Introduction: Catholics a tiny fraction of secularized society

Catholicism in Denmark is a tiny minority religion, an immigrant religion in a country that is among the most secularized countries in the world. In one large cross-cultural study, only 9 percent of Danes describe religion as being very important in their lives.1 In another study, 18 percent of Danes indicated that they believe that Jesus is the savior of the world.2 Danes fall very low on measures of regular church attendance, beliefs about the afterlife and the Bible, and in prayer and other religious experience.3

But Denmark offers a strange twist: though belief in God and in basic Christian theological tenets is extraordinarily low, a high proportion of Danish children are baptized and confirmed every year. Even more remarkable, 80 percent of Danes pay a special, optional income tax (generally about 1 percent of income) to support the Lutheran church. The upkeep of churches and clergy, and church rituals of baptism, confirmation, marriage and (especially) funerals are culturally important to Danes, even if they don't believe the basic dogmas of the churches or practice with any regularity.  A 2017 survey indicated that 88 percent of Danes said that they were "not too" or "not at all" likely to opt out of paying the tax in the future.4 Secular Danes frequently say they draw comfort from church spaces, hymns and rituals, but would much prefer that the God-talk be omitted from the rituals.5 In the same 2017 survey, three-quarters of those who pay the tax said that churches "play an important role in helping the poor and needy", and "bring people together and strengthen community bonds."  Half said that they "protect and strengthen morality."6

A national culture that can somehow be described as both very secular and at the same time imbued by its Lutheran history sets the context for Catholic life in Denmark. Danes tend to highlight and celebrate both their attachments to traditions and their embrace of the modern world, whether in the arts, design, or values. They are liberal traditionalists, holding both qualities side-by-side. Monarchy, for example, ties Danes to their roots, but they are deeply egalitarian and are proud to have a queen who is a populist and who walks on the streets among them. In religious terms, they also have it both ways, as secularists who still wish to hold on to rituals that mark important transitions in life. For Danes, it is not necessarily a contradiction to belong without believing.7

The shift toward secularism in Denmark began sooner than in most other places in Europe. A secularized Denmark is part of the lived experience of almost all adult Danes. Some recall greater hostility toward Christianity in the 1970s, under Marxist inspiration, and say that in recent decades, that hostility has often morphed into polite indifference. As one interviewee8 put it, "If I tell people I am Catholic, I am treated a bit like a person who believes in the Easter Bunny, but people will leave that alone as long as my beliefs don't impinge on them." When the Church publicly takes stances against homosexual relations or contraception, though, it comes under strong medial and public critique, as it has for its handling of sexual abuse issues.  

Today 79.1 percent of Danes are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the state church, down from 83.8 percent 10 years ago. The highest rate of membership is in the North and West, whereas in the city of Copenhagen, 60 percent of Danes belong to the Lutheran Church and pay its tax.9 Almost 75 percent of all Danish children are baptized (45 percent of all children in Copenhagen) as Lutherans, while 71 percent of children (44 percent in Copenhagen) are confirmed as Lutherans. Lutheran Church funerals are held for 87.6 percent of those who die in Denmark (74 percent in Copenhagen).10

While precise data on Catholic Church attendance and commitment is not available for Denmark, clergy and lay interviewees for this project suggest that some of that sense of belonging without believing applies to Danish Catholics (immigrants would be the exception). Rates of church attendance among ethnic Danish Catholics are commonly said to be much lower than among immigrant Catholics, and committed Catholic Danes say that adherence to many non-dogmatic Catholic beliefs is lower, especially around aspects of sexual ethics. The more interesting story, though, may be how other aspects of Catholic life and practice are culturally inflected in Denmark. 

Danes pride themselves on their openness and tolerance, and speak frequently about it. But Eurobarometer reports suggest that this openness does not extend as fully toward other religions as interviewees suggested. Danes are less comfortable electing or hiring a person from a different religion than they would be electing or hiring transsexuals or persons of other ethnic origins. And 54 percent of Danes agreed that “the expression of a religious belief (for example, wearing a visible religious symbol)” puts a job candidate at a disadvantage compared to an equally talented peer.11

Believing, in a well-ordered society

As the statistics make clear, Denmark is among the healthiest, most prosperous, most highly educated, most egalitarian, safest, least corrupt places in the world. Environmental consciousness is exceptionally high. Danes pay high taxes, have a strong social safety net, and expect the government to take care of those in need. Though among the wealthiest countries in the world, Danes often ride bicycles long distances to work or school. Police are rarely in evidence, and yet in Copenhagen one almost never sees people driving aggressively or even jaywalking. Copenhagen subways do not even have turnstiles to ensure that persons have purchased tickets.

Sociologist Phil Zuckerman has tried to call attention to the believer’s dilemma, that there is a demonstrably good, functional society in Denmark, despite low levels of belief in God.12 In many poor parts of the world, Catholicism, and a turn to God more generally, is undoubtedly attractive as a radical alternative to a fickle, unjust world. But a highly secular, yet arguably very just society poses a challenge to religious vitality. 

