Advice from Godless Europe: Swedish Catholics & the American Church

In the days following the U.S. presidential election, as stunned journalists and commentators conducted their postmortems, one particularly depressing fact emerged: white Christians had overwhelmingly voted for Donald J. Trump. Why? Many elements played a role: hope for conservative judges, frustration with an administration often at loggerheads with their institutions, and disdain for the coastal elites that too often condescend to them. But some also saw Trump as a last hope for pulling the United States back from the brink of secularism, for affirming her status as a Christian nation. He gave them that hope. “You have such power, such influence,” Trump told a group of Evangelical leaders this summer. “Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back.” Evangelical leaders like the Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson became shills for a man on his third marriage who stands accused of serial sexual assault as they tried to reverse their losses in the culture war and restore an old order of things. The day after the election, Franklin Graham tweeted that “I believe God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control.”

Allow me to suggest that, at this point, losing to the “atheistic progressive agenda” might actually be good for the American church in the long run—and to do so by gesturing to that perennial specter haunting the nightmares of American conservatives: Sweden.

ABOUT A WEEK before the election, I decamped New York City for the idyllic Swedish university town of Lund, where I had once been a student. Pope Francis was visiting Lund to commemorate the start of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. The event was held at the city’s medieval cathedral and was co-hosted by the Lutheran World Federation and the Holy See. It marked the first time in history that Lutherans and Catholics had commemorated the Reformation together and only the second time a pope had visited Sweden. I was there to see Francis, but I also curious to see how the world’s second-most secular country would react to him.

What I witnessed surprised me. In the weeks and days leading up the event, the local media went through a frenzy, prepping Swedes for his visit and speculating where he would spend his first night on Swedish soil. There was an eerie sense of pride and joy that Francis was coming. Bear in mind that this is a country where eight in ten people say they are either not religious or atheists and where only 8 percent of the population regularly attends religious services. I had lived in Sweden for two and a half years—and had become a Catholic there—but for a few days, I could barely recognize the country.

Thousands of Swedes lined up in the cold and rain to catch a glimpse of Francis as he made his way to the cathedral. Most of them weren’t Catholic, and of those I spoke with, most weren’t even religious. Many of them had traveled for hours that morning. At first I tacked it up to nationalism, the Swedes proud that a world leader had come to them. But there was something else that brought them into the rain outside the cathedral, and it wasn’t Lutheran World Federation president Martin Junge. Following the event in Lund, Francis traveled to the neighboring city of Malmö, where a similar event drew a crowd of over ten thousand. As I scratched a little deeper I found a country that was intrigued by religion and a Catholic community that was experiencing a small revival.

CATHOLICISM IN SWEDEN has had a rough go of it since the Reformation. For almost two hundred years, Catholics were subject to the death penalty. The laws were eased to accommodate skilled foreign workers, and then in 1860, Swedish citizens were allowed to convert. Still, restrictions remained. Not until 1951 were Catholics allowed to become teachers, physicians, or nurses, though monasteries were restricted until the late seventies. At that time, there were approximately five thousand Catholics in Sweden. Today there are 113,000 registered members.

Much of the growth has been fueled by immigration, as Sweden has accepted large numbers of immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Diocese of Stockholm notes that it has almost eighty languages in its parishes. A priest from Saint Eugenia, a Jesuit church in Stockholm, said the church has worshippers from almost one hundred different countries. Now the Catholic Church in Sweden is facing the problem of insufficient churches and is starting new parishes in the suburbs and countryside to serve immigrant communities—a very good problem to have.

The growth is also fueled by a small but steady flow of Swedish converts. Each year, around a hundred Swedes are received into the Catholic Church, a small but important group comprised largely of professionals, academics, writers, and artists. Some are Protestants looking for a historical, orthodox tradition while others are atheists with no religious background.

“For around the last twenty years or so, there has been what we could call a ‘Catholic revival,’” said Frederik Heiding, a Jesuit priest and an editor at Signum, Sweden’s most important theological journal. He cited not only the greater number of Catholics but also the greater general interest in Catholic spirituality, literature, and icons. The weekend prior to the pope’s visit the cover story of the magazine for Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s most important newspaper, asked if it had become hip to convert to Catholicism.

Despite the growth, the Catholic Church accounts for just 1 percent of Sweden’s population. There are benefits to being in the minority, though. “When we are this creative minority here, we need to have sufficient solidarity among us, which means that...controversial questions don’t dominate,” said Heiding.

That creativity is on display in Lund. The local parish hosts Swedish language classes for refugees and immigrants, and it recently started a sort of supper club, where parishioners will cook dinner together and then talk about theology, spirituality, and food. Down the street, a Dominican friar hosts a regular film club that is attended by non-Christian and Christian students alike.

What I heard from the Catholic theologians and priests was that, because they are a minority, Catholics in Sweden spend less time arguing amongst themselves, fighting the battles that animate the broader Catholic Church, and resisting the culture at large and more time praying and partaking in Masses. Though I could not have articulated it at the time, this focus on the basics attracted me to the Church when I was a graduate student in Sweden. When evangelical friends asked me, with some concern, why I was becoming Catholic, I did not respond with a theological argument but simply noted that the Church in Sweden had been a place where I could meet Jesus.

