Why the Epidemic of Loneliness Is a New Sign of the Times

In a new book, the British historian and social commentator Matthew Fforde calls for the creation of a brand-new service in the Church entirely dedicated to lonely people.

A woman sits alone isolated within her apartment.
A woman sits alone isolated within her apartment. (photo: Shutterstock; inset, courtesy of Matthew Fforde)

The COVID-19 pandemic, which is spreading death and panic worldwide, has also called attention to a scourge of a different kind: the deep isolation of countless people of all ages and social backgrounds, especially in the West. Just as the coronavirus crisis has revealed serious preexisting shortcomings in our Western health-care systems and industries, the widespread wave of loneliness caused by the coronavirus lockdown has revealed the hidden wounds and flaws of a society that is now adrift. 

But while most political leaders have ignored this phenomenon in Western nations, some intellectuals have been warning about this growing threat for several decades. This is the case, for instance, of Matthew Fforde, a Christian historian and thinker who lives in Rome. He has dedicated a significant part of his career as a scholar to the study of secularization and its consequences for countries in Europe, and in particular Great Britain. 

A lecturer and researcher in contemporary history at the Libera Università Maria SS. Assunta (LUMSA), he is the author of a number of books in English and Italian, including Storia della Gran Bretagna 1832-2002 and Desocialisation: The Crisis of Post-Modernity (published in six languages), which was awarded the Capri-San Michele prize in 2006.

In his latest book, La Pastorale della Solitudine: Una Nuova Proposta (Pastoral Care for Loneliness: A New Proposal), which should soon be published in English, Fforde appeals to the Catholic world to develop a new social ministry entirely dedicated to addressing the problems and suffering of loneliness, which represents in his view one of the greatest challenges of our time. 

Presenting his original proposal in this interview with the Register, Fforde provides an analysis of the historical processes that have led to the present state of affairs in the West. 


In your very timely book La Pastorale della Solitudine, you call attention to what you call the “epidemic of loneliness” in the Western world. Loneliness seems to be an issue of great concern to you, as this book echoes your previous work Desocialisation: The Crisis of Post-Modernity, which offers an analysis of the loss of social bonds and of a sense of community in postmodern societies. Why do you think it is such a major issue nowadays?

This project of mine to launch a new form of pastoral care, indeed a new apostolate, inside Catholicism continues on from my book Desocialisation: The Crisis of Post-Modernity. In that work I tried to show that Western societies in recent decades have been afflicted by a massive loss of ties at all levels. The detachment of the governed from their governors, of the represented from their representatives, is one example, and helps to explain what appears to be a crisis of our political systems, at times almost “cold civil wars.” 

Another example is the isolation of people and widespread loneliness. This last condition is now clearly causing suffering on a massive scale — the statistics in Great Britain are dramatic — and it seems to me that Christians are called by their vocation to act to alleviate it and counter it. Christ taught us to help the afflicted, and here one can respond to that teaching. But at the same time, he said that in helping the afflicted we would be helping him, present in the afflicted. This is why I say in this small volume: How beautiful it would be if, after our deaths, Christ could say to us, “I was lonely, I suffered because of it, and you kept me company.” In my work Desocialisation, I tried to provide an analysis of our predicament. In Pastoral Care for Loneliness. A New Proposal I try to offer a practical response by Christians.


This crisis of loneliness is, according to you, a direct consequence of the process of de-Christianization, above all. How did we get here? Do you think that care for lonely people could be a truly efficient tool by which to reevangelize our Western societies? 

The great question, it seems to me, is what has caused this massive loss of ties in Western societies. Here, because of the major ideological chasms that have opened up, there is a marked lack of consensus. This is because, in essential terms, we are dealing with such profound questions as what humans are, what human society should be, and what authentic ethics and morality are. It does not in the least surprise me, given the recent massive secularization of our societies, if people have often been uninterested in the consequences of de-Christianization.

But this is a massive development which a priori must have had a major impact on how we live. It is very suggestive that desocialization (and concomitant deculturalization) have really intensified in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century, exactly the same time as there has been a huge withdrawal of Christian culture. The chronology is suggestive and indicates that the two phenomena are connected. 

It seems to me highly plausible that the socializing impetus of the Christian message, the promotion of love for love and love for truth, and the generation of authentic social ties through healthy spirituality, have been greatly weakened by secularization. At the same time, materialist visions of humans and relativism, which have stepped in to fill in the gap left behind by the withdrawal of Christianity, have worked by various mechanisms to break down ties between people and erode community bonds.


Why do you advocate a pastoral care for unattached individuals, specifically? What makes you think that the current institutions of the Church are not sufficiently active to address this issue nowadays? What is lacking, in your view?

In its history the Catholic Church has had to respond to new needs and new signs of the times in the development of its pastoral care. For example, at the end of the 16th century, St. Camillus de Lellis responded to the horrific state of health care to launch and develop pastoral care for the sick and the dying. In recent decades, with the catastrophic decline of the institution of the family, which has greatly contributed to the spread of loneliness (I am convinced that today we must put back love between a man and a woman expressed in the family at the center of our societies), Catholic pastoral care for the family has taken on new features because it has had to respond to new challenges. 

The epidemic of loneliness is really quite a new phenomenon and a new “sign of the times,” so I think it would be natural for Catholicism to adapt its pastoral care in this direction as a specific subject, developing its pastoral care in line with new needs. At the level of organization, I do not think that this presents many difficulties. It could be carried forward in the same way, for example, as pastoral care for the family, pastoral care for migrants, or pastoral care for the sick. The great advances in information and communications technology will certainly be a very powerful tool in the development of this new form of pastoral care.


How should this new social ministry start? Could you give us an idea of what a pilot project would look like?

Pastoral care for loneliness could certainly begin through pilot projects. I talk about the launch of this new apostolate in the fourth and fifth parts of the book, seeking to sketch out some general ways forward. I see no reason why bishops in their dioceses or parish priests in their parishes could not begin initiatives in this area. Indeed, I myself have already received positive feedback from the grassroots in response to my proposal. I also feel that the Church could set up a central consultative council to set the project in motion and engage in the gathering and dissemination of relevant ideas and information. I also think that religious orders, Catholic associations and Catholic professional groups could make a very valuable contribution; indeed, one can see here a path to their revitalization. If Catholics obtain credibility through witness in this ever more important field, then this will help to check and reverse the decline of Christian culture, constituting at the same time a part of the New Evangelization. 


How does the current coronavirus crisis inspire you, from this point of view? It looks like this pandemic offers an opportunity for the implementation of the new apostolate you are promoting.

The coronavirus epidemic has led to self-isolation on a massive scale. My hope is that this experience, so intensely experienced during this public-health crisis, will lead people to reflect on another epidemic that has been growing over recent decades — the epidemic of loneliness. It is my hope that people will be sensitized to what millions of people have to endure: isolation that is imposed not by health-care guidelines but by dysfunctional cultural conditions.

This crisis could therefore lead to a raising of consciousness in the Church and amongst people throughout our hemisphere about the massive problem of isolation in Western societies, and also to a consequent generation of support for pastoral care for loneliness. Dark clouds often have a silver lining.

Solène Tadié is the Register’s Rome-based Europe correspondent.