Pew Study on Eastern Europe Shows Trends Among Orthodox, Catholics

by Trey Elmore  •  •  May 15, 2017   

Orthodox religious affiliation up since 1991, Catholic Church attendance higher

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DETROIT ( - A new study from the Pew Research Center is reporting a sharp rise in the practice of Orthodoxy since the fall of the Iron Curtain.

In both Russia and Bulgaria, for example, the share of adults who identify as Orthodox has nearly doubled. In Russia, the number has climbed from 37 percent in 1991, shortly after the fall of the USSR, to 71 percent today. Bulgaria has likewise doubled its Orthodox population, from a 390percent Orthodox affiliation in 1991 to a present-day percentage of 78 percent.

Catholics in Eastern Europe have not seen the same trends; in fact, Poland and Hungary have seen slight dips in Catholic affiliation since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Poland's drop has been from 96 to 87 percent, Hungary from 63 to 56 percent. The Czech Republic has seen the most dramatic drop in Catholic affiliation, from 44 to 21 percent, a decrease of more than half in 26 years.

How people identify religiously is a different parameter altogether from what sociologists call religiosity, one measure of which is weekly church attendance. Pew found that although Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe saw boosts in affiliation, current rates of weekly service attendance lag behind those of their Catholic counterparts in Catholic Eastern Europe.

Figures showing increases in Orthodox Christian
affiliation in Russia, Bulgaria and Ukraine.

Romania leads Orthodox Eastern Europe in church attendance, with 21 percent regularly going to Mass, while Estonia has a low of only 3 percent who regularly go to church.

Catholic Mass attendance is more than double, with Bosnia topping out at 54 percent Mass attendance, followed closely by Poland and Ukraine, with 45 and 43 percent Mass attendance respectively. Croatia, Belarus and the Czech Republic make up the next group in terms of Mass attendance, coming in with 27, 25 and 22 percent attendance respectively.

Majority of Eastern European countries report
increases in religiosity. Catholic Poland among
exceptions, and with widest margin.

Respondents gave divergent views of the religiosity of their country, with those in a majority of countries taken together saying their country is more religious now than in the 1970s and 1980s, the exceptions being the Czech Republic and Poland (Catholic majorities), Romania, and Greece and Moldova (all Orthodox majorities).

The common link between Catholics and Orthodox in Eastern Europe is the role of nationalism, and views of one's religion as being an essential component of what it means to be a member of one's country. Belarus is the only Orthodox-majority country with less than half the population answering to the effect that being Orthodox is an important part of being a true citizen of one's country.

Among Catholic countries, likewise, 64 percent of Poles say being Catholic is an important part of being Polish, while Croatia and Lithuania come in at 58 and 56 percent respectively. Hungary is the only Catholic country with less than half of respondents — 43 percent — responding that being Catholic is important to being Hungarian.

Orthodox Europe is decidedly more nationalistic than Catholic Europe. Although both groups respond with high levels of nationalism linked to their religious identity, the median results were 70 percent for Orthodox countries, and 57 percent for Catholic countries.

No less than 22 percent of any country responded in the affirmative to the statement that a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West. The bottom 22 percent number came from Ukraine, but 34 percent of Poles also expressed support for a strong Russia. Russia, predictably, topped out in this category with 85 percent agreeing.


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