Spiritual Values​—Where Are They Heading?

“Fifteen couples attend a [Catholic] evening session for premarital counsel. Of the 30 persons present, only 3 claim to have faith.”​—La Croix, French Catholic daily.

RELIGIOUS values are in crisis. On the front cover of its issue of July 12, 1999, the international edition of Newsweek asked: “Is God Dead?” For western Europe, the magazine’s answer was that it certainly seems that way. Reporting on the Catholic Church synod that was held in Rome in October of that same year, the French newspaper Le Monde noted: “The Church is finding it harder than ever to put over its message in a culture that has become ‘allergic’ to it. . . . In Italy, Catholicism is no longer a homogeneous block. . . . In Germany, the dispute over preabortion consultation centers is widening the gap between the pope and a democracy that is not prepared to put up with diktats any longer. [The Netherlands’] audacious position on morals and euthanasia is already being attributed by some observers to its sudden dechristianization.”

The situation is much the same elsewhere. In 1999 the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, warned that the Church of England was “one generation away from extinction.” In an article entitled “The End of Christian Europe,” the French newspaper Le Figaro said: “The same pattern can be seen everywhere. . . . People are systematically calling into question ethical and doctrinal positions.”

Less Religious Participation

In Europe, church attendance is in free-fall. Less than 10 percent of French Catholics attend Mass every Sunday, while only from 3 to 4 percent of Parisian Catholics regularly attend church. Similar or even  lower attendances have been observed in the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries.

Of serious concern to religious authorities is the dearth of candidates for the priesthood. In less than a century, the number of priests in France has fallen drastically, from 14 priests per 10,000 inhabitants to less than 1 per 10,000 today. Throughout Europe, the average age of priests is increasing, and a shortage is being felt even in such countries as Ireland and Belgium. At the same time, the number of children enrolled in catechism classes is dwindling, giving rise to serious doubts about the ability of the Catholic Church to ensure its renewal.

When it comes to religion, confidence seems to be a thing of the past. Only 6 percent of French people believe that “the truth can be found only in one religion,” compared with 15 percent in 1981 and 50 percent in 1952. Religious apathy is spreading. The proportion of people who say that they have no religious affiliation has climbed from 26 percent in 1980 to 42 percent in 2000.​—Les valeurs des Français—​Évolutions de 1980 à 2000 (French Values​—Development From 1980 to 2000).

Shake-Up in Moral Values

The crisis in values is also evident in the matter of morals. As mentioned earlier, many churchgoers refuse to accept the moral decrees of their church. They do not agree with the thought that religious leaders have the right to set the standards of behavior. The same crowds that applaud the pope’s stand on human rights refuse to follow him when his words touch on their private lives. For example, his stand on contraception is widely ignored, even by many Catholic couples.

This attitude affects religious and nonreligious people alike, at all levels of society. Practices clearly condemned in the Holy Scriptures are tolerated. Twenty years ago, homosexuality was frowned upon by 45 percent of French citizens. Today, 80 percent find it acceptable. Even though the vast majority are in favor of marital fidelity, only 36 percent condemn extramarital affairs as never justifiable.​—Romans 1:26, 27; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10; Hebrews 13:4.

A Religious Hodgepodge

In Western society, a do-it-yourself religion is developing in which everyone assumes the right to pick and choose his beliefs. Certain dogmas are accepted, whereas others are cast aside. Some call themselves Christians while believing in reincarnation, and others do not hesitate to follow several religious persuasions simultaneously. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Ezekiel 18:4, 20; Matthew 7:21; Ephesians 4:5, 6) The book Les valeurs des Français showed pointedly that many believers today are straying irremediably from the paths established by the church.

However, this trend toward greater religious individualism is not without danger. Jean Delumeau, religious historian and member of the Institut de France, holds that it is impossible for a person to make up his own religion independent of any established system. “Faith cannot live if it is not rooted in the solidity of a specific confession.” Sound spiritual values and religious practice must be part of a coherent whole. Where can such coherence be found in a society racked by change?

Throughout its pages, the Bible reminds us that it is God who establishes acceptable norms of conduct and morality, though he allows humans the freedom to follow them or not. Millions worldwide recognize that this long-esteemed book is of practical value today and that it is ‘a lamp to their foot and a light to their roadway.’ (Psalm 119:105) How did they arrive at that conclusion? This will be discussed in the next article.