By Elizabeth Bryant
From the Life & Mind Desk
PARIS, Aug. 9 (UPI) — Young Christians in Western Europe believe more in God, in Spirituality and in life after death than they did 20 years ago — but fewer are turning to the church and to religious establishments for answers, according to a new study.
Published in the July-August issue of the French periodical Futuribles, the findings are part of an ongoing survey, which began in 1981, of changing European values, on matters ranging from immigration to homosexuality.
The beliefs of Christian youth, ages 18-29 years, in Western and Eastern Europe are by no means uniform. Indeed, in many former Communist countries religious faith and church attendance are on the rise.
But overall, the new findings send another troubling message to church leaders, including Pope John Paul II, who recently presided over the World Youth Day festival in Toronto.
“There are inverse tendencies,” said the study’s researcher, Yves Lambert, a sociologist at the Paris-based Group on Religion and Secularity. “On the one hand, membership to religious establishments is declining.”
“On the other,” he said, “those who remain Christian are more Christian than before — and those who describe themselves as religious are more religious. The youth who describe themselves as not religious, believe more in God, and in life after death.”
Church membership among youth dropped in seven out of 12 European Union countries over the past 20 years, for example, and more young people now declare themselves non-religious, the survey found.
Yet overall, belief in God has remained about the same since 1981, in Western Europe. When results from Eastern Europe are added, faith in God among youth who identify themselves as “without religion” jumped, from 20 percent in 1981, to 29 percent in 1999.
Lambert is at a loss to explain the paradoxical trends. The survey, which polled the beliefs of between 1,000 to 2,000 Protestants and Catholics per country, asked youth straightforward questions, he said, such as whether they attended church, without pushing for detailed explanations.
“But we used to say Europe was an exception in the world,” Lambert added. “Everywhere else, we saw religion developing — except in Europe. Now, what we once called the European exception is not so exceptional.”
Indeed, the European response mirrors similar conclusions published two years ago in the United States, finding attendance at religious services is declining, yet religious beliefs remain strong.
In Western Europe, faith in the church has dropped particularly sharply. Only in two Roman Catholic countries — Italy and Portugal — has confidence increased to 54 percent, and 67 percent, respectively. The Church’s reputation has also fared better in mostly Protestant Sweden and Denmark.
In staunchly Roman Catholic Ireland, Lambert said, the sex scandals roiling the Church help explain tumbling church attendance — halved to 43 percent in 1999, compared to 20 years ago. Tellingly, the study also finds only 29 percent of Irish Catholics express confidence in the Church, although 90 percent say they believe in God.
But French priest Herve Geniteau estimated church sex scandals were only one reason for declining attendance in majority Catholic France.
According to the values survey, belief in God has risen slightly in France since 1981, from 44 percent to 47 percent, in 1999. Yet only 47 percent of French Christian youths belong to an organized religion — down from 56 percent in 1981.
“The church offers answers youths are searching for, but maybe they are hard to hear,” said Geniteau, who oversees youth programs at the St.-Germain church in Paris. “The path the Church offers is a difficult one, especially if society draws them toward another path.”
But Belgian theologian, Pierre de Locht, faulted the Catholic Church for failing to reach young Europeans, searching for spiritual alternatives to materialism.
“Youth no longer have confidence in the Church as an institution,” said Father de Locht, a frequent Church critic, in a telephone interview from Brussels.
“First because its moral positions are too rigid and don’t correspond to today’s problems. And also, because the church wants to keep a sort of institutionalized monopoly on faith, which doesn’t acknowledge individual expression.”
Martine Millet, a Protestant youth pastor in Paris, also agreed Europe’s churches had failed to satisfy spiritual yearnings among the young.