Europe

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

Future of all those Roman (and American) churches? No need for anxiety, says pope

It's a statistic tourists in Rome often hear while gazing at centuries of glorious architecture: The eternal city contains more than 900 churches.

Other statistics will affect those holy sites in the future.

For example, a record-low 458,151 births occurred last year in Italy. The fertility rate -- currently 1.32, far below a 2.1 replacement rate -- is expected to decline again this year. Meanwhile, the number of marriages fell 6 percent, between 2016 and 2017, and religious marriages plunged 10.5 percent.

"Currently we are at a roughly terminal stage. It would not be bad if the Church, the first to pay the price, would understand this and get moving," noted demographer Roberto Volpi, quoted in the newspaper Il Foglio.

Thus, lots of Rome's 900-plus churches will be empty in the next generation or so.

That was the context of remarks by Pope Francis during a recent Pontifical Council for Culture conference, a gathering with this sobering title: "Doesn't God dwell here any more? Decommissioning places of worship and integrated management of ecclesiastical cultural heritage."

Francis stressed: "The observation that many churches, which until a few years ago were necessary, are now no longer thus, due to a lack of faithful and clergy, or a different distribution of the population between cities and rural areas, should be welcomed in the Church not with anxiety, but as a sign of the times that invites us to reflection and requires us to adapt."

The church has problems, but there are "virtuous" ways to deal with them, he said. Bishops in Europe, North America and elsewhere are learning to cope.

"Decommissioning must not be first and only solution … nor must it be carried out with the scandal of the faithful. Should it become necessary, it should be inserted in the time of ordinary pastoral planning, be proceded by adequate information and be a shared decision" involving civic and church leaders, he said.

Pope Francis appears to be advising Catholics not to worry too much as "For sale" or even "Property condemned" signs appear on lots of sanctuaries in some parts of the world, said Phil Lawler, a conservative journalist with 35 years of experience in diocesan and independent Catholic publications.

"The sentence that triggered me was when the pope said we shouldn't be ANXIOUS about all of this," he said.

God, man, faith, FIFA and the World Cup

God, man, faith, FIFA and the World Cup

History buffs probing the origins of the Cross of St. George will find themselves exploring a labyrinth of faith and legend in the Late Middle Ages.

But to see this heraldry symbol, just look at England's flag -- a bright red cross on a white background. Soccer fans may notice that the English side's 2018 World Cup kits feature a St. George's Cross on the back collar. During "away" games, a subtle cross covers the entire front of the red jersey.

This is interesting, since the International Football Association Board's "Laws of the Game" -- used at the FIFA World Cup -- state: "Equipment must not have any political, religious or personal slogans, statements or images." This rule "applies to all equipment (including clothing) worn by players," according to IFAB guidelines.

Does this apply to religious symbols woven into the flags and traditions of many nations?

"It's important to remember that the rules of soccer came from Europe," said Jennifer Bryson, director of the Islam and Religious Freedom office at the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C. "The IFAB began in England. FIFA began in Europe. Both of these organizations are supposed to be truly international -- but their roots are European.

"Basically, the word 'religion' in these rules means 'Christianity.' … FIFA is still trying to come to terms with the rest of the world."

It's hard to imagine a more challenging task than imposing modern European secularism on this very religious planet, said Bryson, in a telephone interview. England's Cross of St. George is just one example of faith mixing with football. Players from Iran wear their nation's flag, with a red "Allah" symbol and two bold horizontal bars consisting of 11 repetitions of "Allahu akbar (God is greatest)." Can Brazilian evangelicals keep wearing "I belong to Jesus" t-shirts under their jerseys?

Bryson has paid close attention during World Cup 2018, looking for expressions of religious faith. She summarized her early findings in a late June lecture in Washington entitled "Exorcisms and Exercise, Crosses and Cross Passes: What the World Cup has to do with Religious Freedom."

Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

Pope Benedict XVI and Europe's future: New data about fading faith in Christendom's old heart

After years of worrying about Europe's future, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany put his hopes and fears on the record during a 2001 interview.

There had been hints. German journalist Peter Seewald noted an old quote in which Ratzinger said the church would be "reduced in its dimensions, it will be necessary to start again." Had the leader of Rome's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith changed his views?

