The National Catholic Review
It seems to have become commonplace lately, especially among those who try to assess the state of the world and make recommendations about the sort of leadership that is needed in the Catholic Church, to bemoan the de-Christianization of Europe, an idea the media have embellished by contrasting Old Europe with the United States. These are large claims about big concepts. But I believe they are misleading and open to challenge. It is true that Western Europeans no longer affiliate with the Catholic Church to the degree that their forebears once did. Over the course of several decades I have traveled often to Germany and on attending Sunday Mass in such places as Berlin, Cologne, or Mannheim have felt odd sitting in huge churches that are full of art and rich in history, but virtually empty of people. Churches with seating for over 1,000 might have 50 communicants at a Sunday Mass.

It also must be true that Western Europeans are practicing forms of artificial birth control, as birth rates in Spain, Italy and France, the Catholic countries, have been below the replacement rate for decades. So too in these and other Western European countries, the number of entrants to the priesthood has declined over the years, thereby producing a shortage in an institution that relies on priests for administration of the sacraments.

This portrait could be enlarged with references to the rising public presence of homosexuals, childbirth by choice outside of marriage, legalized prostitution, divorce and more. These and other signs may suggest that Old Europe has gone backward, entering modernity with amnesia about its Christian past and no ethical compass for future direction. Yet my own experiences in Germany, whose situation is consistent with trends elsewhere in Western Europe, suggest otherwise.

On my last visit to Germany, I landed at the Frankfurt Airport at 7:30 a.m. and immediately saw that baggage carts are plentiful, near at hand and free. The airline employees were knowledgeable and civil. They offered directions to the train station two stories down from the arrival level of the airport. At the station, one can board trains that travel throughout Germany and Europe. Moreover, the trains run on time, to the minute, and appear on the tracks at which they are scheduled. (I cannot help but contrast this with the never-ending debate about whether to build a rail line from Washington, D.C., to Dulles Airport and which government unit should pay for it. The $65 taxi fare for the 25-mile trip from Dulles to Washington is the same amount I would pay to travel 100 miles from the Frankfurt Airport to the center of Cologne, and twice what I would pay to journey the 40 to 50 miles to Mannheim or Heidelberg.)

In Mannheim I was greeted by a longtime friend who teaches at the nearby university. He speaks German, Italian, French and English, reads in three of these languages and is aware of current political affairs throughout the European Union. In this he is typical of the German professors of higher education whom I know.

My friend’s mother-in-law recently died after a long illness. The family was able to pay for her health care, but had they not been able, the state-supported health system would have provided the same care. My friend is nearing retirement age, and we discussed his plans. After he leaves his position at age 65, the state retirement system will provide him with roughly two-thirds of his present income along with health insurance. It is well known that Germany’s demographics threaten this scheme economically. Committees of experts are discussing ways the nation can meet its future needs.

The university campus was teeming with students, all of whose tuition was state-supported. Students attend this university because their chosen major subject matches what this university offers. Moreover, when applying to the school, students are counseled about their choice of major with eventual employment prospects taken into account.

The next day, Saturday, we had breakfast on my friend’s back patio. Mannheim is in a heavily industrial area, but the sky was clear of soot and smog. After breakfast we headed on a shopping tour for groceries, bread, flowers for the house, a DVD and wine. All commercial business ends at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday and does not resume until Monday morning. The no shopping period is driven by labor unions’ definition of the workweek, a cultural sensitivity for family time and need for relief from commercialism.

That evening we planned to attend an opera in Heidelberg, which is 20 minutes away by intercity streetcar. I offered to purchase the opera tickets but was embarrassed to recall how inexpensive they were. The symphony, opera, theater and other high culture events are affordable and accessible to all segments of the population. And should an event end at, say, midnight, attendees need not fear the streets. Violent crime is virtually unknown. The walk to public transportation is conveniently short and utterly safe.

