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János Wildmann {*}

Pretty Mediocre Outcome

Religion and Church in Hungary in the Mirror of a New Investigation

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2009, P. 520-525
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    At present, Hungary is above all in the news because of the disputes over the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. The country was hit by the economic and financial crisis and is politically anything but stable. As a new study shows the churches enjoy some reputation in society but have to struggle with several home-made problems.

 

On 23 August this year the Diocese of Ncs (Pécs) in southern Hungary celebrated its millennial anniversary. It is the only diocese in Hungary the founding date of which is known exactly to the day. According to the later copies the first Hungarian king, St. Stephen is supposed to have signed on 23 August 1009 in the castle of Gyor (Raab) the founding document in the presence of the papal legate and at the same time to have defined the boundaries of the diocese. He appointed Bonipert as the first bishop. His origin is unknown; but we know of him that he has asked Bishop Fulbert of Chartres for Latin textbooks. Bonipert's successor was St. March (1036-1075), Abbot of Pannonhalma Benedictine abbey, after whom today in Pécs the Diocesan School is named, which in the last years hit the headlines. He was also the first author who wrote Latin in Hungary.

In the 13th century the then Diocesan Bishop co-operated in the founding of the only Hungarian monastic order, that of the Pauline monks. Before the Turkish occupation in the city three mendicant orders were already resident: the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Carmelites. In the 14th century in Pécs the first Hungarian university was founded. Among the bishops of the subsequent centuries there are great humanists, especially Janus Pannonius, and patrons of the arts and sciences as Szatmäri György and György Klimo. The latter established in the 18th century in Pécs a public library and founded a print shop and a planetarium. Others were diplomats and politicians, two died on the battlefield: Henrik of Alben in 1444 near Várna and Móré Fülöp 1526 near Mohács.

The defeat of Mohacs opened a 150-year Ottoman rule in Hungary. During that time no bishop visited the city, even priests were expelled, deported or murdered. The life of faith was ensured by lay pastors, the so-called licentiates. This was the peak of the lay apostolate - one is mocking nowadays - in the thousand-year history of the Hungarian Christianity.

 

Is Christianity in Hungary on the Way into Marginality

After the Ottoman rule, there was only one working church in Pecs; also in the countryside most churches were destroyed, converted into mosques or taken over by the Protestants. The rule of the Habsburgs and with it the Counter-Reformation resulted in a strengthening of the Catholic Church. At the end of the 19th Century the cathedral was completely rebuilt and got its present magnificent form with the four towers. At the beginning of the 20th Century Bishop Zichy succeeded in moving the University of Pozsony (Bratislava) again to Pécs.

 


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During World War II Bishop Virág supported the cause of the persecuted Jews and initiated an anti-fascist movement. In the difficult period of socialism József Cserháti had to lead the shrunk diocese - the southern part was added to the Croatian diocese Djakovo. He was a cunning diplomat, who consorted with the Communist authorities without being submissive to them, at the same time he was a proponent and protagonist of prudent conciliar renewal. Mihály Mayer, his still acting successor was appointed shortly before the turnaround.

Thousand years - a "long, impressive historical epoch in which alternated good and bad, productive and difficult times", as the papal legate at the Millennium celebrations, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna said in his homily. What was to be celebrated was Christ's faithfulness of Christ, who had promised to stay with us every day until the end of the world. However, Christ's loyalty could not stop us from asking what the Diocese of Pecs, what Hungary had made of their baptism, he added by alluding to the phrase of John Paul II on the occasion of his pastoral visit to France in 1980. "What has become of the Christian Hungary, what has become of Europe? Have they not long since gone away from their Christian roots? Isn't Hungary, as well as entire Europe the victim of post-communist and post-capitalist secularization, which hardly leaves something of the idea of a Christian Europe? Isn't Christianity in Hungary and in Europe well on the way towards marginality?"

