Between Popular Fervor and Demographic Decline: The Strengths and Challenges of Portugal’s Catholic Church on the Eve of World Youth Day

While Catholicism in Portugal remains in the substantial majority thanks to strong intrafamily transmission, it also faces the risk of a collapse in religious vocations and a loss of missionary dynamism — which WYD could help to remedy.

Almost everywhere in Lisbon, and among almost everyone, there is enthusiasm about World Youth Day.
Almost everywhere in Lisbon, and among almost everyone, there is enthusiasm about World Youth Day. (photo: Colm Flynn / EWTN News)

Popular piety is an integral part of the DNA of Portugal, a predominantly Catholic country since the founding of its first kingdom in 1139. Year after year, the processions surrounding the country’s religious celebrations — in particular the feast of St. Anthony of Padua on June 13, or the Fatima apparitions on Oct. 13 and May 13 — remain unfailingly packed. They continue to transcend generations and social origins.

The fact that 80% of the Portuguese declare themselves to be Catholic, against a backdrop of massive de-Christianization in most of Europe, is due above all thanks to the strength of the country’s family fabric. Yet, as it prepares to host World Youth Day Aug. 1-6 in its capital city of Lisbon, Portugal faces challenges similar to those of its European neighbors: an aging population, disengagement of younger generations, a shortage of priests, and ultimately, the growth of outside religions on its soil due to immigration.

At the same time, the comfort of the majority position seems to have led many Catholics to adopt what some experts describe as a passive attitude, which compromises the evangelization of both younger generations and newcomers.

Family Transmission

With Catholicism on the decline throughout Europe, but more specifically in its closest neighbors, Spain and France (two other historic homelands of the Church in which the number of young people without religion — around 57% and 60% respectively — considerably exceeds the number of believers), Portugal stands as a bastion of resistance, as do a few other countries such as Poland, Italy and Croatia.

Indeed, while the collapse of Catholic practice in France is mainly due to very low intrafamily transmission, this is an area in which Portugal particularly excels, as documented by Eduardo Duque, professor at the faculty of philosophy and social sciences at the Catholic University of Portugal, in several recent publications, particularly his 2022 book Valores e Religiosidade em Portugal (Values and Religiosity in Portugal).

In an interview with the Register, he pointed out that the preservation of the Catholic matrix is closely linked to the fact that even today, almost all Portuguese (99%) attach importance to the family, which facilitates intergenerational transmission.

At the same time, and again in contrast to France, traditionalist movements are developing little and appealing less to young people, mainly due to the absence of adversity for religious communities there, according to Duque.

“Since Catholicism remains predominant and is not a ‘niche’ religion, continuing to occupy a prominent place in society, those who practice it don't feel like they have to defend it,” he said. “In countries where the Catholic religion is fading, religious experience tends to be based on more orthodox practices: believers often feel like ‘warriors’ fighting against the winds of modernity.”

An Overly Cultural Approach to Faith?

This great strength of the Portuguese people nevertheless proves to be a potential pitfall in a general demographic and sociological context that is unfavorable to the growth of faith and its long-term survival. Indeed, the fact that religion — no matter how predominant — is often rooted in family tradition tends to confine it to a cultural practice or popular devotion that is unlikely to spread to those who are unfamiliar with it. Nor to face up in the long term to the phenomena of globalism, which tends to erode national cultures, and secularization, which is reaching right up to the country’s doorstep.

Observers of the Catholic world in Portugal tend to note, in fact, a decline in religious observance in everyday life, and in missionary zeal, both of which reflect the vitality of a Christian community. It is particularly in the light of his Brazilian origins, a Portuguese-speaking country often held up as a model of missionary dynamism, that Rafael Tavares, senior Vatican correspondent for WorldYouthDay Media, makes this assessment. Having moved to Portugal five years ago, he was quickly struck by the predominance of “white heads” in the country’s churches and the scarcity of young people in parish communities.

