by Timothy Elphick
THE church in Europe is losing its grip on people's everyday lives, according to a survey released this week by Catholic academics. In Britain just 31 per cent of people said they considered religion to be important when questioned for the study by the European Values Group, dedicated to researching change in moral, social and religious values across the continent.
And although 84 per cent of the 1,400 people asked in the United Kingdom said they looked forward to a Christian burial when the time came, only 44 per cent said they had any belief in a life after death. Just 13 per cent said they attended church on a weekly basis.
But the church was thought to have a message for the world on issues such as development problems in the third world, racial discrimination and the ecological crisis facing the planet. As many as 49 per cent of people said churchmen should speak out on the rights and wrongs of extra-marital affairs. Abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality were considered less appropriate topics for 'religious leaders to consider in public.
Jesuit Professor Jan Kerkhofs of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, one of the authors of the report, said that the findings showed the church had failed to answer the spiritual demands of modern humanity. "The identity crisis of the churches reveals the same identity crisis being experienced by the people of our time," he said.
And Professor Kerkhofs criticised Catholic church leaders for suffocating advances which had seemed possible at the time of Vatican II. "Conservatives within the church are afraid to distinguish between what is good and lasting in the overall Christian tradition and things that need to be changed," he said.
And he warned that even western Europe's most Catholic countries, including Spain, Italy and Portugal, could see the church's flock diminish once borders between countries belonging to the European Community came down. "It could act as a force accelerating change, bringing such countries into line with the more secularised states of northern Europe," he said.
Already the picture in Italy was shifting, and some of the country's regions were notably less pious than others, Professor Kerkhofs said. "One has to be very careful when comparing the figures for Italy and for instance Ireland. When an Italian says he goes to mass each week he is just as likely to mean once a month," he said.
Ireland came out top of the league for church attendance with 65 per cent of people attending a church service "at least once a week", the European group's survey showed. In Italy the figure was 40 per cent, whilst in the Scandinavian countries the average was less than one person in 20.
But Nicholas Coote, assistant generalsecretary to the Catholic bishops' conference in England and Wales, said the bare statistics of the survey hid real grounds for optimism as the decade of evangelisation got underway. Reflecting on the 71 per cent of responders in Britain who admitted some belief in God, he said: "If we ask ourselves whether we are talking to people who are deaf to the supernatural, the answer is clearly no.
"We don't appear to be satisfying the needs of those searching for a spiritual life at the moment. We have to look at the social situation in which people are living and speak in terms adapted to the audience," said Mr Coote.
The resurrection and the Christian mysteries would be of interest to anyone who was open to the transcendental, Mr Coote said. In Britain 32 per cent of those questioned said they believed in the resurrection, while 24 per cent thought they would experience reincarnation.