"Statistical data shows irrefutable tendencies," replied Ratzinger. "The mass Church may be something lovely, but it is not necessarily the Church's only way of being.

"The Church of the first three centuries was small, without being, by this fact, a sectarian community. On the contrary, it was not closed in on itself, but felt a great responsibility in regard to the poor, the sick."

Four years later, this bookish cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI, serving until his stunning resignation in 2013 -- the first pope to resign in 600 years. Meanwhile, waves of change have continued to rock Eastern and Western Europe.

Now, the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion in Society, based at St. Mary's University in London, has released a study showing that Christianity is no longer Europe's default religion, especially among the 16- to 29-year-olds who are its future. "Europe's Young Adults and Religion," was produced with the Institut Catholique de Paris, analyzing data from 22 countries, drawn from the 2014-2016 European Social Survey.

In 18 of these countries "fewer than 10 percent of all 16-29 year-olds attend religious services at least weekly. And in 12 of them, over half say that they have 'no religion,' " noted Stephen Bullivant, the report's author and director of the Benedict XVI Centre, in email exchanges with Rod Dreher of The American Conservative.

"These are all countries in Europe, the very heart of Christendom, where Christianity (albeit in several forms) has been reliably passed on from generation-to-generation for the best part of 2000 years. And now, in the space of just a couple of generations, that's largely stopped in many places."

The key, he said is that "nominal" or "cultural" faith doesn't pass from one generation to another.

Europe on ice, Africa on fire: Doing the global Catholic math in 2015

As economists like to say, when America sneezes Europe catches a cold. 

When it comes to culture the equation often works the other way around, with European trends infecting America. If that's the case, then American Catholic leaders must be doing the math after reading a sobering new study -- "Global Catholicism: Trends & Forecasts" (.pdf) -- by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. 

"These are the Vatican numbers and nothing in here will surprise the bishops," said Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and coauthor of the report. "They are aware of their sacramental numbers and their Mass attendance numbers. … They know that they face issues right now, and in the future, that are very serious." 

When it comes to church statistics, experts study life's symbolic events -- births, marriages and deaths. It also helps to note how often believers go to Mass and whether there are enough priests to perform all these rites. 

If so, the European numbers in the CARA report are serious business. While Vatican statistics claim Europe's Catholic population rose 6 percent between 1980 and 2012, infant baptisms fell by 1.5 million and marriages between two Catholics collapsed from roughly 1.4 million to 585,000. The number of priests fell 32 percent and weekly Mass attendance kept declining, from 37 percent in the 1980s to 20 percent since 2010. 

But the past lingers in brick and mortar.

Fundamental Breivik truths

As journalists began digging into the who, what, when, where, why and how of Anders Behring Breivik, the deputy police chief of Oslo faced a media scrum and served up the day's hottest sound bite. "What we know is that he is right wing and he is a Christian fundamentalist," he said, the morning after the hellish attack on Norway's Labor Party and on the children that were its future.

That was the English version of the quote that jumped into American news reports and wire service stories around the globe.

Breivik was officially a "Christian fundamentalist." He was also a "Christian extremist" in a New York Times headline, a "religious conservative" on an ABC newscast and a "Christian terrorist" in an Associated Press report.

However, the pivotal "fundamentalist" phrase sounded a bit different in the context of the televised Norwegian press conference that ignited this media storm, said the Rev. Arne H. Fjeldstad, a minister in the Church of Norway and a former senior editor at the major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. He is also one of my colleagues in the GetReligion.org project to study the mainstream media's coverage of religion news.

Translating from the Norwegian, Fjeldstad said the police claimed that Breivik was part of a "Christian, fundamentalist, extreme-right environment in Norway." The key was his violent opposition to the political policies known as "multiculturalism."

"I am not sure this police official knew what he was saying when he used the word 'fundamentalist,' " said Fjeldstad. "I think he was trying to say that this was a crazy, lunatic, radical guy on the political fringe and he is calling himself a Christian."

It's crucial to know, he added, that "fundamentalist" has literally been pulled into the Norwegian language from English -- even if there is very little history of Protestant fundamentalism in Norway.