On Sunday morning we ate breakfast outside, again under a seemingly smogless sky. I attended Mass at one of my favorite churches, which until three years ago had been maintained in the scarred condition inflicted by Allied bombings during World War II. As in Berlin, bomb and smoke damage have been purposely left unrepaired so that subsequent generations will not forget the war. (I could not help but think about the grandiose, multimillion-dollar World War II memorial plunked down in the middle of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Comprised of pillars and wreaths, and made of marble, it carefully skirts any reference to the destructiveness of war.)

After Mass, we took a walk in the woods, one of the many public parks kept up by the local government. As on any Sunday, the paths were filled with families spending the day walking in the outdoors and lunching at a nearby restaurant. On this particular Sunday, there was a light rain, which reminded me of a hike my wife and I took in similar weather with a couple from the former East Germany. As we walked, they told us about the difficulties of the transition from socialism to capitalism and democracy. At the same time, they expressed optimism about unification and hoped that the monetary decision to exchange East German marks one-for-one with West German marks signaled a spirit that would be long-lasting.

On Monday, I left for Cologne to give a speech to a group of European educators who were interested in exploring service learning as a means to enrich schooling. On the train heading north, I noticed that a number of German passengers were reading The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, by the American author Dan Brown.

This brought to mind a general observation that has plagued me for decades. Many of my German friends in their 60’s cringe when they watch the German national soccer team score a goal. I suppose that deep down they want their team to win, but they cannot bring themselves to cheer the team aloud. With their nation implicated in retrogressive devastation, torture and inhumanity during the first half of the 20th century, it is difficult for many Germans to identify with their country. Their identities are conflicted. This may be why elderly Germans situate their collective past psychologically in the 18th and 19th centuries of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others who manifested the Enlightenment through music, writing and art. They hesitate to take pride openly in Germany’s postwar achievement of democracy and its sound economy based on principled labor laws and a sense of the common good. In this Germany, even today, most executives of large corporations earn only three to five times the amount their employees make, not the 100-plus multiplier that prevails in the corporate United States. Still, my colleagues recall too well the National Socialist Party, the Holocaust and the fierceness with which their forebears fought for the fatherland. And thus they live with ambiguity.

How de-Christianized is a nation that respects employees’ rights, provides health care for all citizens, assures financial security for its elderly, supports an ultramodern and efficient public transportation network, values family life, takes a respite from commercialism on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, educates its young with public funds, learns the languages of its neighbors, offers access for all its citizens to high culture, honors its natural parklands, recognizes the need to conserve the environment and has little violent crime, even in the heart of its largest cities?

How de-Christianized is a nation that does not support capital punishment, welcomed the return of its Eastern relatives by treating them with dignity, struggled deliberately to create a democracy from a sordid fascist past and developed a corporate ethos that deliberately avoids greed and ostentation?

How de-Christianized is a nation that willingly risked its economic superiority to join the European Union, whose elite continue to reflect on their national identity, and that did not repair its bombed and bullet-pocked churches and public buildings so that citizens would never forget the horrors of World War II?

Christian principles are distinctive enough. They ought to be recognizable when one sees them.

James Youniss, the Wylma R. and James R. Curtin Professor of Psychology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., is a former director of the university’s Life Cycle Institute.

Comments

Harry D. Carrozza,MD. | 7/7/2005 - 9:46am
Dear Editors: Being an ophthalmolgist When I See It I Know It & the author accurately describes what I believe human secularism or socialism to be.However, he did leave out the fact that Germany is now experiencing 9% unemployment which is very troubling to the Schroeder government. That said Pope Benedict's concern for the de-Christianization of Europe is accurate & strikes at the heart of the matter. Namely,when any Continent including North America fails to pay respect to their Creator by not attending Church services , not receiving the Blessed Sacrement,failing to meet religious vocation quotas & not respecting life from conception to death that Continent is indeed failing to hear the call of the Holy Spirit. Yours truly, Harry D. Carrozza,MD.

James Branon | 6/24/2005 - 11:24am
it is not 'charity' that we are to turn, as suggested in one letter.

i, at 70, care not if we turn at all, but it is to the young people, from the breasts to the board rooms, that we MUST turn.

Jason LoMonaco | 6/23/2005 - 10:23pm
James Youniss knows christian principals when he sees them? While Europe in general, and Germany in particular, can certainly boast of putting a great many of the principals of Catholic social thought into practice, to our shame, these come at great cost.

