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Is Europe Christian?

Is Europe Christian?

Nick Spencer reviews Is Europe Christian? by Olivier Roy. 06/12/2019

 The Secularisation of Europe: a morality tale in three acts

In the mid–1980s, the French newspaper Le Monde ran a cartoon in which a traditional family were sat in front of their television. The TV announces that the Pope (then John Paul II) was about to make an address. “Quick, put the children to bed,” the mother tells her husband. “He’s going to talk about sex again!”

The ‘Church’ is popularly thought of as being obsessed by sex. Straw polls of those who attend regularly confirm my own experience that this is a myth. The number of sermons on sex is dwarfed by the number on money, which is dwarfed by the number on Jesus Christ. But there’s no smoke without fire, and the reason why the Church (in Europe: I can’t speak for elsewhere) gained this reputation is itself revealing.

Olivier Roy is a highly–regarded French political scientist, with a record of well–received books on religion. His new offering, in its own words, begins with the uncontroversial recognition that Europe is no longer at the heart of Christianity, and then sets out to ask whether Christianity is still at the heart of Europe. Actually, Is Europe Christian? does more than that and offers, in its own way, a short history of European secularisation, the value of which (at least for this reviewer) is that it is a continental history rather than an Anglo–Saxon one. The Church of England hardly gets a look in, and the Lutheran churches have only walk on roles. This is a story of secularisation in and of formerly Roman Catholic countries, and one that centres on ethics. It is, in effect, a morality tale in three acts.


Act I runs from the mid–19th century to the 1960s, a period in which, Roy argues, Europe secularised primarily by finding a new source of morality not a new kind of morality. During this period, there were plenty of anti–clerical, indeed anti–Christian activists, in Europe – secularists and republicans who wanted to prise apart throne and altar, and ideally trample on both. Yet, as Roy notes, for much of this time, outside of a few tiny bohemian circles, such campaigners would champion precisely the same conservative social values as the Catholic Church, with regard to matters of the family, women’s status, abortion, and homosexuality (economically, at least, they were a little different).

A good example of this can be seen in the secularization of the French education system. The Jules Ferry Laws of 1882 mandated compulsory and secular education for all pupils. In the process, Jules Ferry, republican, laicist, and educational reformer wrote a ‘Letter to Schoolteachers’ assigning them the mission of giving pupils “moral and civic” instruction and imparting to them “those simple rules of moral conduct which are not less universally accepted than those of language or of arithmetic.” The issue was not what children were taught. That was obvious. There was only one form of moral instruction, that with which all would be familiar. The issue was by whom. As Roy puts it, Ferry prescribed the secular teaching of morality, not the teaching of secular morality.

The Church was, naturally, hardly enthusiastic about this. Indeed, it fought the change tooth and nail. However, some of its allies in the early 20th century turned out to be as bad as their secular enemies, and by mid–century, culminating in the Second Vatican Council of 1962–65, it came to recognise the state’s legitimacy in such affairs. Peace, of a kind, had broken out.


Like any good drama, however, this particular morality play abhors a harmonious vacuum, and Act II picks up pretty much straight away, in the mid–1960s, in the shadow of this concord. In this part, we see growing differences not about the source of morality, but about its very content. Secular ethics suddenly pivoted to individualism, freedom and the valorisation of desire. Individual choice assumed control and the very definitions of sexual behaviour, difference, family, reproduction, and parenthood were redrawn. The iconic year of 1968 marked a “complete anthropological revolution.” One may cavil at the idea that this was quite as abrupt at Roy makes out, but the longer term impact indeed does seem revolutionary.

Few expected the Church to roll over on all this but, nonetheless, after the tone and direction of Vatican II, the implacable message of the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, banning all forms of artificial contraception just as it became free, safe and widely available, shocked many.

As Roy sees it, this reaction was important for two reasons. First, it proclaimed the Church’s rejection of the values of freedom and hedonism favoured by the 1960s youth movement, marking the end of what many perceived as an attempt to adapt to new secular values. Second, it ushered in a new era, in which the Church actively countered these secular values, drawing lines in the sand over issues of human reproduction and sexuality, and then digging in. Hence the reputation for sex.

Roy is right about this and in his observation that religion henceforth became more visible in European culture precisely because it was no longer part of everyday life. However, he rather overplays his hand in claiming that such non–negotiable issues were the only thing that really mattered to popes John Paul and Benedict, and that the Church no longer claimed to “have a say in the full range of human activity, such as the economy and political institutions.” Both popes remained thoroughly engaged in social and economic affairs, and published enormously important and influential social encyclicals (Centesimus annus and Caritas in veritate in particular). The lines may have been redrawn and the trenches dug, but the landscape was not as simple or brittle as he suggests. Nevertheless, smoke and fire… The reputation for sex stuck.