During debates inside the Church of Norway, said Fjeldstad, the term is primarily used by liberals to describe conservatives who stress the Bible's authority as the "inspired word of God" and who defend traditional Christian doctrines on moral issues. While there are Christian groups in America who identify themselves as "fundamentalists," this is not the case in Norway.

As media around the world quickly reported, Breivik did identify himself as a Christian -- period -- on his Facebook page. He also added other details about his religious and cultural beliefs in his 1,500-page online manifesto, "2083 -- A European Declaration of Independence."

At the age of 15, Breivik apparently chose to be baptized and confirmed into the state church. However, the writings left behind by the 32-year-old radical also stress that he does not hold traditional Christian beliefs or practice the faith. Instead, he carefully identifies himself as a "Christian agnostic" or a "Christian atheist (cultural Christian)." In his manifesto, Breivik emphasizes his identity as a Free Mason, his interest in Odinist Norse traditions and his role as a "Justiciar Knight" in a new crusade against Islam.

"If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian," he wrote, in a passage that found its way into a few media reports. "Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian."

Breivik explicitly separates himself from conservative forms of Christianity, at one point noting: "It is therefore essential to understand the difference between a 'Christian fundamentalist theocracy' (everything we do not want) and a secular European society based on our Christian cultural heritage (what we do want).

"So, no, you don't need to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus to fight for our Christian cultural heritage. It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian-atheist."

In other words, noted Fjeldstad, for Breivik the "Christian" label is cultural or political -- but not a statement of personal faith in his case.

"If you are going to use the word 'fundamentalist' it must be used to describe someone who is a very conservative Christian when he is talking about the Bible and the practice of the faith," he said. Thus, a fundamentalist Christian "would always place a heavy emphasis on having a personal faith in Jesus Christ. ...

"So whatever Anders Breivik is, the last thing you can call him is a 'fundamentalist' Christian."

Dershowitz visits Oslo (sort of)

Ask Orthodox Jews in Norway where one can find a fresh shoulder of kosher beef and they will give the same answer -- nowhere. There is more to this obscure fact than a clash between Jewish tradition and the concerns of animal-rights activists in today's Europe, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told a Jewish forum in Oslo. This is a symbolic fact about tensions that surround Jews in Norway.

"You live in the only country in the world today that does not permit kosher shechita," he said, at the city's Chabad House. "Shechita" is a rite in which a skilled Jew uses an extremely sharp blade to swiftly sever an animal's trachea, esophagus and the arteries and veins of the neck, allowing blood to drain out.

"They wonder why there are only 800 Jews or 900 Jews living in Norway. This is a country that permits the butchering of seals, the butchering of whales, but not this ritual slaughter -- which has been proved by every scientific means to be one of the most humane means of slaughter."

The audience grasped the big idea behind his words, since this March 25 event -- which was recorded -- was held in an outreach center for observant Jews. How can Jews honor the details of their ancient faith without keeping kosher?

However, Dershowitz noted that when he asked other Jewish community leaders about any anti-Semitic trends in Norway, all they would say is that "things are wonderful," before falling silent.

"How can things be wonderful," he added, "if you can't have your own meat? How do you deal with the meat here, do you have to bring it in from England?"

Someone in the audience quietly replied: "We don't talk about certain things."

Among First Amendment and criminal law attorneys, few are as famous and infamous as Dershowitz. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1964 and, three years later, was promoted to full professor at age 28. Even a brief summary of his courtroom career would include a gallery of clients such as porn star Harry "Deep Throat" Reems, British socialite Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson. In the 1970s his attempts to defend Russian dissident Anatoly Scharansky made global headlines.

Dershowitz didn't travel to Norway just to talk about dietary laws.

The goal was to lecture about legal affairs and, especially, the role of international law in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts through the years. However, the Zionist group that organized the tour -- the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem -- found that Norwegian academic leaders were not anxious to have Dershowitz lecture on their campuses, at no expense to the hosts.

The dean of the Bergen University law faculty, according to Dershowitz, said the school would "be honored to have Prof. Dershowitz give a lecture on the O.J. Simpson case, as long as he promises not to say a word about Israel." The Harvard professor has written six books about the Middle East, advocating a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian standoff.

