Faith and charity: European crisis presents opportunities, challenges for church and state

Sculpture of Mary

It began in 2009 as a debt crisis.

But the challenges that continue to plague Europe have quickly evolved into a crisis with economics at the tip of a deep and multi-layered iceberg.

Politics, economics and social policy are now all part of a volatile mix that challenges each nation’s ability to provide a social safety net for its citizens and its moral responsibility to millions of immigrants.

So is religion.

Just not the way one might expect.

French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron recently described the crisis in terms of a religious war over debt, pitting the more rule-based and budget disciplinarian Protestants and Calvinists in northern Europe against the more lax Catholics and Orthodox in southern Europe.

But such generalizations, stereotypes that research on religion and economic growth calls into question may not bear much fruit.

It may be more meaningful to look at how religious organizations in each country, operating within their own political, cultural and historical contexts, are responding to the damaging social costs of the debt crisis.

Religious organizations are increasingly depended upon to provide basic needs, such as food and shelter. This expanded social role presents a new landscape of challenges and opportunities that could strengthen the public presence of religion in Europe’s secularized societies.

The stakes are high for everyone involved:

  • For religious organizations, struggling to meet mounting human needs with fewer resources, and attempting to regain social relevance with a delicate balancing act of social work and social advocacy in plural societies.
  • For governments, facing the demands of lenders for greater austerity amid mass protests, and the emergence of political groups on the far left and far right rallying against any efforts towards a consensus about how to deal with this multifaceted crisis.
  • And for tens of millions of people who are suffering in the economic downturn, the young adults in Spain looking for a job, the pensioner in Greece supporting his or her family on reduced benefits, the poor of all ages huddled around soup kitchens throughout Italy, and the families fleeing for their lives from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and seeking refuge in Europe.

One unanswered question: Can a continent, once seen by many as on an inexorable march toward secularization, create new boundaries between the religious and the secular that respond to social needs in Europe’s increasingly diverse societies?

Religion as a safety net

Even before the economic crisis, several southern European nations struggled amid internal challenges and external pressures to provide effective social welfare systems.

Despite increased social spending in the 1980s, countries such as Italy and Greece ended up with fragmented and inefficient welfare systems that substituted cash benefits at the expense of weak social assistance and care programs, and poor unemployment protection.

This situation contributed to the development of anemic social protection systems, low levels of female labor participation and persistent high levels of poverty and income inequality.

Today, not even the extended family can fill the gaps in social services.

Changes in family structure, combined with the severe impact of the economic crisis, have added additional financial pressures on the ability of the family to act as a social shock absorber and family members as caregivers.

The vacuum in social care is being filled by both secular and religious non-profit organizations, including churches and majority and minority religious groups.

Like secular groups, religious organizations provide humanitarian assistance, such as food, clothing and social care. In some cases, they also act as advocates for social change.

In their distinct religious role, faith groups also offer spiritual and psychological support and a community that research has generally associated with better health outcomes.

There is a catch, however.

An increased social presence entails a more extensive partnership with the state and a more visible and public role of religion.

This seems to put into question the secularization thesis in Europe, namely the assumed retreat of religion from the public sphere. It also challenges the view, mostly in the Mediterranean south, that social care is (or should be) the private and moral responsibility of families.

And it further blurs the separation between the religious and the secular, church and state.

So how have religious institutions responded to humanitarian needs?

We will look more closely at southeastern Europe, namely Greece and Italy.

In Italy, advocating for social change from below and on high

In Italy, the Catholic Church is a beneficiary of the otto per mille (.8 percent) compulsory income tax that taxpayers can allocate to an organized religion or to a social assistance state program.

There is growing pressure on the Church to do more, including paying more taxes to aid the society in a time of crisis and social collapse, with a youth unemployment rate jumping to 45 percent.

However, the Church has emerged not only as a leading provider of aid during the crisis, but also as an advocate for social change.

This starts with Pope Francis, who has challenged Europe to be forgiving toward Greece’s crushing debt and to welcome the refugees flooding its borders as part of mutual solidarity and charity.

The need for social change is also evident in the development of Catholic organizations, such as Caritas. They are dedicated to addressing both the symptoms and underlying causes of poverty and inequality.

A range of Catholic organizations offer basic welfare services and highlight new areas of need. But they also put in place more innovative programs in the aim of promoting empowerment, such as offering food, clothing and housing in exchange for job searches or community engagement.

They have also engaged in pro-active social advocacy, such as campaigning for residence and work permits for migrants, and developing legislative and policy-making proposals to address issues of poverty.

And the state has been receptive.

Following a constitutional reform in 2001 and the devolution of welfare that also recognized private associations in social services, the state authorities turned to the non-profit sector to help meet social needs. This gives renewed legitimacy to the church and Caritas, which has become an essential and official partner of local authorities in dealing with poverty.