Youniss trumpets the the benefits of German policy such as railroads, schools,healthcare and the like as if they grew on trees and the only moral question is whether or not to pick them. He does not see costs. and they are plenty.

Germany can boast of a structural unemployment rate of over 11% and an abyssmal employment rate of just above 60%. Germans can also be proud of a decade of nearly noexistant growth coupled with stagnant wages and 50% marginal tax rates.

The "experts" Youniss refers to understand that these are the costs of the excessive German model. What's more they know that if the model is not significantly modified, particularly pensions resulting from demographics, the country will be forced abandon the model altogether. And, if demographic trends continue they may be forced to import a workforce to finance the shadow of social welfare that will be left. Then, Germany will not only cease to be Christian, it will cease to be German.

The Epicuran garden described by Youniss is only marginally Christian because it fundamentaly farce. It will not be sustained, in fact it has been in decline for more than a decade, because it cannot be sustained. I suspect that Germans are more christian, in practice, than they receive credit for. The test will come when cercumstances force the systematic dismantling of their social model. Let us all pray that charity prevails then.

Michael J Weaver | 7/6/2005 - 11:42am
I am responding to the article "I Know It When I See It" in the July 4-11 issue by Prof. James Youniss.

I found the article by Prof. James Youniss (July 4-11 issue)interesting and informative. From the information provided it does seem that Germany is now a nation of christian values. However, it would seem to me that German society tends to be somewhat socialistic as well. I prefer the more capitalistic society in the USA. Here I do practice my Catholic religion openly and proudly. And yes, I even attend Mass every Sunday and sometimes during the week as well.

Robert Nunz | 6/24/2005 - 12:01pm
While Germany will have to struggle to maintain its many benefits, the debate in our own country is held hostage to easy simplifications that toss terms out like "sociailist" as a completely derogatory term to describe them. Beyond that, the powerful "life" advocates seem to focus only on beginning and end of life issues, disdaining the rest of the concepts raised by our Bishops in Faithful Citizenship. Discussing what a "Christian Society" looks like needs that document as a frame of reference, not just economic analysis. A futher problem is the current Church leadership's conflation of relativism with secularization. A recent reading list a friend gve me on religion and science noted that much scientific advance occurred in the context of religious dssent. The call to go back to Pius X's Christendom and railing against the outcomes of the Enlightenment will not help. On the whole then, this article should be seen as one provoking further discussion within the parameters of the totality of catholic principles about what a Chrisitan society means today.

John M. Young | 2/16/2007 - 4:47pm
As I read the responses in the Letters column (8/1) to the essay by James Youniss, “I Know It When I See It” (7/4), I was reminded of the parable of the two sons (Mt 21:28-32). The German people as described by Youniss and confirmed by several letter writers can be likened to the first son who refused his father’s request to go out and work in the vineyard, but did his father’s bidding out in the vineyard. He didn’t talk the talk, but he walked the walk. The second son, who said “Yes, sir” to his father’s request, but did nothing can be likened to many Christians in our own country who ignore the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the marginalized in our own communities, our country and the world. They talk the talk, but do not walk the walk.

I wonder.

Hans G. Lingens | 2/16/2007 - 4:46pm
A friend gave me the article by James Youniss, “I Know It When I See It,” (7/4), asking for my reaction to it. At first I was most impressed by the author’s compliments about Germany. It was just wonderful for me to read about my homeland, which I left 40 years ago. Since then I have studied social and educational issues in Europe and especially Germany. Being a Catholic, I am also very familiar with church-related issues. Most of the good things described in the article are true but incomplete. A short visit to Germany certainly does not give a comprehensive picture, nor can I here. While reading the article, I cringed, as I do when my European colleagues declaim about their American experience of two or three weeks at a small and relatively unknown educational institution in the United States, proclaiming: “The Americans do this or that.” There is so much left out or not told.