According to two studies, Danes are extraordinarily happy people.13 In his interviews of secular Danes, Zuckerman found little evidence that Danes were terribly interested in big questions of meaning. They were engaged in society and felt a sense of responsibility for its well-being, he says, but were not concerned with “ultimate” metaphysical questions.14 Interviews for this project seem to bear that out. 

Interviewees described their non-believing neighbors as having a sense that Danes had distilled the best parts of Christian morality, and that they don't need the God part to keep that up. Asked whether their notions of what it means to be a good Christian differed from what it means to be a good Dane, one Catholic couple simply said “no.” One of them continued, “Part of the reason so few people go to church is because they find that the ethics of Christianity are not so far away from the ethics of society.” That conclusion depends on one kind of reduction of what is central to the ethics of Christianity, but it all adds up to make the question “why Catholicism?” a different one in Denmark than in India or Uganda or even Chile. 

There are apparently no reliable statistical surveys that single out Danish Catholics’ beliefs. But interviewees agreed that like fellow Danes, they tended not to highlight differences over traditional Christian sexual mores. They were hardly culture warriors, though many wished to find better ways to have discussions about these issues. Instead, they tended to resonate most deeply with church (and Danish) stands against global poverty and injustice. On sexual morality, Catholics suggested that they skew somewhat to a more conservative side than other Danes, but only somewhat. Some said, for example, that they were not comfortable with same-sex marriage, because marriage is a sacrament, but otherwise believe in completely equal rights and in civil unions for same-sex couples. They were uncomfortable that more had not been done to speak out against abortion, but also saw contraception as an obvious way to reduce the abortion rate.

At one Catholic school, in a working class neighborhood, the principal, a Dane who had converted when she married, spoke of how well integrated the school is, and how important they think its openness is. All children study religions in an objective way in Danish schools, she said, but one of the marks of this Catholic school, which many Muslims and secular families paid to send their children to, was because it had an openness to the transcendent, to conversation about feelings and events in a way that was a counterweight to the typical Danish tendency to keep those conversations inside. She also suggested, as several other interviewees did, that the school worked to help students connect directly with the poor, not simply to rely on state agencies to do it for them.

Privacy, interiority, and faith

Interviewees in Zuckerman’s study of Danish religiosity repeatedly describe a national hesitancy to talk about religion, as a subject that is “too private.” One typical respondent, Rikke, states, “Danes are very open. You can talk about sexuality, and you can talk about a lot of problems. But when it comes to what you believe, we just never talk about it. Even with very good friends, it’s very seldom you share those things. That’s a bit funny, I think, but I think it is—it is very private.”15

Catholic interviewees for this project repeatedly talked about Danes and Danish Catholics in similar ways, describing themselves as “private” and “reticent.” They asserted that overt evangelizing is quite counter to Danish sensibilities, and that forms of worship that were too expressive left them very uncomfortable.  

Some lamented that this sense of privacy might go too far, regretting that people seldom look in on their neighbors because this might be intrusive, and suggesting that Danes' tendency to not share emotions or problems in public was not entirely healthy. They noted that while Danes are extremely generous in support of social welfare, they believe that care for others is typically best left to state organizations and professionals, out of sight.

Zuckerman’s study suggests that Danish reticence to talk about religion was a sign of their secularism. But the Danish Catholics who were interviewed for this project often expressed a similar reticence out of a sense that authentic religion comes from within, as a matter of individual choice, and is most authentically practiced in interior ways. Conscience repeatedly surfaced as a paramount value. These Danish Catholics, all active parishioners, were by and large exceptionally uncomfortable about external claims that might be made to them about sin. They articulated beliefs about what is good and what is bad, but saw these as conclusions an individual had to reach for himself or herself, and to internalize.

Danish Catholic interviewees’ threshold for what constitutes religious coercion tended to be quite low. This came through in interviews with one very committed Catholic parent who felt very strongly that he could lead his children toward the faith by example, but had to let them make these decisions entirely on their own, without any power of suasion from him. Some other interviewees spoke of this as a crucial stance for them as parents, saying that belief really has to rise from within, from a decision that is internally motivated, not imposed by parental authority or external authority. Others confirmed that it is a tendency they saw in Danish parents but thought it was “unfortunately, overdone.”

One interviewee very interestingly translated the oft-characterized Danish quality known as hygge (usually translated as “coziness”) instead as “getting along,” with intimations that this meant conviviality, but also reticence and avoidance of topics that might surface conflict, or expose too much of one’s inner self. While Danes value openness, non-judgmentalism and support for the needy, interviewees also spoke of ways that these qualities are filtered through that penchant for privacy.