Israel was the key, in part because of 2009 debates at Norwegian universities about a proposed boycott at Jewish Israeli scholars and others who support Israel. However, rather than focusing on recent conflicts about occupied territories, Dershowitz noted that the text defining the boycott began by saying: "Since 1948 the state of Israel has occupied Palestinian land and denied the Palestinians basic human rights."

In addition to challenging the founding of the state of Israel, the first academic leader to sign the boycott petition also offered a harsh critique of the "egocentric ... tribe-mentality" among Jews in Israel, Norway and "all over the world."

While Norwegian leaders keep talking about dialogue on these issues, said Dershowitz, it will be hard for Jewish leaders to take part in bridge-building efforts if their voices are not allowed to be heard. The only previous time in his career in which he was turned away from major universities was in "apartheid South Africa, when I was Nelson Mandela's lawyer."

The bottom line: Boycotts do not promote dialogue.

Based on recent events, Dershowitz said it appears Norwegian intellectuals want "dialogue with Hamas, but not with Dershowitz. Dialogue with Hamas, but not with Israel. … Dialogue with people that we agree with, but not with people we disagree with. This is not dialogue. This is a one-way monologue."

The monster was not hiding in church

For a dozen years, they hunted Europe's most notorious war criminal.

Investigators knew exactly where they thought they would find former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the man accused of masterminding the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.

After his July 21 arrest, most media reports echoed vague statements in The New York Times in which unidentified voices said Karadzic "eluded arrest so long by shaving his swoopy gray hair and disguising himself as a Serbian Orthodox priest. He reportedly hid out in caves in the mountains of eastern Bosnia and in monasteries."

"Of course they were wrong," said Metropolitan Christopher, leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in North and South America. "It was not true, to say that the Serbian church was hiding him. It appears that he was living right there in clear view, practicing alternative forms of medicine in front of everybody."

The Times updated its first report, adding that for "some of those years" the fugitive lived under an assumed name in Belgrade. A second-day report conceded that Karadzic "was not in a distant monastery or a dark cave when caught at last, but living in Serbia's capital."

Instead of shaving his photogenic silver hair and pretending to be a priest, the former president of the Bosnian Serb mini-state had built a new identity based on his career as a psychologist -- becoming Dr. Dragan David Dabic, expert on meditation, unorthodox therapy techniques and herbal treatments from the East. He was, observers said, a self-made guru with dashes of Freud, a Bohemian poet who resembled Santa Claus, complete with a bushy white beard and long hair, including a ponytail. He published journal articles, gave public lectures and lived with a young mistress.

Blend all that together and, according to ABC News, what you get is an "Orthodox mystic."

"It's like that old saying that you can't fight city hall," said Metropolitan Christopher, in frustration. Journalists and outsiders "want to link all of this to the Serbian Orthodox Church. And they want to say that all Serbs, everywhere, are guilty of the actions of these violent men and that, most of all, the Serbs are the only people who have ever done these terrible things to their neighbors. ...

"They forget that men like Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were enemies of the church and used violence against the Orthodox, too. Our bishops were jailed and beaten for opposing the regime behind this violence."

As the Serbian Orthodox bishops proclaimed, at one of the worst moments in the fighting, the "way of non-violence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God in agreement with human and divine moral law and experience."

There was also an interfaith appeal for peace in 1999, signed by Orthodox Patriarch Pavle, Catholic Archbishop Franc Perko, Mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic and Rabbi Isak Asiel. It called for a total ceasefire and the return of all refuges -- Serbs, Albanians and Croats -- to their homes.

"Even as evil cannot be overcome by evil, so peace and harmony cannot be attained by war," said that statement from Belgrade. "To be a peacemaker is the greatest duty and most noble obligation of every man. That is why we are not afraid to be the first to extend the hand of peace to one another."

Hardly anyone was listening.

Truth is, Orthodox Christianity does play a major role in defining the history and identity of the Serbs. It is also true that Orthodox leaders have opposed the break up of their homeland and, in particular, the loss of Kosovo -- a state containing more than 1,000 historic churches and monasteries. Serbs have pled with Western officials to intervene and stop the destruction of many priceless sanctuaries.

