Vatican II - Voice of The Church
Vatican II - Voice of The Church

The pull of God in a godless age

By Cardinal Dr. Franz König

Three months ago, a special report in The Tablet asked the disturbing question: "Where have all the Catholics gone?" From the sobering data at hand, Gordon Heald, managing director of a well-known research institute in Britain, diagnosed that not only had Mass attendance on Sundays declined steadily in England and Wales over the past 30 years, but the figures for priestly ordinations, baptisms, first communions, confirmations and particularly for church marriages had fallen steadily and dramatically year by year.  While admitting that this made "depressing reading", Heald cautioned that, as always, the figures must be seen in a broader context. The falling trend applied to all Christian Churches in the United Kingdom, and indeed to the entire European continent, he recalled.

Five weeks later Heald's special report prompted the Belgian Jesuit, Jan Kerkhofs, a well-known priest and sociologist, to demonstrate that the declining figures in England and Wales were indeed reflected across Europe. Based on his book Europe Without Priests (1995), Kerkhofs particularly concerned himself with the diminishing number of Catholic priests in Europe. He gives the statistics for 13 countries over the past 20 years - most of them in Western Europe. A very detailed analysis by Zulehner and Tomka this year shows similar figures or trends for Central and Eastern Europe with only few deviations. In the former Communist East Germany, for example, 73 per cent of the population do not belong to any Church. The figures for the Czech Republic are similar.  The negative statistics for Denmark and Sweden are common knowledge. From comprehensive data in the European Values Studies, Kerkhofs comes to the conclusion that there is a Europe-wide drift away from Christianity to a vague sort of agnosticism, leading to a post-modern, post-Christian secularisation of Europe.

Samuel Huntingdon, whose not uncontroversial book Clash of Civilisations attracted world-wide attention when it first appeared in 1997, comes to a similar conclusion. "Declining proportions of Europeans profess religious beliefs', he says, "observe religious practices, and participate in religious activities. This trend reflects not so much hostility to religion as indifference to it. Christian concepts, values and practices nonetheless pervade European civilisation.' And that, according to Huntingdon, means that Europe, by the "weakening of its central component, Christianity", is heading for a crisis.

The English religious sociologist David Martin, sometime chairman of the International Society for Religious Sociology, comes to a similar conclusion. In Europe, he says, liberation from any kind of religion, particularly from Christianity, has reached proportions that are unprecedented in modem times. "Europe has become the only really secular continent in the world", he remarks. According to Martin, the influence of the Enlightenment, which originated in Europe, has now thoroughly penetrated every level in Europe, and Christianity has lost its meaning. The Vienna-born American religious sociologist, Peter Berger, not long ago concluded that Europe had become "a church catastrophe". A report on Europe in the Herald Tribune concluded somewhat nonchalantly that today Europe was "the most godless quarter on earth".

In 1992 the German weekly Der Spiegel looked into the question of whether religion had a future, or whether God had got lost, and commissioned an opinion poll to find "what Germans believe". The conclusion Der Spiegel came to was entitled "Farewell to God". "Behold!" Der Spiegel said, "the Germans have lost their belief in God and with it their Christian philosophy of life." As it is no secret, however, that the editor of Der Spiegel inclines towards a negative view of Christianity, one could question his interpretation of the poll's results. It could have been influenced by his personal opinion.

Nonetheless, we must accept the fact that on the European continent at the present time the statistics and comparative figures point to a marked decline in religious practice - though some aspects of church life cannot be measured statistically.

But there are other data which go in the opposite direction. Statistics for Africa and Asia show a marked increase in the number of Catholics on both continents. The Pope, as the ecumenical representative of the whole of Christianity, is held in high esteem worldwide, particularly outside Europe, and is given special attention in the media. Time magazine voted him Man of the Year in 1994.  In November 1995 the Independent said that the Pope was the only anchor in our chaotic world. And the innumerable tributes to Cardinal Hume on his death, not from the United Kingdom, but from all over the world, were for an exemplary Christian of our time. I am told that Catholic and Anglican schools remain hugely popular in England. The same applies to other countries, above all to Austria.

Thus there is no lack of prominent voices proclaiming a worldwide religious renaissance - the first signs of which are already evident, they say. The French religious sociologist, Gilles Kepel, voices his opinion in his book La Revanche de Dieu (God's Revenge). American historians like Weigel and Huntingdon share his view. 'More broadly", says Huntingdon, "the religious resurgence throughout the world is a reaction against secularism, moral relativism and self-indulgence, and a reaffirmation of the values of order, discipline, work, mutual help and human solidarity."

