Catholicism and Islam: Failed Predictions of European Secularization

Mark R. Elliott

Page 14 Winter 2009 • Vol. 17, No. 1 East-West Church & Ministry Report


Philip Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, prompted extended discussion in 2002 with his highly acclaimed study, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press). This study managed to provoke both enthusiastic affirmations and vehement disclaimers. See Franz Wijsen and Robert Schruter, eds., Global Christianity: Contested Claims(Amsterdam-New York: B. V. Rodopi, 2007). The Next Christendom contrasts the state of Christianity in the United States (for the most part, stagnant) and Europe (mostly in sharp decline) with the church in the global “South” – Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia – (remarkably dynamic). Jenkins successfully challenges the longstanding consensus of mainstream scholarship that secularization inevitably follows in the wake of modernization.

 As his study amply documents, lands south of the equator do not fit the secularization thesis. But Jenkins’ more recent work, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2007), makes a case for even European religious revitalization. In the process he marshals abundant evidence of religious vitality in Eastern Europe. As regards post-Soviet European states, Poland and the neighboring Czech Republic and Slovakia contradict the thesis of the inevitability of secularization.

  • • Polish Catholic seminarians numbered 7,000  in 2005.
  • • Polish monasteries and nunneries are thriving, home to 1,845 monks and 23,000 nuns.
  • • Attendance in worship is strong with 78 percent of Poles reporting regular participation.
  • • Poles migrating to Western Europe take their faith with them.
  • • Britain now has a Polish population of750,000 to one million, with Poles now more numerous than Pakistanis.
  • • “By some estimates, the greater London area has perhaps a million legal and illegal East Europeans” (God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis [Oxford University Press, 2007], 58).
  • • More and more Polish priests are serving outside their homeland. Polish seminaries make “a special point of teaching them English which they will need to evangelize Britain or Ireland” (Ibid.).
  • • Croatian Catholic churches are becoming more numerous in Britain, while 82 British Catholic churches now conduct masses in Polish. “We used to celebrate mass three time son a Sunday, and we were never full,” note done London congregant. “Now we have six or eight services every Sunday, and people are standing outside in the street” (Ibid.).
  • • Poland’s popular Radio Maryja (Mary)distresses the Vatican and the Polish Catholic hierarchy with its ultra-conservative politics, its downplaying of the Holocaust, and its xenophobia. Nevertheless, it “demonstrates the survival of old-style reactionary church politics at least in corners of Europe”Ibid.,67).
  • • South of Poland in the Czech Republic, Father Vladimir Mikulica has spearheaded a Pentecostal-style revival; and
  • • Next door in Bratislava, Slovakia, SilvaKrcmery, a medical doctor and dedicated Catholic layman, has helped transform St.Martin’s Catholic Church into something resembling a North American mega church.


Jenkins also points out that Islam’s growing presence in Europe undermines the thesis of inevitable secularization. He dwells at considerable length on the promise and peril of growing Muslim minorities in various West European states. In addition, Jenkins highlights the longstanding place of Islam in the Balkans and its growing significance in Russia.

  • • “Over seven million Muslims live in the Balkan states, with another 900,000 in Bulgaria” (Ibid.,114).
  • • Albania is the only country in Europe with a Muslim majority; and
  • • As a result of the Balkan Wars in the 1990s,Kosovo is more Muslim than ever, following the expulsion of some 40,000 Orthodox Christians. As for Russia:
  • • Its 15 to 20 million Muslims account for 10 to14 percent of Russia’s total population of 143million.
  • • Russia “has as many Muslims as the whole of Western Europe, and almost as many mosques –5,000 to 6,000” (Ibid.).
  • • Russia’s Muslim birth rate is far higher than that of its non-Muslim population; and
  • • The possibility of the spread of radical Islam is major concern of the Russian government.

 While Jenkins sees much of the religious revitalization of Europe in positive terms, he concludes with a disquieting parallel between Europe’s current religious strife and East-West ideological strife after World War II. His observations intriguing, but none-too-comforting: “It seems not only are rival ideologies once more locked in seemingly permanent struggle, but just as in the Cold War, Europe again represents a critical theater of rivalry – this time, among secularism (less triumphant than predicted), Islam (gaining ground),and Christianity (showing new signs of life). New specters are haunting Europe” (Ibid., 25). F

Mark R. Elliott is professor of history at Southern Wesleyan University, Central, South Carolina, and editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report