By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Just 37 percent of Austrians today, both Catholics and Protestants combined, can actually be considered practicing Christian believers, according to a new poll carried out by the country’s most distinguished sociologist of religion.
"Practicing" in this sense means someone who accepts Christian beliefs, who engages in prayer and worship on a regular basis, and who belongs to a formal church.
An additional 27 percent can be termed “cultural Christians,” meaning people who don‘t necessarily hold Christian beliefs or engage in religious practice, but who nevertheless prize the country’s Christian heritage. One hallmark of a “cultural Christian” in this sense is strong support for teaching Christianity in Austrian schools, even from people who don’t believe or practice the faith themselves.
Some 19 percent of Austrians can be categorized as “spiritual pilgrims,” according to the study, meaning people who have spiritual beliefs but do not belong to any organized religion – an approach that British sociologist Grace Davie famously defined as “believing without belonging.”
Just 17 percent of Austrians live as atheists, meaning without any sort of religious beliefs or practice.
The study of Austrian religiosity was carried out in August by Paul Zulehner of the University of Vienna for ORF, the main Austrian state television service.
Given Austria’s ultra-Catholic history as the heart of the former Hapsburg Empire, those results might be taken as fairly depressing. Zulehner, however, said he’s inclined to a more optimistic reading.
“We always count down from 100 percent, and if you do that, things look terrible,” he said. “But I think we should count up from 0 percent, because this isn’t the Hapsburg Empire anymore. Nobody has to be a Christian today. From that point of view, the wonder is not why there are so few Christians, but so many.”
For those inclined to make a case for hope, Zulehner said that when the survey results are broken down by age groups, it’s striking that Austrians under 20 seem to be slightly more inclined to sympathy for the church. Just 27 percent of Austrians aged 20-29, Zulehner said, say they belong to a church, but among those under 20 it’s 32 percent.
“There’s a new generation coming of age that is not infected by the crises of the last two decades,” Zulehner said, referring to scandals over sexual abuse and authority that have rocked Austrian Catholicism since the mid-1990s.
Zulehner said that this young generation also seems to be more interested in spirituality generally, more inclined to take “the question of God’ seriously.
Zulehner carried out a similar x-ray of the Austrian church in 2000, and he said the most striking change over this seven-year period has been significant growth in the category of “cultural Christians,” a trend which he attributes in large measure to anxieties related to rising Islamic immigration in Europe, including Austria.
According to official Austrian figures, there are roughly 400,000 Muslims in the country today, out of a total population of just over 8 million. The Austrian Academy of Science recently projected that Muslims will represent between 8 and 12 percent of the population by 2026, and as much as 25 percent by 2050.
That rising Islamic tide is unquestionably producing social friction. A study by the Austrian Interior Ministry recently found that 40 percent of Austrians regard Islam as “backward or dangerous,” with just 25 percent expressing a positive view of Islam.
In that context, Zulehner said, it’s perhaps not surprising to see a rising number of Austrians who want public authorities to defend the country’s Catholic traditions, and to see the faith passed on in public schools, even if they no longer embrace it themselves.
Zulehner said he believes Benedict XVI’s Sept. 7-9 visit cannot do much in the short run to alter these social trends, but he nevertheless said that it could have a positive impact if the pope were to do two things.
First, he said, it would be helpful for the pope to openly acknowledge the trauma that the Austrian church has experienced in the recent past.
“As he puts his feet on Austria soil, I hope he will say that he knows the last few years have not been much fun,” Zulehner said. “That would be very encouraging.”
Second, Zulehner said, it would be helpful for the pope to avoid what he called a “moralizing” tone, concentrating instead on the fundamentals of the Christian message – as, Zulehner said, he did in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est.