The ecumenical Taizé movement for the young has had surprising success. A few years back almost 100,000 young people from both Eastern and Western Europe flocked to Vienna for a Taizé meeting at Christmas-time. And in 1997 up to a million young people came to the World Youth Day in Paris to meet Pope John Paul II - albeit from a complexity of motives.

But this massive interest in religion is mostly outside the Christian Churches. The vast number of sects sends a strong signal that people generally find a religious vacuum intolerable for any length of time. For as the study of religion and existentialist philosophy tell us, religion belongs to the essence of humanity:  men and women seek a link to God or to a deity. It was Pascal who summed up the existential experience of the inquiring human mind with his words, "The heart has its reasons which reason does not understand" - a sentence which has not lost its punch in the European history of ideas.

Notwithstanding widespread scepticism today regarding scientific advances and findings, there is a keen interest in atomic physics and astronomical occurrences. When therefore, top scientists speak out on the question of God, this excites notice.  In 1992 the Nobel prize winner for physics (1984) and of the European Council for Research (CERN – Conseil Europeen de Recherches Nucleaires ), Carl Rubbia  declared in an interview with the Neue Zuricher Zeitung: "When we list the number of galaxies or prove the existence of elementary particles, then this is probably not proof of the existence of God. But as a research scientist I am deeply impressed by the order and beauty that I find in the cosmos and within material phenomena. And as an observer of nature I cannot reject the thought that here a higher order of things exists in advance. I find the thought that all this is the result of coincidence—or mere statistical diversity—absolutely unacceptable. A higher intelligence exists here – over and above the existence of the universe itself.'

Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist of this century came to a similar conclusion. He himself did not adhere to any particular faith, in his last essay on "Science and Religion' he said: "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the unlimited spirit who reveals himself in the minutest details that we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of superior reasoning power is revealed in the comprehensible universe. That forms my idea of God."

The Second Vatican Council supplements such scientific assertions when it discusses the meaning of life. 'People look to their different religions for an answer to the unsolved riddles of human existence", says the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 1). 'The problems that weigh heavily on people's hearts are the same today as in past ages. What is humanity? What is the meaning and purpose of life? Where does suffering originate and what end does it serve? How can genuine happiness be found? What happens at death? What is judgement? What reward follows death? And finally, what is the ultimate mystery, beyond human explanation, which embraces our entire existence, from we take our origin and towards which we tend?'

We are all on a quest for the meaning and purpose of our lives. Neither a vague agnosticism nor a secularised environment can give answers to the unsolved mysteries of human life. So people look for the answers wherever they happen to be on offer, or wherever they happen to find them.

For the search for the meaning and purpose of life is one of the key issues in philosophy, literature and psychiatry today. In Vienna, the late Viktor Frankl, a disciple of Freud's, based his therapy - logotherapy as he called it - on the quest for the meaning of our existence. This quest is not identical with the search for God but comes very close to it, he says. It is not a question of finding just any meaning for our existence, but of finding one for one's own life. Even erroneous expressions of religion in the diverse cultures are, in the last instance, the longing for a reliable answer to the ultimate questions of our existence, an answer to the insecurity of our lives.

It is the comparative study of religion that has shown us in all clarity that, as far as we know, there has never been a people or a tribe which had no religion. This fact alone shows that religion is closely linked to humanity, that it is a part of our being. Comparative religion thus proves that religious practice is an 'essential dowry' of the human soul.

If we open the book of history, we can see in all places and at all times primitive peoples and the major religions of different civilisations have turned inquiringly and beseechingly to their God or gods. Wherever human beings have left us signs and monuments of their lives, we find proof they made sacrifices to their god and implored him for help.

On all continents and at all times, human beings have knelt in supplication and praise, giving thanks and atoning to God, and have left us manifestations of their appeals and prayers so that aeons later we are able to look into their innermost beings.

The simple thanksgiving prayers of the Yamana on Tierra del Fuego, the supplications on Egyptian tombstones, their plaintive cries on small clay tablet immortalised in hieroglyphs, Chinese invocations to the heavens, Greek and Roman prayers of supplication for victory and success, the devotional chants of the Buddhist canon, the hymns of praise to the gods of the Vedic and Avestic pantheon in India and Persia, are a many- voiced, never-ending Gloria  carved on rocks, written on clay or chiselled in stone. They are the moving Miserere and De Profundis of people who lived thousands of years ago and who implore superior powers to help and deliver them. As far back in the history of the world as it has been possible to trace human manifestations and civilisations, the traces and voices of supplicating, praying human beings accompany us.