About 60 per cent of the Hungarian population belongs to the Catholic, 18 per cent to the Reformed and about three per cent of Protestant-Lutheran denomination. The majority of them state that they also belong to the respective church, which has in Hungary no immediate consequences, e.g. in the way of church tax. For it is paid in two ways: firstly, every taxpayer can allot one per cent of her/his personal income tax to a church or religious community (a kind of tax on culture); in addition, every parish can assign an annual amount for the faithful living on its territory.

The first possibility is foreseen in the agreement with the Vatican and was later extended to other religious communities, but it is anonymous. The churches can therefore not ascertain who has remitted this tax to them, and who not. In fact, only about 15 per cent of taxpayers make use of this facility, but the state virtually compensates for the entire shortfall, which calls the sense of the whole system into question. The second option is not universally adopted and provides especially the parish priest with an instrument: he may refuse sacramental acts (baptism, marriage, funeral), if his sheep are in arrears with the second church tax. The majority of those who confess to belong to a church are religious "in their own way", about one quarter "according to the teachings of the Church", but even of those only half of them regularly attend church services.

 

Reasons for the Church's Loss of Credibility

These figures are similar to those in many European countries and can support the marginality thesis of the Vienna Cardinal also for Hungary. According to a representative survey carried out last year (Márta Korpics/János Wildmann, Vallások és egyházak az egyesült Európában. Magyarország / Religions and Churches in a Common Europe, Ncs 2009) more than one third of the Hungarians fully and another quarter partly assent to the statement that their country and Europe are in a crisis of faith. Fewer people, especially those who are not religious may recognize a crisis of the church.

 


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A list of possible causes was presented to those respondents who had affirmed the crisis of the church. In the entire test - as with Cardinal Schönborn - the secular way of life, which is not specified in detail, comes first, closely followed by the churches' loss of credibility, of which the papal legate did not speak in Pécs. The gulf between priests and laity, boring ceremonies or an uncertain doctrine seem here to be only subordinate issues.

However, the picture is more differentiated, if we consider the church membership. For church members the secularization remains the main cause for the church crisis, the church's loss of credibility comes by far second. For non-church members the very reverse is true. The differences are even more drastic regarding the categories of religiosity: only 15 per cent of the respondents who are religious in the ecclesiastical sense blame also the boring ceremonies for the alleged church crisis, whereas the proportion of the non-religious is almost four times as large; only a good quarters of the church-religious blame the loss of credibility for the supposed church crisis, but more than three quarters of the non-religious.

 


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In another section of the investigation you could read that the scandals affecting priests do most damage to the credibility of the church. The church's teaching on sexuality, outdated preaching or certain papal statements were far less mentioned as harmful to the church. This ranking applies to both church members and non-church members, religious and non-religious people, whereas the non-church members and non-religious usually take more offense at the unnecessary church baggage than those that are close to the church.

It is, of course, difficult to say whether those who are not on close terms with the church only criticize her, or whether they have gone away from her, because they have taken offense at her. Bishops and priests in Hungary often emphasize only the former. Endre Gyulay, the former Bishop of Szeged said in an interview, "The church has always been scolded. Today, too, people scold her, because she is preaches a world that differs from what the human instincts demand and from what is pleasant for man."

In truth, however, the Hungarian society can hardly be regarded as anticlerical. Only one fifth of the respondents fully agreed to negative statements on the churches, such as: "they are primarily looking for their own benefit," "attach great importance to pomp and outward appearance," are "unworldly" or "antiquated". Half of the respondents categorically rejected such statements. The churches' communication was more criticized, because they rather instruct society than going to start a dialogue with it; but a slight majority was at least partially convinced that the churches do more or less reach people. With these issues, too, there are of course obvious differences in the assessments of church members and non-church members, church-religious and non-religious.

