Protestant-Catholic tensions grow even in post-Catholic Europe

There are growing tensions between Catholics and evangelicals in Europe, inflamed by remaining church-state disputes in areas where Catholicism is still dominant, reports Christianity Today (March). Concerns about growing secularism in Europe in recent years have led to more conciliatory attitudes and efforts between evangelical Protestants and Catholics. But although the Catholic Church no longer is the established state church in Italy, Spain and other majority-Catholic nations, Catholicism still enjoys legal privileges that are restricting the evangelical community, Ken Chitwood writes. The conflicts are seen in evangelical churches not being recognized as such because they do not have the churchly architecture and other features of Catholic culture that have shaped the views of tax authorities. One prominent case in Italy is a dispute between a Baptist church in Rome and the Italian government over tax exemptions, with the government citing the church’s lack of stained glass, statues, candles and a vaulted ceiling.

A worship service in an evangelical church in Italy (source: Church News Ireland).

But ecumenical activities have also become a source of division within European evangelicalism itself. When Thomas Schirrmacher of the World Evangelical Alliance participated in an ecumenical prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, he was met with a strong rebuke by the Italian and Spanish branches of the Evangelical Alliance. Schirrmacher was accused of compromising the evangelical stance against the papacy and crossing a historic line between Protestants and Catholics. Underlying this contention is the problem for evangelicals of distinguishing themselves from Catholics to gain recognition as Christian or even a religion. Even though fewer people identify with Catholicism, it has set the terms for religion in places like Spain, Italy, and Ireland, making evangelism efforts difficult for evangelicals. Bob Wilson, a church planter in Ireland finds it difficult to convince people, largely former and inactive Catholics, that he is a minister and part of a legitimate church because Catholicism has set the cultural framework for religion. “In the past, when everybody went to church, everyone went to the Roman Catholic Church. Now, when nobody goes to church, nobody goes to any church,” he says.

(Christianity Today,