A study by sociologist Xabier Itcaina on the Catholic non-profit sector in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, a very secular area with declining church attendance rates, found that the Catholic Church is a dynamic social solidarity partner through a range of Catholic organizations, from Caritas to informal parish groups.

In Italy, the work of Catholic associations takes place on two levels: providing provision of basic social services but also engaging in social advocacy and political mobilization alongside anti-austerity movements.

In Greece, working with the hand that feeds them

Orthodox cross procession easter 2014

In Greece and in other predominantly Orthodox countries, Orthodox social service is different.

The Orthodox Church of Greece has its own Synodical Committee for Social Welfare and Charity. More recently, in 2010, and in response to the economic crisis, it also set up Apostoli (Mission), a non-profit organization, to further expand and coordinate the Church’s social and humanitarian work.

But historically Orthodoxy has not cultivated an institutionalized structure of social service, such as the Catholic Church’s establishment of Caritas (founded in 1897). It is only in 1992 that the International Orthodox Christian Charities was created to coordinate and expand Orthodox social service worldwide.

Instead, Orthodox social service developed locally and often informally, with dioceses and parishes acting as the key driving engines of the churches’ extensive social work.

Moreover, the Orthodox Church of Greece is a national church, considered by law an official partner of the state in social protection.

In response to the crisis, the Church put in place an extensive network of soup kitchens. It also set up clothing and food distribution centers, social groceries, pharmacies and clinics, shelters, as well as centers for psychological support and legal advice.

Being so closely tied to the state can be as much of a curse as a blessing, however.

The fact that the Church is part of the Greek state, which pays priests’ salaries, may have implications for its ability and willingness, or lack thereof, to go beyond social work.

The Church has not shown any intentions of adopting any pro-active social advocacy and activism, or openly challenging the policies that have led to poverty and inequality.

And in a country where there have been startling jumps in unemployment, child malnutrition and poverty, some citizens, seeing their own income and pensions drop, may be looking critically at the state’s financial support to priests’ salaries and pensions.

The Church also has been criticized for owning too much property, paying too little in taxes and not contributing enough during the economic crisis. Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a 2015 survey expressed disappointment with the work of the church.

But, together with declining revenue from its investments and dwindling private donations, the Church faces a great challenge, the need to increase its charitable work while being forced to reduce its operating costs.

Already, the state has reduced its support to the Church and cut back on its tax exemptions.

The leftist Syriza Party, which came into power in January 2015, proposed to separate church and state, and impose a church tax.

The debt crisis has placed pressure on the church and the government in Greece to consider new models of church-state relations.

Challenges and opportunities

Being able to serve in a time of great need is a role that religious organizations may be expected to welcome.

A fundamental moral duty and social mission of Christian churches is to be at the side of fellow human beings, especially in moments of great need, and to put into action God’s love through charitable work and philanthropy.

The severe social consequences of the economic crisis, along with the added pressures of immigration, constitute a key moment for Europe’s Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches. They present an opportunity but also a great challenge to put the theological virtues of Christian charity and philanthropy into action, even more so as state welfare systems are under increased pressure.

They have the ability to make a difference.

Majority churches have the knowledge of and proximity to local communities that allows them to run effective social welfare programs in cooperation with the state.

For many churches throughout Europe that have seen sharp declines in religious practice and influence, this is a time they can try to regain social relevance and public trust.

But this is also a moment of great challenges.

Can churches greatly increase their social work at a time when their own financial resources are declining?

Will the churches’ increased social work reduce their role to that of welfare agents with a spiritual twist, or cultivate a spiritual affinity, especially among those in need?

More fundamentally, in a post-secular Europe, can religion find new space in the public square?

What is clear is that the European economic crisis is redefining the boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Soul searching, as part of what sociologist Anders Bäckstrom has referred to as an ecology of conversation, or a re-negotiation between religion, the state, the market and civil society, is required to most effectively meet the needs of those in need.

Molokotos-Liederman is a researcher in sociology of religion currently working on religion, social welfare and the economic crisis. A visiting fellow at Uppsala Religion and Society Research Centre in Sweden, she received her doctorate from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris.

Image by Dave Meir/Picography [CC0]

Image by Jean Housen [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons]


  • ARDA National Profiles: View religious, demographic, and socio-economic information for all European nations with populations of more than 2 million. Special tabs for each country also allow users to measure religious freedom in the selected nation and read the key parts of its Constitution referencing religion.
  • ARDA Compare Nations: Compare detailed measures on topics from religious freedom to religious demographics for up to eight nations.
  • Eurostat: Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, provides data on migrant integration-social inclusion and migration and asylum, as well as population statistics. It also provides data on population projections.
  • EUROEL – Sociological and legal data on religions in Europe: The website provides information on the social and legal status of religion in European nations. For each country, the website presents social and religious data, with information on the principal religions and denominations, religious demography and the legal status of religions.
  • Inform: The independent charity based at the London School of Economics provides information about new religious movements.