 

The Church in Society

Positive statements obtain more approval. That the churches play an important role in society is completely affirmed by more than fifty per cent of the respondents and by another thirty per cent partially. Even one third of non-church members agree completely to this statement and another third part partially. Even more recognition is given to the churches when real positive "functions" are mentioned. For example, three quarters of the interviewees take the view that the churches provide spiritual support for many people or teach them the love of God and one's neighbour.

Anyway, a further fifth partially affirms these statements. The majority sees the churches at least partly as advocates of the poor and oppressed and is even convinced that they teach people the truth. Only those who are far away from the church and not at all religious form a quite different opinion on the church as a communicator of truth. Above-average performances of church institutions such as schools, social and medical facilities are - as far as they are known at all - widely acknowledged.

The Hungarian society was not a hostile but a "living and breathing" one, as a theologian put it in the interview. She was "neither friend nor enemy but is very close to us and certainly not far away. She is close to us in the way that she has retained the ability to listen to a well-formulated word, and to lend her ears and to listen to a particularly strong language, not to an aggressive word but to one that makes itself heard with the power of the spirit, and that is not necessarily a fiery speech; it can also be a prudent speaking. At the same time, of course, in many members' hearts or in one half of their souls the possibility arises that they resist to it or think differently, or that their attention simply wears off, as often as our conditions make a different relationship to news possible at all."

Until a year ago in the media the themes of the socialist past, the church finance and the relationship of the churches to politics were constantly on the agenda. But the financial and economic crisis pushed them into the background. Two years ago, on the Internet a list was published with the names of those who were supposed to have been informers of the Communist secret service. Among them were several bishops, Mihály Mayer, the Bishop of Pécs, too. They firmly denied, but most of them did not allow an official investigation.

 

Public Funding of Ecclesiastical Institutions

The Hungarian Bishops' Conference consequently appointed a commission under the leadership of the Benedictine Asztrik Várszegi, Abbot of Pannonhalma, which was to come to terms with the socialist past of the Catholic Church. With the active assistance of Várszegi two directors dealt with the issue and shoot a film the shortened version of which was shown in a cinema and later on television. In it many bishops and priests have been exposed as informers of the former communist rulers. The heads of the Papal Hungarian Institute in Rome were without exception informants of the Hungarian secret service. The movie remains silent about the last director of the Institute, Archbishop Csaba Ternyák, who took this office before the turnaround, became later secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, and recently Archbishop of Eger (Northern Hungary).

 


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Church funding is another topic that was often addressed up until a year ago in the media. In addition to the above-mentioned two forms of church tax it entails above all the public funding of church institutions. According to the agreement with the Vatican, the Hungarian government is obligated to fund the Catholic institutions in the field of education, social welfare and health care just like the public ones. Similar regulations also apply to other churches and religious communities.

 

The Next Issue has Already Become Clear

Under any government the public funding of their institutions was for the churches of the highest priority, and the extent of their satisfaction an indicator for the relationship between church and state. Conservative governments were more generous than socialist-liberal ones, which here and there even tried to deny the churches this or that support. The next issue has already become clear: in the budget for next year the funding of religious education is no longer planned; in the period of economic crisis it probably fell victim to the strict policy of savings of the Bajnai government. However, this issue is not regulated in the agreement with the Vatican. Precisely for this reason, after the signing of the agreement, the Horn government has no longer granted the church these funds, but the cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán reintroduced them.

According to the results of our survey the majority of the Hungarian population agrees to the state funding of churches. However, it is not clear whether this approval only applies to the abovementioned funding of church institutions [Aufgabenfinanzierung] or whether the State's supplementing the church tax is included. The majority of non-church members and non-religious massively reject the Church funding, but they are all in all in the minority. The respondents were more critical when it was about the relationship between church and politics.

Half of the respondents were at least partially of the opinion that the church wanted to benefit from any political constellation. Surprisingly, fewer people thought that politics conversely instrumentalized the churches and if so, then it would be done rather by right-wing governments than by socialist-liberal ones. This result is all the more remarkable since the latter have been completely discredited in the vast majority of society by the so-called "lie speech" of socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. Even church members saw attempts of instrumentalization rather from the right-wing than from the left-wing liberal side.