Let me illustrate. Most people in Europe do not know anything about the European Union, the European parliament or even about their own country. Life goes on without knowledge or care. There were European elections during one of my frequent visits to Germany and the United Kingdom. No one I talked to knew what the elections were about, and the turnout was less than 20 percent. None of the European countries, especially in the West, is willing to give up its status. They are fighting to keep their nation’s priorities. France and Germany dominate the E.U. and want to get the most out of the union to suit themselves.

Many older Germans are not very likely to cheer their winning team as Americans do, but not out of guilt or thinking back on times past. It is the nature of the older German to hold back from cheering. The young ones have learned from Americans to be very rambunctious, and on a victory night one cannot sleep very well in city centers.

Health care and employee rights are based on socialism and not necessarily on religion. We should not forget that Germany was the breeding ground of Socialism, National Socialism and Communism. Karl Marx and other leading socialist philosophers were born and wrote in Germany.

My letter seems to be harsh and quite opposite to the writing of James Youniss, but it is intended to show that the grass is not greener on the other side. Studies and frequent travel to Europe have shown me that Europe is no better than our United States. In fact I believe that they have learned too much from us and have failed just the same.

Markus Günther | 2/16/2007 - 4:35pm
James Youniss’s portrait of Germany (“I Know It When I See It,” 7/4) as a country where “Christian principles are distinctive enough” and “the ethical compass for future direction” is still intact stuns me. He tries to make the case that despite low church attendance and growing discomfort with Catholic teachings, Germany, in some subtle way, remains a Christian country, where people perhaps miss Sunday Mass but continue to appreciate Christian values like family and social justice. It’s a flattering, rosy picture of modern Germany. I like it. I wish it were true. But it is not.

In many ways, it seems to me, Youniss isn’t actually talking about Germany but rather about the United States. Many of the German policies he is praising are apparently meant to contrast with those of the United States: no support for capital punishment; publicly funded schools and universities; highly subsidized operas, theaters and orchestras; an efficient public transportation system; restrained capitalism; and the willingness of both the government and the people to acknowledge Germany’s role in international institutions without nationalistic reservation. These things might, indeed, attest to certain shortcomings in American policies and mentalities. That is for others to judge. But none of the examples that he points to can support the bold assessment that Germany remains a Christian country.

I am afraid I belong to those who believe that Germany, and most of Western Europe for that matter, is indeed experiencing something like “de-Christianization.” And here are the facts: 11 percent of all Germans and 15 percent of registered Catholics attend church every Sunday, down from 22 percent in 1990 and 50 percent in 1950. Fewer than half of all children are baptized in a Christian denomination; in the urban centers of Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin, only one in 10 children is baptized. The church is scoring only with funerals: 92 percent of Catholics who died in 2003 had a Catholic funeral.

To be sure, Germans are not exactly atheists. According to a poll in April 2005, some 65 percent of Germans believe “in some kind of God,” and 59 percent believe that they can “directly talk to God through prayer.” But most Germans see faith as a private matter that has little or nothing to do with the church. Only 7 percent say that faith needs to be experienced in the community of the church. Sixty-one percent say that they do not believe in the church’s teachings.

Among my German friends and colleagues, I know very few who go to church. Most German intellectuals have an aggressive attitude toward the church in general and toward the Catholic Church in particular. A while ago there was a lot of laughter in our company about a co-worker who had admitted to praying with her kids at night. Almost everybody, it seemed, found that totally ridiculous. And when I got married in church a few years ago, many of my friends asked me: “Why do you do that? Are you doing it for your parents? Or is it because you want to have a nice ceremony?”

James Youniss wrote: “Christian principles...ought to be recognizable when one sees them.” I agree. But I do not see them very often any more in my native country.

Am I too negative? I pray that I am.

Michael McCue, O.S.F.S. | 2/16/2007 - 4:00pm
I have no way of knowing whether Germany is de-Christianized or not. However, the evidence James Youniss offers in his article that this de-Christianization is not as real as is widely supposed misses the point (7/4). He offers many policies and characteristics from his experience of Germany that Christianity supports; but these positive things do not mean a nation is not de-Christianized. Professor Youniss’s article fails to realize that a reasonable, justly structured nation is not the same as one that is Christian. The article offers many examples of “Christian principles,” but Christian religion is not the same as “Christian principles.” Faith and relationship with God distinguish Christianity, and the motivation and worldview that come with it, from natural virtue and justice.