Biblical scholars sometimes like to frame the scriptures as a five act play, the last of which we have been invited to perform in. So it is with this European morality play, as the re–emerged tensions of Act 2 were radically transformed, and the narrative line splintered in Act 3. It’s not so much that the play doesn’t end well, as that it doesn’t end at all.

Growing secularisation and the massive loss of the Church’s moral authority in the child sex abuse scandal are drivers in this act, but Roy locates the most visible and important factor as the inroads Islam made in the European conscience from around the turn of the millennium. This precipitated, among other things, a rapid re–examination of Europe’s identity and, of course, its alleged Christianity. There were different responses.

Some Christians comfortably accommodated themselves to the new European secular norms. Roy here cites “Europe’s main Protestant churches”, mentioning Lutheran churches’ willingness to perform homosexual marriages and failure to condemn abortion. (As an aside, I think this is something of a caricature, and his examples of key issues say more about his focus than about the Protestant churches which, as noted, have only a walk–on role in his story).

Some secularists began to flex their muscles, asserting a non–religious identity with a rather sinister self–righteousness. French government took up arms against the apparently civilizational threat of Islamic clothing. German courts banned circumcision on the grounds (sound in liberal secular logic) that “the body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision [which] contravenes the interests of the child to decide later religious beliefs.” The decision was rescinded by the Bundestag following an outcry from the German Jewish community. (Chillingly, Roy reminds us that one of the first decisions of the Nazi regime was to ban circumcision and ritual slaughter). Iceland proceeded where Germany faltered. Campaigns against religious ritual slaughter of animals followed, not least because, as Roy writes, without any Christian worldview the traditional hierarchy of natural difference (and rights) between humans and animals was upended. “All these cases show how secularism is eradicating even the slightest sign of religiosity from the public arena,” he writes towards the end of the book; “how it contributes to emptying the public space of all spirituality, but also relegates religion not to the private sphere…but into the hands of radicals.”

Which brings us to a third response, populism, or more specifically Christian populism. European populist movements love a bit of Christianity – church spires, nativity scenes, crucifixes, and all that symbolic stuff – but effectively empty them of any religious significance, treating the faith as “folklore” whose only real purpose is to ward off the threat of Islam. There is little real desire here to re–Christianise Europe, in any meaningful sense of re–rooting people in love of Jesus Christ and a desire to worship, follow and join him. In any case, as Roy pithily remarks, “if Europe is to become Christian again, it is in need of prophets, not legislators.”

If none of these options appeals – and none do – a final one is more intriguing. A number of prominent Christian (often episcopal) interventions in recent politics refuse to be captured by these categories – refusing populist symbolism and secular accommodation at the same time. Roy offers a few examples.

In France, the bishop who has taken the strongest stand against the Front National is Cardinal Barbarin, who was also a leading figure in the campaign against same–sex marriage. In Italy, the then archbishop of Milan, Dionigi Tettamanzi, severely criticised the forced evacuation of Roma camps in 2009, earning him the all–out loathing of the Northern League party. In the same year, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, harshly reprimanded the Austrian populist Freedom Party for using the cross on its anti–immigrant propaganda posters. In Poland in 2017, Wojciech Polak, archbishop of Gniezno and primate the Catholic Church of Poland, announced that he would suspend any priest who took part in an anti–refugee demonstration. And of course, Pope Francis, albeit somewhat less engaged with European issues than his predecessors, is a bête noire of many a Christian populist for his stance on migration. Maybe it’s just me, but I quite like this approach.


The drama of European secularisation is not over and, without the advantage of hindsight, no–one can tell which players, if any, will eventually claim the stage. A volume on this subject written 80 years hence may relegate any of these groups – the accommodationists, the secularists, the populists, and – what shall we call the fourth group; perhaps the ‘Christians’? – to a mere footnote. Alternatively, it might elevate them to the title page. Roy’s fascinating, readable and packed little book reminds us that the story of European secularisation is a long but punctuated one; that it is inextricably linked to ideas and sources of moral authority; and that, as foolhardy shareholders are so often reminded, past performance is no guide to future results.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.

Olivier Roy’s Is Europe Christian? is published by Hurst.

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Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 6 December 2019

Christianity, Europe, History, Secularism


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