“You can definitely feel a lot of devotion in the country, especially in places of great spiritual significance like Fatima; a lot of people pray the Rosary there, they attend Mass, but it tends to remain a private, family practice, without the signs of a ‘Church that goes out,’” Tavares told the Register, drawing a parallel with Brazil where, in his view, much greater attention is devoted to the youth apostolate. “It is a dichotomy that Portugal must overcome.”

As Portugal’s fertility rate, of 1.35 live births per woman is among the lowest in Europe, and the country is facing a worrying shortage of priests, Tavares believes that the national religious landscape could change rapidly over the next few decades, not least because immigration from non-EU countries — still marginal but steadily increasing — is facilitating the expansion of imported religions, particularly the various Protestant currents and Islam.

“The faithful of these religions tend to be more dynamic, they have no problem living out their faith publicly, and they easily make new followers,” he continued. “They also have large families, especially in the case of Islam, which could accelerate their growth. Such a challenge shouldn’t be ignored.”

Pragmatism and Consensus as Historical Dynamics

Another surprising aspect for some observers, given Portugal’s religiosity, is that some of Europe’s most progressive societal laws have been passed here in recent years, such as the legalization of marriage and adoption for homosexual couples as early as 2010, and more recently, the passage of a law authorizing euthanasia and assisted suicide, after a lengthy parliamentary process.

Nevertheless, this paradox seems to reflect less a real popular will than the determination of politicians from the most radical wing of the ruling Socialist Party, which has held power almost continuously in recent decades.

Filipe Davillez, a journalist specializing in religious affairs, says that the otherwise rather moderate Socialist Party has regularly pandered to its most extreme wing with a few symbolic societal laws in order to gain more room for maneuver in other areas, such as the economy.

“One has to understand that Portugal doesn’t have the same revolutionary past as its French and Spanish neighbors, and tends to manage its internal affairs more pacifically,” he told the Register. “But on the other hand, it also means that people tend to ‘go with the flow.’ Therefore, the fact that there has been no major popular opposition to these bills doesn’t mean that the majority of citizens approve of them personally, but that they simply avoid interfering in other people’s lives.”

According to Davillez, this accommodating and pragmatic national mindset is necessarily reflected in its religious life, with the country’s bishops mostly staying out of the ongoing Western cultural battles opposing conservatives and progressives, and public debates in general.

“Because of the solid religious freedom existing in the country, the bishops find it preferable to avoid making waves or offending the more progressive communities with overly strong public statements on the doctrine of faith.

“At the same time, they will avoid provoking the Vatican by supporting proposals for doctrinal changes formulated by a few communities during the first consultative phase of the Synod on Synodality, notably on priestly celibacy or the priestly ordination of women,” he said, adding that this relative neutrality has been the main source of criticisms leveled at the country’s Catholic hierarchy in recent years.

The WYD Opportunity

Davillez also pointed out that at least a dozen episcopal appointments are expected in the country over the next few years, which could prove decisive for the future of the Catholic Church in Portugal. Among these, that of the new Patriarch of Lisbon in particular, which will probably take place in August following World Youth Day, will necessarily have a strong impact on its future orientations.

At this crossroads in the country’s Catholic history, and in the sensitive context of recent sexual abuse scandals that have exacerbated its vocations crisis, WYD is seen as a great opportunity for the national Church to breathe new life and rekindle the flame of faith among young people in search of ideals and points of reference.

Professor Duque sees it as a privileged way of bringing Portuguese youth into contact with the faithful of other countries, full of the missionary fire of their local cultures, and even of generating new vocations.

“The preparations for this major event, which took place all over the country in the past months, also gave them a renewed sense of belonging to a community; it arouses a more active and committed attitude towards the Church, which brings them closer to Christ,” he said.

Duque also pointed out that the need for more spiritual guidance, expressed by the country’s youth in the field surveys carried out ahead of the 2018 Synod dedicated to young people, has offered the Portuguese episcopate an avenue for restoring a lasting bond with younger generations, an opportunity that he feels should be particularly exploited during the Lisbon meeting.

“The obstacles raised 5 years ago by young Portuguese people regarding their relationship with the Church,” he concluded, “has illustrated at the same time their desire to be part of it, and they clearly indicate the way forward to respond to their great spiritual thirst.”