National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 3, 2003

Church in East Europe needs 'new inner architecture'

Catholic News Service
Vienna, Austria

A leading religious sociologist has warned that the Catholic church must “expect a crisis” all over Eastern Europe as the price of integration with the European Union. The church “has to learn to live in a liberal society whose population may even use its freedom to leave the church,” said Fr. Paul Zulehner, sociologist and dean of Vienna University’s Catholic theology faculty. “It would be a pity if church leaders saw this liberal society as an enemy and believed no changes were needed.”

“The church will be as strong as its believers are, and this requires a new way of organizing,” he said. A national church synod in the Czech Republic and similar gatherings completed or planned from Poland to Croatia have been called to discuss “pressing contemporary issues,” he said.

“The church in Eastern Europe has to go through a deep crisis in order to survive. The pastoral methods and instruments used under communist rule won’t work in the Europe of the future,” said Zulehner, who co-directed the European Values Study that charted continent-wide attitudes to religion and morality in 1981, 1990 and 1999.

Church leaders should be aware, he added, that East Europeans would “use their freedom” and be prepared to adapt to changed conditions.

“The church doesn’t have to lose people in order to modernize,” said Zulehner. “But to hold its own in a liberal society, it needs a new inner architecture. It can’t expect to achieve this with the clerical model that prevails in much of Eastern Europe.

“In Western Europe, we made the mistake of assuming the people would always belong to the church. East Europeans should be learning from this by building stronger believer networks and giving Catholics a sense of co-ownership,” he said.

Zulehner said recent research had confirmed a continent wide revival of religiousness, reflected in advertising and mass culture.

However, he added that the new spiritualization signified a “protest against secularization” rather than a return to established faiths. “It’s individualistic and based on choice, rather than linked with religious traditions -- but it requires understanding and dialogue from mainstream churches,” said Zulehner, who also heads Vienna’s ecumenical Pastoral Forum, supporting Catholic initiatives in Eastern Europe.

“In the new Europe, the church needs to avoid both the fundamentalist temptation of only looking for truth and the pluralistic temptation of ‘anything goes.’ Neither of these is useful for modern society,” he said.

The sociologist said all main Christian traditions were needed to contribute “core values” to Europe, with Catholics offering justice, Protestants freedom and Orthodox “an open heaven.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 2003

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