Rebuilding trust in the Roman Catholic Church among youth

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Rebuilding trust in the Roman Catholic Church among youth

This article was written as inspiration for our round table on the theme ‘In God We Trust’. Please find the full whitepaper here.

The election of Jorge Bergoglio to the position of pope in 2013 marked a significant turning point in the political position of the holder of the highest office in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Under Benedict XVI, the Vatican had favoured an approach that aligned more with conservative ideas, based on the view that ‘it was better to have a smaller church that would pass on the faith undiluted.’ Pope Francis’s ascendancy to the position of pontiff led to a change in attitudes on both issues such as LGBT rights and celibacy, and phenomena like the refugee crisis, economic inequality, and climate change.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

The move towards a more progressive position led by Francis’ election comes at a time where the RCC has seen a declining number of adherents in various European nations. Amato’s study Catholicism and Secularism in Contemporary Europe described this process with the term ‘euro-secularism’, referring to the theories that explain the different processes that have led to this major demographic change.[6] This ‘euro-secularism’ has been accompanied by a reduction of the influence of the RCC in the political and social spheres. This is most notable in countries where once the Church played a key role as a voice of moral authority. This was evident during Ireland’s 2018 abortion referendum. 66.4% voted to pass legalisation of abortion, despite the clear opposition of the Church. This development led two Irish bishops to comment publicly that there had been a ‘dramatic reversal’ of the Church’s power in the nation.[7] Likewise, in 2005, Spain, a nation where the RCC had maintained a central political role during much of the 20th century, became just the second country in Europe to legalise same-sex marriage, despite fierce opposition from many Catholic bishops.[8]

With the Church’s political and social influence having declined, the question is to what extent Bergoglio’s relatively liberal position will elevate or undermine the Church’s role in the politics of the coming decades. To understand this, it is particularly important to focus on how the youngest generations in Europe will see Pope Francis’s position. They will take up positions of power, and will be facing the problems that Bergoglio warns about today, the most directly. The youth are less likely than ever before to be active participants in Roman Catholicism. Therefore, this article seeks to analyse how the Church will be seen by both followers and non-followers across Europe in the coming decades.[9] To do this, we will focus on two issues in particular and see how Francis’ comments and actions do or do not align with the views of young Europeans.

LGBT rights
The question of LGBT rights demonstrates a key example in understanding if Pope Francis’s comparatively liberal position will help the Church build greater support among young people, or whether it will only deepen divisions amongst Catholics both in domestic national contexts and international debate. In various Western European countries, a clear majority of young people support full equality for LGBT people, including same-sex marriage. Polling by Statista showed that in Spain, 93% of young adults (18-34 years old) were in favour of same-sex marriage. In Ireland this was 80%, in Germany 85%, in Italy 73%.[10]

Since becoming pope, Francis has made various comments with which he distanced himself from the overt condemnation of Benedict, for example stating that in his view being homosexual is “not a sin.” [11] Although not in favour of gay marriage, Francis’s softening of the rhetoric of the Vatican on LGBT issues evidently brings the Church at least closer to the views of young people in many Western European nations. However, whilst the leadership from the Vatican has moved away from direct attacks on LGBT people and rights, senior Catholic figures and politicians from Eastern Europe have demonstrated that they are not necessarily going to follow this lead. This was most clearly evident during the 2020 Polish Presidential election, where Andrej Duda of the populist Law and Justice party made anti-LGBT rhetoric a key part of his re-election campaign.

Duda’s decision to place anti-LGBT rhetoric at the centre of his attempt to appeal to Poles was not directly interfering in the election campaign. However, it had much in common with comments made by senior Roman Catholic figures in Poland over the previous years. Perhaps the most notable of these were comments from the Archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jędraszewski. He used an address to mark the religious holiday of Corpus Christi in July 2020 to compare the “LGBT ideology” to communism, Nazism, and the plague.[12] This conservative perspective on the campaign for LGBT rights demonstrates the challenge that Francis faces in seeking to soften the position of the RCC on the issue. Whilst in Poland, 50% of young people stated that they were in favour of gay marriage, the number was significantly lower in Bulgaria (32%) and Romania (34%). As the 21st century progresses, it appears that the RCC will have to accept that in different nations, there will be distinctly different opinions on the issue, and that the Vatican leader may not be able to count on all of its representatives to follow the same line.[13]

