Since the turn of the century, the Catholic congregation in traditionally Lutheran Iceland has grown rapidly, mainly due to immigration. In 1994, Catholics accounted for 1% of the population, but as immigration accelerated in the 21st century, fueled by Iceland’s fast economic growth, the number of Catholics living in the country increased accordingly. As of October 2019, people of Catholic faith make up 4% of the population.
What causes the increase
With the largest immigration groups coming from countries where Catholicism is predominant, it is no surprise that Catholic churches in Iceland are flourishing thanks to immigration. People of Polish origin comprise the largest immigrant group, accounting for more than 40% of all foreign nationals living in the country, followed by Lithuanians.
Landakotskirkja in Reykjavík with its priest Jakob Rolland is the church that has seen the highest increase in attendance and is sometimes hardly able to accommodate the large numbers of people who flock there. Compared to mainland Europe, where the Catholic Church is losing congregates in many places, partly due to scandal, the same change is not the reality in Iceland.
The global trend
However, the Lutheran National Church of Iceland has experienced a decline in members and mass attendance in recent years. In the 1990s, about 90% of the population was registered in the National Church but the headcount has since shrunk to 64%. A record number quit in 2010 when the National Church was accused of attempting to cover up sexual crimes committed by former Bishop Ólafur Skúlason.
What seems to be an oppositional trend in Iceland, with people joining the Catholic Church and leaving the Lutheran Church, doesn’t hold true on a global scale. The reality is that both Christian Churches have been losing ground worldwide for a long time. Perhaps that’s why Jakob Rolland, as the most important spokesperson of Catholics in Iceland, is advocating heavily for Catholics to register in the congregation even though Landakotskirkja’s capacity is already at its limits. The church receives funding from the state for every member enlisted. He has also been pleading with the government to hear out the Catholic Church’s concerns about social issues and points to the fact that their objections to the bills allowing same-sex marriage and concerning abortion were not taken into account when they went through.
It’s highly interesting that a conservative institution like the Catholic Church flourishes in a country that is one of the most progressive in the world—and it doesn’t come without conflict, as many of the institution’s views and values are out of touch with Icelandic reality. For instance, the Vatican still vehemently defends patriarchal ideas and don’t allow women into positions of power whilst Iceland is at the forefront of gender-equality. Further, equal rights for queer couples are a foundational value to the majority of Icelanders, yet the Catholic Church still refuses to marry them. What role the Catholic Church can play in the 21st century, least of all in Iceland, deserves full examination.
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