Last week, the Pope visited Ireland amid the tsunami of scandal related to sexual misconduct among priests (that had been actively covered up) that started making headlines in the 1990s. It didn’t help that his trip coincided with a breaking report of horrendous abuse in Pennsylvania in the United States.
That would have made the trip challenging enough. But there was an even larger crisis of faith he was stepping into. As a Washington Post article noted, “Once the most Catholic country in Europe, Ireland is now a place where only about a third of adults attend church weekly.” So while an appearance by Pope Francis resulted in 45,000 tickets being snapped up in a handful of hours, the comparison should be made to the 450,000 who came out in 1979 to hear John Paul II.
This has led to a cultural freefall. Once known for its Catholic conservatism, the country’s courts and legislature have recently overturned bans on contraception, homosexuality and divorce. And in two stunning referendums, “Ireland became the world’s first country to approve same-sex marriage by popular ballot (2015)” and, this past May, “swept aside one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the developed world in a landslide vote that marked its full emergence as a socially liberal state.”
As Crawford Gibbon, professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast noted, the two votes “illustrate how rapid Irish secularization has been—it has achieved in one generation what took centuries elsewhere.”
Of course Ireland is part of a larger shift throughout Western Europe. As a recent Pew Research Center report detailed, the “majority of Europe’s Christians are non-practicing.” Only 22% attend church services. And, let us remember, it was Western Europe “where Protestant Christianity originated and Catholicism has been based for most of its history.”
The idea that among your still-professing Christians the vast majority are non-practicing reveals this is the last generation of any significant cohort of professing Christians. A non-practicing Christian is surely the final step before not professing any allegiance at all. And in most Western European countries, non-practicing Christians are the largest group.
Consider the following comparisons between those who consider themselves non-practicing Christians, and those who are practicing Christians:
There are some positives in the data. While many do not believe in the God of the Bible, most tend to believe in some kind of higher power or force. They remain more positive than most toward churches. They want their children exposed to Christianity, or at least Christian values.
So while much can be lamented, there are rays of ongoing hope. But in that interplay one thing is for sure:
This is undoubtedly the last generational chance to save the West for Christ.
James Emery White
“Being Christian in Western Europe,” Pew Research Center, May 29, 2018, read online.
William Booth and Amanda Ferguson, “Pope Francis Is Set to Visit an Ireland Where the Catholic Church Is in Steep Decline,” The Washington Post, August 19, 2018, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.