By James P. Gannon
Two snapshots from a recent tourist trip to Europe: We are in Prague, the lovely and lively capital of the Czech Republic, where the bars and cafes are full, the glitzy crystal and art shops are busy, and the dozens of historic cathedrals and churches are largely empty — except for gawking tourists snapping photos. In The Prague Post, an English-language weekly newspaper, a front-page article reports, in titillating detail, how the city has become Europe's new capital for pornographic filmmaking, while an op-ed examines why only 19% of the people in this once-religious country believe that God exists.

Change the scene to Rome. We are at the Vatican, swimming in a sea of 150,000 people waiting in St. Peter's Square for Pope Benedict XVI to appear at a special celebration for Catholic children who have made their first communion in the past year. Rock bands and kids' choirs entertain the faithful until a roar sweeps through the crowd at the first sighting of the "Popemobile," carrying the waving, white-robed Benedict down barricaded lanes through the throng. The crowd goes wild.

For an American Catholic visitor, Europe is a puzzling and sometimes discouraging place these days. Is God dead here? Many signs suggest that Europeans think so.

Decline in attendance

"Common wisdom has it that alcoholics outnumber practicing Christians and that more Czechs believe in UFOs than believe in God — and common wisdom may be correct," wrote Nate and Leah Seppanen Anderson in a Prague Post commentary; he's a freelance writer, and she's a political science professor at Wheaton College in Illinois and a specialist in Czech politics and society. Surveys show a sharp decline in church attendance and religious practice in most European countries. A series of Eurobarometer surveys since 1970 in five key countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy) shows that regular church attendance fell from about 40% of the population to about half that figure. Declines were sharpest in predominantly Catholic nations.

Even so, how do we account for the extraordinary outpouring of grief at Pope John Paul II's death in April and the enthusiasm that his successor seems to evoke? Are these mere public spectacles, signifying nothing about Europe's drift from its religious roots, or are they signs of yearning for something more than peace, prosperity and la dolce vita?

As only an occasional visitor to Europe, I claim no expertise in these matters. But some who do see the emergence of a post-Christian era in Europe that has profound consequences for the continent and perhaps is an ominous portend for the United States. Where Europe has gone, America could be going — and that is a prospect that is frightening Christians and sharpening the religious divide in this country.

Western Europe, the cradle of modern Christianity, has become a "post-Christian society" in which the ruling class and cultural leaders are anti-religious or "Christophobic," writes George Weigel, a Catholic columnist and U.S. biographer of Pope John Paul II. In his new book, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, he argues that religious differences help explain the policy tensions between Europe and the United States.

"It would be too simple to say that the reason Americans and Europeans see the world so differently is that the former go to church on Sundays and the latter don't," Weigel writes. "But it would also be a grave mistake to think that the dramatic differences in religious belief and practice in the United States and Europe don't have something important to do with those different perceptions of the world — and the different policies to which those perceptions eventually lead."

A fierce controversy over any mention of Europe's Christian heritage erupted in 2004 when officials were drafting a constitution for the European Union, Weigel notes.

Any mention of the continent's religious past or contributions of Christian culture — in a preface citing the sources of Europe's distinct civilization — would be exclusionary and offensive to non-Christians, many argued. Former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who presided over the process, summed up the dominant view: "Europeans live in a purely secular political system, where religion does not play an important role."

'Demographic suicide'

Among the consequences of Europe's abandonment of its religious roots and the moral code that derives therefrom is a plunge in its birth rates to below the replacement level. Abortion, birth control, acceptance of gay marriage and casual sex are driving the trend. Europe is "committing demographic suicide, systematically depopulating itself," according to Weigel. United Nations population statistics back him up.
Not a single Western European country has a fertility rate sufficient to replace the current population, which demographers say requires 2.1 children per family. Germany, Russia, Spain, Poland and Italy all have rates of about 1.3 children, according to the U.N. The Czech Republic's is less than 1.2, and even Roman Catholic Ireland is at 1.9 children. (The U.S. rate, which has remained stable, is slightly more than 2 children per woman.)

Fifteen countries, "mostly located in Southern and Eastern Europe, have reached levels of fertility unprecedented in human history," according to the U.N.'s World Population Prospects 2004 revision.

As children grow scarce and longevity increases in Europe, the continent is becoming one vast Leisure World. By 2050, the U.N. projects, more than 40% of the people in Italy will be 60 or older. By mid-century, populations in 25 European nations will be lower than they are now; Russia will lose 31 million people, Italy 7.2 million, Poland 6.6 million and Germany 3.9 million. So Europe is abandoning religion, growing older, shrinking and slowly killing itself. These are signs of a society in eclipse — the Roman Empire writ large. Is this any model for America?

In his 2001 book, The Death of the West, conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan argues that a European-style "de-Christianization of America" is the goal of many liberals — and they are succeeding.
Court decisions that have banned school-sponsored prayer, removed many Nativity scenes from public squares, and legalized gay marriage are part of that pattern, as is the legal effort to erase "In God We Trust" from U.S. currency and "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Europe is showing us where this path leads. It is not the right path for America.

James P. Gannon is a retired journalist and author ofA Life in Print: Selections from the Work of a Reporter, Columnist and Editor.