During Benedict’s Papacy, Religious Observance Among Catholics in Europe Remained Low but Stable

When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, the German-born pontiff dedicated himself to combating secularization in Europe. Research by leading European scholars had pointed to a long-term decline in religious observance among Europeans since at least the mid-1970s. Benedict’s efforts to combat this trend included the creation of a new pontifical council charged with evangelizing in countries that had experienced what he called an “eclipse of God.” Given his high-profile attempt to reinvigorate the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, is there evidence that European Catholics – or Europeans in general – are any more committed to their faith than they were at the beginning of his papacy?

An analysis of Pew Research Center surveys reveals no signs of a marked resurgence of faith among Catholics in France, Germany, Spain and Italy – the four countries with the largest Catholic populations in Western Europe. Yet the picture facing the church is not entirely bleak. French, Italian and Spanish Catholics have reported low but relatively stable levels of religious commitment in recent years. In Germany, too, the overall trend in religious commitment has been fairly stable over the past decade, despite short-lived shifts in the importance German Catholics place on religion.

Importance of Religion: Low but Stable

Across all four countries, a minority of Catholics say religion is very important in their lives, according to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. No more than 15% of French Catholics have said religion is “very important” to them personally in any of nine Pew Research polls conducted in France since 2002. In Spain, where four Pew Research polls have been conducted since 2009, roughly a third of Catholics in most years have said religion is very important in their lives. In Italy, where Pew Research has polled three times in recent years, a quarter of Catholics rated religion as very important to them in 2009, roughly the same as in 2007 (27%) and 2002 (29%).

In 2006, one year after Benedict’s election, about half (52%) of German Catholics said religion was very important in their lives – a significant rise from 36% in 2002. But the figure fell back to 36% in a 2007 Pew Research poll in Germany, and no more than 42% of German Catholics rated religion as very important to them in five subsequent polls.

Frequency of Prayer Also Fairly Stable

When asked how often they pray, few European Catholics say they do so at least once a day. French Catholics are among the least likely to engage in daily prayer, with between 11% and 17% reporting in recent years that they pray daily. German Catholics pray at higher rates than their French neighbors, but over the past decade fewer than four-in-ten have said they engage in daily prayer, about the same as among Spanish Catholics polled between 2009 and 2011. Among Italian Catholics, about three-in-ten said they pray daily in Pew Research polls conducted between 2002 and 2009.

Mass Attendance: Stable or Declining

In France, Germany and Spain, where multiple Pew Research surveys have asked respondents how often they attend church, few Catholics report going to Mass on a weekly basis. In four surveys conducted between 2009 and 2011, no more than 10% of French Catholics said they attend Mass at least weekly. By comparison, between 24% and 31% of Spanish Catholics have said they attend church at least once a week in polls conducted between 2009 and 2011. Among Catholics in Germany, roughly one-in-five said they go to Mass on a weekly basis in 2009 and 2010. In Pew Research polling in 2011, a slightly lower proportion of German Catholics (16%) reported attending Mass at least once a week.

Pew Research surveys have not routinely asked about attendance at religious services in Italy.

Similar Trends in the General Public

As with Catholics, there has been no discernible resurgence of religion among the overall adult populations in France, Germany, Italy and Spain over the past decade.

Low but relatively stable proportions of European adults have said religion is a very important part of their lives, according to Pew Research polls since 2002. Roughly one-in-ten French adults say religion is very important in their lives, which is among the lowest in the region. In most years polled, roughly a quarter of all German, Italian and Spanish adults say religion is very important in their lives.

In addition, few Europeans say they pray on a daily basis. No more than 14% of French adults have said they pray at least once a day since 2002. Germans report praying more frequently than the French do, but fewer than a quarter of German adults in recent years have said prayer is a daily part of their lives. Roughly three-in-ten Italians said they pray every day in 2002 (28%), 2007 (26%) and 2009 (30%). In Spain, a higher proportion said they pray every day in 2008 (26%) than in 2007 (18%). But in subsequent years, the proportion of Spanish adults who say they pray every day has held relatively steady, at about a quarter.

In France and Germany, no more than one-in-ten adults have said they attend religious services on a weekly basis in Pew Research surveys conducted in 2009, 2010 and 2011. And in Spain, no more than one-in-five adults have reported attending religious services at least once a week in polls conducted between 2009 and 2011. Pew Research surveys have not routinely asked about attendance at religious services in Italy. The European Social Survey has not asked this question in Italy since 2004.

Catholic Population Sizes

Religion is not measured in national censuses in France, Germany, Italy or Spain. Using survey data and population projections, however, the Pew Research Center estimates that the 2010 Catholic population in Italy was 49.2 million (or 81% of the total population). In France, it was 37.9 million (60%); in Spain, 34.7 million (75%); and in Germany, 27.1 million (33%). These are estimates of the number of people in each country who currently self-identify as Catholic.

The Roman Catholic Church counts Catholics somewhat differently. It reports estimates of all baptized Catholics in each country, regardless of their current self-identification. By the church’s count, the number of baptized Catholics has continued to rise in recent years in France, Italy and Spain but has fallen in Germany; this may be, in part, a result of Germany’s tax on church members.

As a share of the total population, baptized Catholics have been declining in all four countries for decades, and this gradual slide continued during Benedict’s papacy. (Despite the rise in absolute numbers of baptized Catholics in France, Italy and Spain, the increase has not kept pace with the growth of the general population.) From 1975 to 2010, the percentage of France’s total population that was baptized in the Catholic faith fell about 10 points, from 85.6% to 75.1%. In Germany, the drop was about seven points, from 37.2% to 30.5%. In Spain, it was about five points, from 97.9% to 92.6%. And in Italy, it was less than four points, from 98.8% to 95.1%.

Census and survey estimates of self-identified Catholics in Europe are generally lower than the official counts of baptized Catholics.