Only the group of devote religious church members was more critical of the socialist-liberal government than of the political right-wingers. This indicates a strong link between religiosity and political sympathy among devote church members (similar to people on the lowest level of education).

The last sentence also suggests a further problem of the Hungarian Catholic Church: the lack of theological and social education of clergy and laity. It is perhaps understandable - but by no means satisfactory - that sixty per cent of the Christians are not informed of the Second Vatican Council. After all they are not necessarily churchgoers, but even trend-setting theological concepts are misunderstood, if not even abused by the clergy.

The above quoted theologian mentions as an example the concept of the wandering people of God, which is time and again used because of its euphony. "But a church returning time and again to her historical paragons gets by her self-definition into a maelstrom that proves to be exemplarily opposed to the uncertainties of wandering, to its going ahead, to the wide horizon, to the willingness to meet the unknown, and to the fundamental drive to be open for otherness that marks without any doubt those who are treading unknown paths."

 

Stuck in the Catholicism of the early 20th Century

It is not surprising that, according to the results of the survey people expect more benefit for the churches from the Pope's travels and from a strong, authoritarian church leadership than from the possible involvement of the laity, even of women in the life of the church, to say nothing of the spiritual movements. It goes without saying that both the pope's travels and the strong church leadership are most wanted by Catholics. According to the famous Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller the Hungarian Catholicism got "stuck incredibly deep in the 19th century. The Hungarian bishops, the Hungarian hierarchy is bogged down in the Catholicism of the early 20th century. That means, she has not undergone what the Catholic Church in most countries has experienced. She is retarded. Well, one can explain it with communism, under which every church was frozen as Sleeping Beauty. They are awakened from their 50-year sleep and have carried on where they have stopped, because they have learned nothing new during those 50 years. "

 


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What was probably intended by Cardinal Schönborn when he on the occasion of the millennium celebrations spoke about the fact that the Church of Hungary came out weak, humiliated, ridiculed, impoverished, insecure and tired from the turnabout in 1989? Did he only think of the former afflictions from outside, as e.g. by the Communist authorities or by the challenges of the modern world? Or did he also think of the home-made problems, which undermine the Church's credibility not least in Pecs? Did he only lead the solemn Eucharistic celebration, or had he got a special mission? The Christians in Pécs have hardly expected from him impulses to theology's and the Church's inner renewal, especially since they are probably less open-minded in such matters than the papal legate.

But many people had hoped that he, with the backing of the Pope, would bring up the obvious shortcomings in the millennial Hungarian diocese, if not publicly then at least to the diocesan leadership and the assembled bishops, and that he perhaps even presented fair proposals for their solution. For in recent years incidents came to light that did enormous harm to the church. The list of alleged offenses is ranging from suspect business dealings over withholding of wages, abuse of power and sexual harassment up to the forgery of documents in the diocesan leadership. Even the police have recently repeatedly intervened, but the investigation was terminated for unknown reasons.

Two or three years ago hundreds of parents and teachers protested in front of the Bishop's Palace because of the dismissal of the Director of the Diocesan School named after St. Mór; she had called the serious shortcomings of the diocesan leadership by their right name. Others sent letters to Rome, but nothing happened apart from the fact that the then secretary of the Congregation for the Clergy, Archbishop Ternyák quickly informed the diocesan leadership about the complaints submitted and about their authors. "Everything is swept under the carpet," a high ecclesiastical representatives confidentially said during the Millennium celebrations. But just this the faithful in Pécs do not want to believe.

 

    {*} János Wildman (born in 1954), economist and doctor of theologian works at the University of Pécs (South Hungary) Chair of Sociology of Religion,) editor in chief of the pastoral theological journal Egyházfórum (Church Forum).

 

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