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Euro Skepticism

Why Benedict XVI tried, and failed, to evangelize Europe

Much of Benedict XVI's papacy necessarily consisted of damage control, most notably relating to the widening scandals relating to child molestation. But beyond the many crises he faced, Benedict's legacy deserves to be measured against the goals that he chose to devote himself to as leader of the Catholic Church. Indeed, the manner in which Benedict attempted to pursue one of his central ambitions—the re-evangelization of Europe—sheds revealing light on his other missteps and failures.

Benedict's pastoral devotion to Europe was partly a matter of opportunism: The Catholic Church, simply put, has not recently had to worry much about its expansion overseas. The church is thriving in the Global South. Within 20 years, Africa alone will have more Catholics than Europe. By 2030, at least three-quarters of the world’s Catholics will live in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.1

But the specific spiritual salvation of Europe has been a life-long concern for the current pope, one grounded in theology, as well as biography. Joseph Ratzinger grew up in a deeply traditional Bavaria in which the Church was a central part of religious, social, even political life. That pattern largely continued under the Nazis, and went on to flourish in the immediate years after World War II. Secularization seemed like a process confined to Europe's former Protestant heartlands like England and the Netherlands.

Since the 1980s, however, even the most devout Europeans have found it impossible to ignore secularization's inexorable spread. Church attendance has plummeted even in such once faithful territories as Spain, Italy, and Ireland, as well as in Bavaria itself; in France, self-described Catholics have became a minority. Vocations to the priesthood have fallen precipitously; seminaries and convents are emptying.

Ratzinger has long spoken in stark terms about the dire implications of Europe's shrinking faith. In a much-quoted interview in 2001—when he already wielded enormous influence within the Vatican of John Paul II—Ratzinger posed radical questions about the sustainability of Europe’s Christian identity, citing the German city of Magdeburg, where only 8 percent of the population claimed affiliation to any Christian denomination whatsoever. Beyond force of habit, he asked, what sense did it make to continue claiming that Europe, was still a Christian society? And what implications did that weakening have for the Church as a whole?

But he did not advocate despair. Yes, he said, “the mass Church may be something lovely, but it is not necessarily the Church's only way of being.” Europe’s future church “will be reduced in its dimensions,” he admitted—but the rise of humanism, relativism, and atheism, he added, ought to be seen as a reason for Christianity on the continent “to start again.” It was imperative that Christianity not be abandoned, though it did need to be re-booted.

Ratzinger went on to a comprehensive plan for how that should happen. In his vision, a faithful Christian core would begin the re-evangelization of the continent. As a precedent, the cardinal cited the Reformation era of the sixteenth century, when surging Protestantism seemed all but certain to overwhelm the Catholic establishment. Yet the church not only survived, but in the long term grew even more powerful and prestigious than ever before. Partly, it did this through cultivating new forms of piety and new devotions, particularly to the Virgin Mary in her many guises. Amazingly for many modern observers, John Paul II’s papacy followed this model closely, launching a full-scale Marian revival. Old shrines of the Virgin were restored and popularized, new ones fostered, and the strategy has enjoyed some success. Across the continent, pilgrimage sites really have welcomed unprecedented crowds.

But true reconversion, Ratzinger believed, could only be achieved by small, dedicated groups of highly active and committed believers, like the small, super-loyalist movements that emerged during the sixteenth century, chiefly in Spain and Italy. The Jesuits and Opus Dei are the best-known examples, but also influential were the Italian Focolare, the Sant’Egidio Community, and Communion and Liberation, Spain’s Neocatechumenate, and the Mexican-founded Legionaries of Christ. So were charismatic offshoots like Rinnovamento nello Spirito Santo (“Renewal in the Holy Spirit”) and the Emmanuel Community. Like the early Jesuits, such groups demanded extremely high levels of participation and activism, and some were accused of cult-like behavior. Focolare, for example, subjects members to ritualized public confessions and retreats that serve as a kind of total immersion in the group and its doctrines. Still, such movements spread widely, partly because they offered such a high role for lay activists, especially women.

Both Ratzinger and John Paul II saw these movements as the leaven, the yeast, that could energize and restore a Christian Europe that that could once again play its full part in the global Church. By the mid-1980s, John Paul was citing them as a beacon of hope, even the start of a modern-day Pentecost, and this wholehearted support continued when Benedict took office in 2005.

In June 2006, some 400,000 supporters of the ecclesial movements gathered in Rome for the feast of Pentecost where they were greeted personally by the pope. Benedict's speech (appropriately enough given the season) stressed the creative role of the Holy Spirit in renewing and purifying the world, and he called for the attendees to show a renewed missionary zeal. To this end, in 2010, Benedict created a Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, targeted directly at a re-Christianizing Europe. Not coincidentally, the scheme for such a council stemmed from one of the ecclesial movements; the idea was first advocated by Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, one of Benedict’s favorites among the new groups.

But while Benedict's goals have been consistent, his achievements have been disappointing: Far from beginning a reconversion of Europe, Benedict’s papacy has actually witnessed an acceleration of European defections from the Church. Indeed, the Church’s position in Europe today is far worse than when he took office. The sex abuse scandals that have been revealed in a torrent in European countries since 2010, each quite as devastating as the American disasters of the previous decade and often implicating the church’s senior leaders, have gravely undermined the church’s claim to moral stature or spiritual leadership. A growing number of Catholic states are now openly defying Church authority; the rapid spread of gay marriage laws offers a gauge of the Catholic Church's fading influence.

It’s worth asking whether the emphasis on ecclesial movements actually contributed to the accumulating sequence of disasters. Benedict did try to combat some of the most severe problems among the groups: After several decades of ignoring sexual misconduct allegations against Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the Vatican only took disciplinary steps after the new Pope took office. But the “ecclesial” strategy exacerbated other pervasive problems in the senior ranks of the hierarchy, especially a sense of elitism and a detachment from the ordinary faithful. Arguably, the new evangelism theme also took time and resources that might have been better used shoring up the church’s defenses against scandal—not least in developing a modern, professional public relations apparatus.

But the final chapter of the pope's European legacy might not yet be written. Throughout his papacy, Benedict's concern for Europe has also informed his appointment of new cardinals, the men who will choose his successor. By any reasonable standard, Europeans are already massively over-represented in the College of Cardinals, and any sense of justice would call for more African and Asian appointments. Benedict, however, not only continued to appoint European cardinals, but chose a striking number of Italians. Europe now notionally accounts for just 24 percent of the world’s Catholics, but 53 percent of the Cardinal electors. In tilting the balance towards a European successor, Benedict was not slighting the rest of the world: Rather, he was declaring his intention to keep up the fight for Europe.

So the papal electors now face a strategic choice that goes far beyond personalities. Do they invest in success, choosing someone who can give even greater momentum to the church’s already thriving expansion in the Global South? Or do they hope that yet another European can succeed where Benedict failed, in staunching the losses in that continent? If they believe that Catholic Europe can still be saved, then perhaps Benedict's reputation can be as well. But that may require a leap of faith on the part of Catholics and skeptics alike.

Philip Jenkins teaches at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion

  1. And that figure does not include people of Southern origins living in the Global North—it doesn’t for instance include Latinos resident in the United States.