Five Centuries After Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe Has Faded

Pope Benedict and Archbishop.jpg

Pope Benedict XVI embraces with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, left, in London’s Westminster Abbey during an evening prayer service in September 2010. (Richard Pohle/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Source: Pew Research Center from August 2017

As Protestants prepare to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that the prevailing view among Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe is that they are more similar religiously than they are different. And across a continent that once saw long and bloody religious wars, both Protestants and Catholics now overwhelmingly express willingness to accept each other as neighbors – and even as family members.

The survey also shows that one of the major theological controversies of the Protestant Reformation no longer starkly divides rank-and-file Catholics and Protestants in Western Europe. Today, majorities or pluralities of both groups say that faith and good works are necessary to get into heaven – the traditional Catholic position. Fewer people say that faith alone (in Latin, sola fide) leads to salvation, the position that Martin Luther made a central rallying cry of 16th-century Protestant reformers.

Yet differences remain between the two Christian traditions. Geographically, Protestants are still concentrated in the north and Catholics in the south of Europe. In many countries, sizable minorities among both Catholics and Protestants (roughly four-in-ten or more Catholics in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy and France and comparable shares of Protestants in Switzerland and the UK) say the two groups are more different religiously than they are similar. And Protestants and Catholics who consider religion to be important in their lives are more likely to take their respective church’s traditional position on salvation compared with those who say religion is less important.

These are among the main findings of a new Pew Research Center survey of 24,599 adults across 15 countries in Western Europe, conducted from April to August 2017 through telephone interviews on both cellphones and landlines. The study, funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the John Templeton Foundation, is part of a larger effort by Pew Research Center to understand religious change and its impact on societies around the world. The Center previously has conducted religion-focused surveys across sub-Saharan Africa; the Middle East-North Africa region and many other countries with large Muslim populationsLatin America and the CaribbeanIsraelCentral and Eastern Europe; and the United States.

The new surveys are nationally representative, with samples of approximately 1,500 or more respondents in each country, allowing researchers to analyze the opinions of Catholics in 11 countries and of Protestants in eight countries.

Pew Research Center also asked Catholics and Protestants in the U.S. about their opinions on issues related to the Protestant Reformation, including on several questions that were asked in Western Europe as well. The results of the U.S. survey can be found here.

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