I would like to think that the positive virtues and policies that James Youniss observes about Germany do, in fact, have roots in the Christianity of its past. But without a living, worshiping community in the present, those roots will become ever more distant and more academic. I suspect James Youniss recognizes the principles as Christian (knows it when he sees it) because he has had the experience of a living Christian church.

Of course we can wish that our many American Christians could find ways to bring their faith principles into public life to structure it more justly. Relationship with God should lead to putting faith in to practice.

(Rev.) Edward Kolla | 2/16/2007 - 3:59pm
The article by James Youniss on modern-day “Christian” Germany is straight out of Charles Dickens’s 19th-century mold, which attempted to reduce Christianity to a set of mere moral principles to live by (7/4). Such humanitarian principles, among which Youniss includes the abolition of capital punishment, risking economic superiority by welcoming back into the family poorer relatives from the East and not rebuilding certain bombed-out buildings so as never to forget the horrors of World War II, are hardly the domain of Christians exclusively. They are certainly within the purview of all others of good will, too. A veneer of Christian morality may still be alive and well in Germany, but what about the Christian faith brought to Germany by St. Boniface and nourished by his successors over so many centuries?

Donald P. Kommers | 2/16/2007 - 3:58pm
As one who has spent 10 years of his academic life in Germany, I simply could not relate to the essay by James Youniss, “I Know It When I See It,” (7/4). Such public policies as universal health care, efficient rail transportation, easy access to high culture, Saturday-Sunday closing laws and cradle-to-grave financial security may be compatible with Christian social teaching, but to suggest that they are inspired or motivated today by distinctive Christian commitments ignores public opinion polls and other empirical evidence of contemporary Germany’s loss of faith. Germans today would insist that these and related social programs are rooted in secular values associated with their country’s social democratic tradition.

Christian influences, particularly Catholic natural law teaching, were strongly represented in postwar West Germany, but with increasing secularization these influences have virtually disappeared from the nation’s public life. Two examples may suffice. German constitutional law, like the nation’s intellectual culture, has grown increasingly positivistic over the years. The same is true of German politics. The Christian Democratic Union (C.D.U.), founded explicitly on Christian principles in 1946, has lost its raison d’etre, while its main competitor, the Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.), is well known for its history of militant secularism.

During the Weimar Republic and in the early years of the Federal Republic, a vibrant Catholic intellectual tradition, centered on the church’s social teaching, flourished in Germany, but no equivalent of this exists today. Christian scholarship in the social sciences is notable for its relative absence. Religious studies, mainly the products of theological faculties, have little resonance in the larger society. Yet literary attacks on Christian belief and piety, such as The Da Vinci Code, seem never to leave the best-seller lists. Secular—that is, non-Christian—values seem clearly regnant in Germany, the predominance of which has been extended and deepened by the nation’s reunification.

Pope Benedict XVI, a native of Germany, has often agonized over his country’s loss of faith. In book-length interviews with Peter Seewald—Salt of the Earth (1997) and God and the World (2002)—the then-Cardinal Ratzinger repeatedly spoke of Germany’s “increasingly de-Chistianized society” and a public culture “characterized by the absence of transcendence.” In one of these interviews he observed with regret that only “eight percent of the people in Magdeburg [an East German city] are Christians,” and that was probably a generous estimate because, as sociological studies have disclosed, even the memory of Christ has almost totally disappeared among East Germans, particularly the young. Finally, and interestingly, Ratzinger makes no mention in these interviews of the connection between Christianity and the comforts, satisfactions or rewards of living in present-day Germany.

Erika Olson | 2/16/2007 - 4:56pm
What a treasure of inspiration was the July 4-11 issue of America.

I rejoiced, deeply moved, reading this great article by James Youniss. Born in Germany during World War II, my three sisters and I survived hungry and homeless “childhood” years and don’t have to see the scarred condition of churches and landmarks, left unrepaired, to remind us of the horrors of World War II. Although I was only 5 years old at the end of the war, the occasional nightmares remind me of still very painful scars.