The lines between faith and ethnicity are often blurred in the Balkans. In this violent, splintered and ravaged region, Karadzic -- who remains a hero to Serb radicals -- may have found refuge for some period of time with the help of some priests or monks, acting on their own.

"We hear accusations against Orthodox people, but we never seem to hear who, what, when and where," said Metropolitan Christopher. "If it's true, we need to know facts. But it is wrong for the media to keep making vague accusations against our whole church in this way, which only makes things worse for those who have endured so much."

No Oscar for Hirsi Ali?

The murder of filmmaker Michael Moore left Hollywood shaken and outraged.

A fundamentalist Baptist cut the liberal icon's throat in broad daylight on a New York City street after the release of "Submission," his movie with actress Susan Sarandon that attacked the Religious Right for oppressing women. As a final symbolic act the killer used his knife to pin an anti-abortion tract to Moore's chest, with an explicit warning that Sarandon was next.

All of that is fiction, of course.

Still, it's interesting to contemplate how the media would respond if a crime like this did occur. Would reporters rush to cover an address by Sarandon if she ventured into public to berate the fundamentalists? Would Hollywood find a way to honor her during the Academy Awards for her stand against religious tyranny and for artistic freedom?

Moore and Sarandon are alive and well. However, the Dutch feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali remains in hiding after the 2004 murder of her artistic partner, the brash and profane filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The duo's "Submission" linked verses in the Koran with violence against women and then showed the holy words written on the skin of semi-naked actresses.

A Dutch-born Islamist decided to retaliate. Before killing van Gogh on a street in Amsterdam, Muhammad Bouyeri was known for translating a 14th century tract entitled ?The Obligation to Kill Anyone who Insults the Prophet.? He shot van Gogh 15 times and slashed his throat before impaling on the body a five-page letter threatening Hirsi Ali, who had been elected to the Dutch parliament a year earlier.

Hirsi Ali has continued her writing and political work as best she can. She also risked a recent public appearance in Berlin to rage against Muslims who have marched and rioted to protest those 12 Danish cartoons of the prophet Mohammad.

"I am here to defend the right to offend," said Hirsi Ali, a native of Somalia who fled to the Netherlands as a refugee. "Shame on those papers and TV channels who lacked the courage to show their readers the caricatures in the cartoon affair. These intellectuals live off free speech but they accept censorship. They hide their mediocrity of mind behind noble-sounding terms such as 'responsibility' and 'sensitivity.'

"Shame on those politicians who stated that publishing and re-publishing the drawings was 'unnecessary,' 'insensitive,' 'disrespectful' and 'wrong.' ... Shame on those European companies in the Middle East that advertised 'we are not Danish' or 'we don't sell Danish products." This is cowardice. Nestle chocolates will never taste the same after this, will they?"

For her Muslim critics, the Berlin speech merely confirmed that Hirsi Ali is a "loyal slave" of her new European masters," according to Al-Jazeera commentator Ali Al-Hail, a media professor at the University of Qatar. As an apostate Muslim, she has been telling lies about Islam in exchange for a "fistful of Euros" so she can fill "a gap in her starving abdomen," he said.

Nevertheless, it's important to note that few Western liberals have rushed to defend or praise Hirsi Ali, he said, via email. Her press coverage has been thin.

"The American left has been so silent since the assassination of Theo Van Gogh," said Al-Hail, who recently taught as a Fulbright scholar at Simpson College in Iowa. "I have also observed this silence. As to why? Probably, probably, the American left is sympathetic to Muslims over the current crises."

Hirsi Ali is convinced that her usual allies are afraid. This crisis, she said, has underlined the "widespread fear among authors, filmmakers, cartoonists and journalists who wish to describe, analyze or criticize intolerant aspects of Islam. ... It has also revealed the presence of a considerable minority in Europe who do not understand or will not accept the workings of liberal democracy."

While it is wrong to stereotype Muslims, Hirsi Ali stressed that she believes the prophet Mohammad made mistakes -- especially on women's issues, gay rights, free speech and the separation of mosque and state.

Thus, she said, "I think it is right to make critical drawings and films of Muhammad. ... I do not seek to offend religious sentiment, but I will not submit to tyranny. Demanding that people who do not accept Muhammad's teachings should refrain from drawing him is not a request for respect but a demand for submission."