Migration and refugees
Similar to the division seen on the issue of LGBT rights, Pope Francis’s positions on migration represent the challenges that the Vatican faces in creating a new moral narrative that can be applied across the Catholic world. One of the first things Pope Francis did after ascending to the position of pontiff, was to visit the island of Lampedusa. Many migrants attempting to reach Italy across the Mediterranean are first processed there.[14] Since his visit, Francis has made empathy and compassion for both migrants and refugees a key part of his platform as pontiff.

In certain Western European countries, polling shows that this empathetic view puts the Vatican in line with many young people. For example, in Germany, 73% of 15-24-year-olds responded ‘yes’ when asked ‘should your country grant asylum to refugees?’[15] Pope Francis’s politics towards migration align the Vatican with many younger people. However, it has also led to conflict with populist politicians, who themselves have used their Catholicism as part of their political appeal. This has led to direct confrontation between Francis’s words on migration and the positions of both Santiago Abascal, the leader of the far-right VOX party in Spain, and Matteo Salvini’s Lega party in Italy.[16] [17] This confrontation undermines the sense that Pope Francis is capable of setting a moral narrative, which all adherents subsequently follow when Catholic politicians argue for the complete opposite of what the pontiff supports.

How will this moral narrative be affected in the future? The same polls that showed a large majority in favour of granting asylum to refugees in Germany, show much more scepticism in Eastern Europe; 25% in favour in Poland, 29% in Czechia. Differences between nations and regions remain clear and are likely to persist into the next few decades.[18] The effects of climate change are likely to increase migration to Europe in the next few decades. It is clear that the Church’s balancing act – on the one hand  showing compassion, and aligning with the more progressive politics of young people in countries such as Germany, and on the other not alienating those who fear the effects of multiculturalism in their societies – will not be over yet.[19]

What will the Catholic Church of the next few decades look like?
Looking at the issues of migration and refugees and LGBT rights, it seems evident that simply making comments that reflect a more progressive position from the Vatican, will not by itself have the effect of transforming the views of citizens of historically Catholic countries across Europe. As has always been the case, the RCC exists within both wider global and specific national contexts and will have to adapt to the times it lives in. However, with the declining number of adherents in various countries, the Vatican must now accept that, far from being the leading moral authority on many political and social issues, it is just one voice amongst many. Yet, this reality may not necessarily be all bad news for the leaders of the Church going forwards. With fewer practicing Catholics, the Vatican may have greater freedom to speak out on issues it finds important. In addition, it may contribute to the debate between people with different perspectives, rather than trying, and often struggling, to speak for all people in every Catholic country in the world.

Freddie Scott

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[1] What can the Catholic Church do about the mass exodus of members?
[2] Pope Francis celibacy: Requirement for some priests may be waived
[3] Pope Francis: ‘Inequality is disastrous for the future of humanity’
[4] Pope Francis declares ‘climate emergency’ and urges action
[5] Pope Francis reminds Christians that migrants and refugees should be welcomed around the world
[6] Catholicism and Secularism in Contemporary Europe, p.9
[7] Irish archbishops say abortion vote shows church’s waning influence
[8] Catholic Bishops Blast Gay Marriage In Spain
[9] Catholicism and Secularism in Contemporary Europe, p.9
[10]  • Europe: young adult views on same-sex marriage 2017
[11] Pope Francis says homosexual tendencies are ‘not a sin’
[12]  Polish president issues campaign pledge to fight ‘LGBT ideology’
[13]  • Europe: young adult views on same-sex marriage 2017
[14] Pope Francis visits Italy’s migrant island of Lampedusa
[15]  Survey: European youth give thumbs up to the EU but dissent on immigration
[16] Vox se alinea con la jerarquía más ultramontana frente al papa Francisco
[17]  Don’t close ports to migrants, pope says after Salvini case
[18] Survey: European youth give thumbs up to the EU but dissent on immigration
[19] Devastating climate change could lead to 1m migrants a year entering EU by 2100