Getting along 

Danes' sense of "getting along" seems to manifest itself in one other way that makes Danish Catholic life stand apart compared to many other wealthy, secularized societies, particularly the English speaking world. Elsewhere, Catholic life has been more externally and explicitly impacted by culture wars or by noticeable divisions in public discourse and organizational groupings between liberal Catholics and "traditionalists." In Denmark, well-informed Catholics were not aware of the same kind of intra-church polarization between a significant traditionalist movement and large numbers of vocal, disaffected Catholics. Among Danish-born Catholics, there are said to be no (or very few) self-proclaimed “John Paul II Catholics” who exert much influence in the Church. Still, as one Catholic reported "Most of the Catholic priests in Denmark are foreigners and it does create cultural tensions... It sometimes alienates us from our priests and the Church. We need arguments that will stand their ground in Denmark, rather than Poland – so to speak."

Danish Catholic interviewees were certainly aware that Popes John Paul II and Benedict modeled a more traditionalist approach to Catholic life, whereas Danish Catholics tend to be much more concerned about global poverty and social justice than with questions of theological orthodoxy and sexuality. Interviewees all note that the current bishop is much more focused on orthodoxy and traditionalism than his predecessor, and indeed (they suggest) than most Danish Catholics.

When asked to talk about Church issues that most concerned them, none of those interviewed volunteered serious concern over the Church's refusal to ordain women. When the topic was broached with a female interviewee who is both Catholic and feminist, she said that she was always puzzled about the Church's unwillingness to ordain women and that it seemed like "a real waste, a failure to make use of all the talent available." But she continued, "I never thought of leaving over that." Nor did she know of anyone who had left the Church for that reason. She indicated that she had an extremely difficult time staying in the Church in light of the sexual abuse crisis, which was manifest in Denmark, and that its handling had made her leave for a while. She returned, despite a conservative bishop, because, she said, “Where else would I go?” A priest noted on the other hand, that there were lay Catholics who had kept a distance. “They don’t protest when they feel hurt. They stay away, silently.”

  • 1Ronald Inglehart, Miguel Basañez, and Alejandro Moreno, Human Values and Beliefs: A Cross-Cultural Sourcebook, (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, 1998), 93.​
  • 2Tobias Stern Johansen, "Hver Fjerde Dansker Tror På Jesus," Kristeligt Dagblad, Dec. 23, 2009, last accessed April 1, 2014,
  • 3For an excellent summary of the data, see Phil Zuckerman, "Society without God," in Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, (New York: New York UP, 2008), 24.
  • 4Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, "In Western European Countries With Church Taxes, Support for the Tradition Remains Strong" accessed May 9, 2019.
  • 5Grace Davie's concept of "vicarious religion" is helpful here. Davie argues that for Danes, like some other Europeans, Christianity is valued as a bonding element of Danish culture, to be practiced vicariously by paid elites who can be called upon for services at key transitional moments in life and during crises. The small groups of clergy and believers are relied upon to maintain the traditions that serve as a source of common identity, on behalf of the majority, who draw on them when they need to. See Grace Davie, Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000). Zuckerman’s study of non-believing Danes and Swedes illuminates the idea this way: As one of his interviewees put it, “in connection with the big events of human life, you need, very often, some rituals just to say now it’s done like it has to be done… But, no, I’ve never felt anything like comfort or anything from religion.” Phil Zuckerman, "Jens, Anne, and Christian," in Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. (New York: New York UP, 2008), 40.
  • 6Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, "In Western European Countries With Church Taxes, Support for the Tradition Remains Strong" accessed May 9, 2019.
  • 7Grace Davie, "Introduction" in Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000), 3.
  • 8Interviews with 13 Danish Catholics in the Copenhagen metropolitan region in September 2013 are a primary basis for the entries about Denmark on this site. Interviews were conducted in English. According to the Eurobarometer report, “Europeans and their Languages,” 86 percent of Danes speak English “well enough to have a conversation.”
  • 9The Statistical Yearbook 2013: Culture and National Church. (Copenhagen: Denmark Statistics, 2013),
  • 10The Statistical Yearbook 2013: Culture and National Church, (Copenhagen: Denmark Statistics, 2013),
  • 11"Discrimination in the EU in 2012," Eurobarometer 77.4, Rep. European Commission, 2012,
  • 12Phil Zuckerman, Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment. (New York: New York UP, 2008)
  • 13European Social Survey Round 5 Data (2010). Data file edition 3.0. Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data.
  • 14Phil Zuckerman, "Fear of Death and the Meaning of Life," in Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment, (New York: New York UP, 2008), 68-75.
  • 15Zuckerman's study serves a polemical purpose, but the comments of his interviewees correlate well with the comments of Catholic interviewees for this project. Phil Zuckerman, "Being Secular," in Society without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us about Contentment, (New York: New York UP, 2008), 101.
Listen to excerpts from an interview with a couple on Danish and Catholic values.
Audio file