And now by comparison let us listen to the moving lament of someone who has given up the search for God, who refuses to pray any longer, and who raises his hands insistently against God. It is Friedrich Nietzsche, who set out to kill God, that is, to put man in God's place. Addressing himself he says:

You will never pray again,
never adore again,
never again rest in endless trust.
You do not permit yourself to stop before any ultimate wisdom, ultimate goodness, ultimate power,
while harnessing your thoughts.
You have no perpetual guardian and friend
for your seven solitudes.
You live without a view of mountains,
with snow on their peaks and fire in their hearts.
There is no avenger for you any more
nor any final improver.
There is no longer any reason in what happens,
no love in what will happen to you.
No resting place is open any longer to your heart,
where it only needs to find and no longer to seek.
You resist any ultimate peace...
Who will give you the strength for that?
No one has yet had this strength.

(Nietzsche, Frohliche Wissenschaft, Aphorism 285) 

This is the voice of the man who wanted to put himself in God's place and perished in the process. What do these contradictory views mean for us Christians at the beginning of the new millennium? On the one hand the figures reflect a departure from the Church as a community of the faithful, but, on the other hand, we are confronted with this longing for God.

What is the reason for the present decline of the Christian Churches? Is society to blame? Or is it because the Christian Churches do not understand the signs of the times - or do not want to understand them - and are therefore failing to get their message across? Or is it the fault of the Christians themselves?

So first, is society to blame?

In this century our society has become pluralistic and multicultural as never before. A far-reaching transformation is detectable far and wide. Science and technology have fundamentally changed our lives. Two world wars destroyed Europe. But the belief in scientific progress as a substitute for religion, which was strong at the beginning of the century, has begun to waver.

Already 35 years ago, with no knowledge of the statistics we have today on the diminishing interest in our Christian faith, the Second Vatican Council saw that "the accelerated place of history is such that one can scarcely keep abreast of it. The destiny of the human race is viewed as a complete whole, no longer, as it were, in the particular histories of various peoples: now it merges into a complete whole. And so humankind substitutes a dynamic and more evolutionary concept of nature for a static one, and the result is an immense series of new problems calling for a new endeavour of analysis and synthesis" (Gaudium et Spes, 5).

A little later, the same Gaudium et Spes (9) noted that "people are becoming conscious that the forces they have unleashed are in their own hands and that it is up to them to control them or be enslaved by them. Here lies the modern dilemma." Thus the council foresaw the dramatic social transformation that would take place by the beginning of the new millennium. And, at the end of the second millennium, the council's prognosis has proved correct: in their desire for ever greater autonomy, individuals rely more and more on themselves and distrust any kind of institution. Authority is questioned. The out- come, on the one hand, is widespread insecurity and a loss of solidarity with one's fellow men and women. And on the other hand egotism and arrogance have led to increased criticism of the state and society - from which the Church, in its role as the Christian community of the faithful, has not been spared.

Public opinion has undergone a transformation. A dynamic and flexible media society has replaced the former stable order of firmly established institutions. A general change of values is gaining ground. Marriage and the family are particularly affected. Since the Sixties freedom and independence have become the slogans of the younger generation. But freedom without responsibility for oneself and for others is fragile.

Almost imperceptibly, the ambivalent power of the media is becoming the decisive factor in multicultural public opinion. Local events are frequently blown up to a global dimension these days, and single facts generalised. Everyone is convinced that they are perfectly informed and can therefore comment on and criticise the most distant of events. Everything is in a state of flux and anything seems possible. On the one hand we have a proliferation of knowledge and experience, a new willingness to help prompted by global access to information; on the other hand, there is talk of  "the power of evil images", a climate of ruthlessness and violence which many link to the influence of the media. There seems to be a growing conviction that it is easier to solve conflicts by force than through dialogue. Where is Christianity's place in all this?

Secondly, is the decline the fault of the churches?

With its breakneck speed, media society, which has eyes only for the human side of the Church, adds to the feeling of insecurity in church practice. Thus, spread by one-sided media reporting, the negative image of the Church and of the Christian faith is blown up out of all proportion. Faced with such a scenario, church leaders have become increasingly uneasy. Some try to withdraw from such a complex situation and turn their attention inwards. They busy themselves with self-criticism and attempts at structural reform. In post-conciliar discussions this tendency is further aggravated by the division between 'conservatives' and the 'progressives.' A sort of 'church navel-gazing" is taking place.

But the primary concern of the Christian Churches, of every Church, but particularly of the Catholic Church, in whose name I speak, cannot first and foremost be its public image. Its primary concern must always he to pass on the Gospel message with its partly adaptable and partly unalterable standpoint. And so I am faced with the question: how do I fulfil my task of conveying my message in the world as it is today? It is not an easy task and requires - much more than it used to - honest co-operation between bishops, priests and laity. Here, too, it was the Second Vatican Council which repeatedly pointed to the necessity of such co-operation. As Lumen Gentium 33 says, "Now, the laity are called in a special way to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth."