German-American since 1967, I do not hesitate to take pride openly in Germany’s postwar achievements.

Thank you, James Youniss, for seeing and knowing Christianity in Germany! And thanks to Dennis M. Linehan, S.J., for the Magis 2005 article.

Yes, this is a great moment for the church and especially the church in Germany.

Robert Nunz | 6/24/2005 - 12:01pm
While Germany will have to struggle to maintain its many benefits, the debate in our own country is held hostage to easy simplifications that toss terms out like "sociailist" as a completely derogatory term to describe them. Beyond that, the powerful "life" advocates seem to focus only on beginning and end of life issues, disdaining the rest of the concepts raised by our Bishops in Faithful Citizenship. Discussing what a "Christian Society" looks like needs that document as a frame of reference, not just economic analysis. A futher problem is the current Church leadership's conflation of relativism with secularization. A recent reading list a friend gve me on religion and science noted that much scientific advance occurred in the context of religious dssent. The call to go back to Pius X's Christendom and railing against the outcomes of the Enlightenment will not help. On the whole then, this article should be seen as one provoking further discussion within the parameters of the totality of catholic principles about what a Chrisitan society means today.

Harry D. Carrozza,MD. | 7/7/2005 - 9:46am
Dear Editors: Being an ophthalmolgist When I See It I Know It & the author accurately describes what I believe human secularism or socialism to be.However, he did leave out the fact that Germany is now experiencing 9% unemployment which is very troubling to the Schroeder government. That said Pope Benedict's concern for the de-Christianization of Europe is accurate & strikes at the heart of the matter. Namely,when any Continent including North America fails to pay respect to their Creator by not attending Church services , not receiving the Blessed Sacrement,failing to meet religious vocation quotas & not respecting life from conception to death that Continent is indeed failing to hear the call of the Holy Spirit. Yours truly, Harry D. Carrozza,MD.

James Branon | 6/24/2005 - 11:24am
it is not 'charity' that we are to turn, as suggested in one letter.

i, at 70, care not if we turn at all, but it is to the young people, from the breasts to the board rooms, that we MUST turn.

Jason LoMonaco | 6/23/2005 - 10:23pm
James Youniss knows christian principals when he sees them? While Europe in general, and Germany in particular, can certainly boast of putting a great many of the principals of Catholic social thought into practice, to our shame, these come at great cost.

Youniss trumpets the the benefits of German policy such as railroads, schools,healthcare and the like as if they grew on trees and the only moral question is whether or not to pick them. He does not see costs. and they are plenty.

Germany can boast of a structural unemployment rate of over 11% and an abyssmal employment rate of just above 60%. Germans can also be proud of a decade of nearly noexistant growth coupled with stagnant wages and 50% marginal tax rates.

The "experts" Youniss refers to understand that these are the costs of the excessive German model. What's more they know that if the model is not significantly modified, particularly pensions resulting from demographics, the country will be forced abandon the model altogether. And, if demographic trends continue they may be forced to import a workforce to finance the shadow of social welfare that will be left. Then, Germany will not only cease to be Christian, it will cease to be German.

The Epicuran garden described by Youniss is only marginally Christian because it fundamentaly farce. It will not be sustained, in fact it has been in decline for more than a decade, because it cannot be sustained. I suspect that Germans are more christian, in practice, than they receive credit for. The test will come when cercumstances force the systematic dismantling of their social model. Let us all pray that charity prevails then.

Michael J Weaver | 7/6/2005 - 11:42am
I am responding to the article "I Know It When I See It" in the July 4-11 issue by Prof. James Youniss.

I found the article by Prof. James Youniss (July 4-11 issue)interesting and informative. From the information provided it does seem that Germany is now a nation of christian values. However, it would seem to me that German society tends to be somewhat socialistic as well. I prefer the more capitalistic society in the USA. Here I do practice my Catholic religion openly and proudly. And yes, I even attend Mass every Sunday and sometimes during the week as well.