The Catholics in Sweden also spend a great amount of time serving the poor, especially immigrants and refugees. As debates about immigration and refugees have engulfed Swedish politics, resulting in the closure of Sweden’s borders, the Catholic Church has come to be a major advocate for refugees. In Lund, a group of Catholics have banded together with the local Islamic Cultural Center, students, and a local Christian council to found Refugees Lund, which raises support and collects donations for refugees in Sweden and abroad. Not only can the Catholic Church in Sweden speak with the authority of a branch of the world’s largest religion, but it also can speak in the voice of the marginalized because it is comprised of the marginalized.

It is, in short, a missional church. “We are not burdened by all the money and structures that the Germans have,” said Professor Gösta Hallonsten, a Swedish Catholic theologian who formerly taught at Catholic University of America.

The comparison to Germany is apt. The Catholics in Germany have been financial backers of their Swedish cousins, sending them money, priests, and bishops. Now, as German Catholics leave the faith, the Swedes send back hope. “In Germany, people are only going away from the church. We try to give them some hope that [a thriving church] is possible,” Bishop Anders Arborelius, the first Swedish Catholic bishop since the reformation, told me over coffee.

CATHOLICISM ISN’T THE only faith seeing interest in secular Sweden. In the days prior to the pope’s visit, thousands of evangelicals gathered in Stockholm for the “Awakening Europe” conference, and a couple hundred students met at an old castle for an ecumenical theology conference. “One of the benefits of a secularized or post-secularized society is that you have a lot of positive curiosity [towards religion],” the Lutheran Archbishop of Sweden, Antje Jackelén, told me.

Her own church, the Church of Sweden, is struggling. Since the church separated from the state in 2000, baptisms, confirmations, and membership numbers have spiraled. Lately, around 1 percent of its members withdraw each year. The Church of Sweden still claims 6.2 million members in a country of ten million, but only 220,000 attend a weekly service. Most retain their membership rights—previously automatically bestowed upon them at birth—because they like the church’s social work and want to retain the right to be wed and buried within the church. One former Lutheran deacon I spoke with suggested that the Church of Sweden lost its way because it was too rich and too political. In 2015, it had approximately $750 million in investments, the result of hundreds of years of church taxes and vast land holdings. Meanwhile, national political parties have strong representation in the church’s general synod (kyrkomötet) and guide its decisions. The Church of Sweden also seems to be in the throes of an identity crisis—both theologically as it experiences internal strife over issues like homosexual marriage and the ordination of gay bishops, and institutionally, as it attempts to forge an identity independent of the state.

It may be that diminishing numbers—and a loss of power and money—will prove positive for the Church of Sweden in the long run. “Soon the Church of Sweden will be a minority church in our society and that gives us the chance to articulate a somewhat sharper identity than when you are hosting everything and everyone in your organization,” said Jakob Wirén, the theological secretary to the Archbishop of Sweden.

Of course, there are challenges being a Christian in Sweden, particularly for Catholics. A friend, a Catholic pediatrician, noted with sadness that he lacks freedom of conscience in his practice. The question of the church’s durability also hangs in the air. Will second-generation immigrants hold onto their faith or will they lose it as they assimilate to Swedish society? Several Catholics told me about the constant tension between their faith and the larger secular society. But all noted that that tension had strengthened their faith. Perhaps this is why Swedish Christians often exhibit a depth and commitment to their faith that is rather lacking in the United States. “What you need to develop is certain joyfulness or happiness to be in this heathen secularized environment and embrace it to a certain extent,” Heiding told me.

The day following the ecumenical services, an estimated fifteen thousand people gathered for a Papal Mass in Malmö, a city with a large community of immigrants. In a homily centered on the Beatitudes, Francis devoted special attention to Jesus’ blessing of the meek. “[Meekness] enables us to set aside everything that divides and estranges us, and to find ever new ways to advance along the path of unity,” he told a crowd rapt with attention, despite a freezing drizzle. “For meekness is the attitude of those who have nothing to lose, because their only wealth is God.”

They were encouraging words for Christians in the minority, but I as I heard them, I thought of Christians in America who might be tempted to think salvation lies in power. American Christendom is bloated, and it seems clear that much of the church has lost its clear focus on whom Jesus called “the least of these”—women, minorities, immigrants, and the poor—instead preferring to seek a victory in the culture war. The concerns of the more pessimistic American Christians are not entirely unfounded, of course—elite culture really can be hostile to traditional religion—but the solution does not lie in subjugating elite culture or grabbing power. When I asked Heiding what the rest of the Christian world could take from this small Catholic community in Sweden, he replied: “We need to go back to the basics of Christianity and faith and occupy ourselves with those basic things.”

American Christians should heed this lesson and focus on the basic tenets of the Gospel—even more so now as many look to Donald Trump for hope. His administration may advance some of their causes and prove friendly to their institutions, but it cannot improve Christians’ standing among the broader public, nor can it prevent secularism from spreading in America. If anything, Trump’s election will accelerate its spread by corrupting public faith in those Christian institutions that supported him. But if the Catholic Church in Sweden is any barometer of what’s possible, maybe that’s not the worst thing.