site, http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/documents/eurosyndindex.htm

National Catholic Reporter, September 24, 1999