And this, too, is the reason why church leaders should not be afraid of too great a diversity. Over the years their fears in this respect have led to an excessive and defensive centralism and bureaucracy. Ever since the Second Vatican Council, it has become increasingly clear that the Catholic Church faces a problem of a particular kind in the future. The Catholic faithful in the parishes and dioceses lose heart when they receive no reassurance or comfort from the central church leadership, when - with the exception of those documents and encyclical letters written by the Pope himself (I want to emphasise this) - warnings of error and heresy predominate in the countless documents that pour out of Rome. The Catholic faithful expect signs of encouragement and mutual flow of information as a sign of and of diversity.

That is why the question of what kind of leadership the Catholic Church requires in I order to preserve its unity in a changing rapidly  world, and what forms of diversity are possible without seriously endangering that unity on the threshold of the third millennium, keeps cropping up nowadays. That Pope John Paul II is aware of this question is evident from his encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint (95), in which he recalls with emphasis the link between the college of bishops and the pope. "The bishop of Rome is a member of the college", he says, "and the bishops are his brothers in the ministry."

The diversity of the Church must be given room - in reliance on the Holy Spirit - in every field and every issue of church life. The community of the faithful is rooted in the families, the parishes, where people grow into the community and become Christians through baptism and the sacraments.  It is these small, living communities which form the network of the Church with their knowledge of Christianity, their basic religious instruction for adults (catechism) and their faithful solidarity. In such turbulent times, this network needs information, communication, reinforcement and encouragement from the larger structures of the Church which, according to the principle of subsidiarity, must be supportive and not dictatorial. Then the solidarity of the church community will grow.

Thirdly, and finally, is the decline the fault of Christians themselves?

God created living people and not structures. In the last instance it is always people we are dealing with. The best structures are of no help if we human beings fail. That is what Jesus meant when he was teaching in Israel, and said after the Sermon on the Mount, as Matthew 5:13 tells us: "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out.... You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.... Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works give glory to your Father who is in heaven.' And finally, "Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon a rock.'

This means that it is not enough to discuss the word of God and comment on it. We must above all carry it out and bear witness to it by the way we live. There is no spectacular answer, no secret recipe. The Churches, the faithful in the Churches, must be credible interpreters, witnesses of God's love for mankind. That is the secret of a Mother Teresa or a Fr Maximilian Kolbe, who changed the world around them. And so Christianity and its churches do not have to invent anything new. They must simply go on proclaiming the same Gospel, not so much with words but through bearing loving witness to the way they live.

In order to highlight its endeavours to understand the world, the Second Vatican Council began its great pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world with a renewed statement of Christian humanism: 'The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts' (Gaudium et Spes, 1). With great momentum the council produced the equipment for the Church's future course in its texts with which one must be well acquainted. I can only mention a few keywords here: the renewed image of the Church, the efforts to promote ecumenism, the co-operation of priests and laity, the significance of the major religions from the Christian point of view through inter-religious dialogue, and finally the emphasis on religious freedom.

Let me sum up: the Christian community in Europe which from the Emperor Constantine's conversion in the fourth century onwards had the respect and support of public opinion, has today been thrown back on itself by a non-believing, indifferent, often even hostile environment, and as in its first beginnings is out on its own, left to its own resources which have evolved from both a divine and a human element. The traces of Constantine's Church would seem to be fading and a second turning point-point as fundamental as the Constantinian one confronts us. Faced with a cold wind of resistance the ecumenically united Christian community is once again becoming the salt of the earth and the light on the mountain. For the call to be a light which shines from the mountain top, to be salt which does not loose its taste, holds good for the Christian way of life in all centuries

Let us finally listen to the voice of a man for whom bearing witness was of the utmost importance:

'Shine like a light in a world of darkness'¦' One would not have to say this if our lives really did shine out. We would not need to tell if we let deeds speak.

'There would be no heathens if we were true Christians, if we kept Christ's commandments. But we love money just as they (the heathens do) – in fact more than they do. We fear death as much as they do. How then are they to be convinced of our beliefs? By a miracle? There are no more miracles. By our behaviour? It is bad. By love? Not a trace of it anywhere. That is why one day we will have to account not only for our sins, but for the damage we have done.'

The man who expressed his concern so forcibly was St John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople and a contemporary of St Augustine's in the fifth century.

What Chrysostom said when Christianity was in its beginning holds true for us our multicultural society today as we begin a new millennium. Words alone are not enough. Human beings and what they do are the decisive factor.


This paper was published in The Tablet on 18 September 1999