From Stella Musulin in Vienna
WHAT is the situation among non Catholic Christians in 1-::astern Europe today? In recent months, Communist countries have stepped up their propaganda on religious matters. As a result. many people in the West are inclined to believe what they hear and read: that the churches now enjoy far more freedom than they did even a year ago. that the rights of Christians are fully guaranteed, that the faithful enjoy full liberty of worship.
Although the situation varies very much from one country to another, it is true that the worst severities of religious persecution have, on the whole. slackened otT, though for reasons which have more to do with international politics and economic necessity than with moral
justice. . Hungary, Rumania. Czechoslovakia: these are countries which are now making every effort to extract themselves from their isolated position.
They need world markets. they need tourists to bring in hard currencies. The reproach of religious persecution • is a disadvantage to them. So religion is, in thcory, permitted as a private concern. But' how does it work out in practice?
Where religious education is
concerned. Protestants a n d Catholics are in much the same position. Religion may be taught in schools to all children whose parents specifically request it.
During this school year in Budapest, however, it seems that religion has not been taught in schools at all because there were insufficient applicants. in other words, the parents were too intimidated to ask for it, knowing as they do from biller experi ence that they themselves will be discriminated against at their places of work.
The general position in smaller towns and in country districts is comparable, though less acute than in the capital. But whereas the Catholic Church has the status of its majority position in the population, Protestants are more isolated.
For some years past, leadership of the Protestant churches has been in the hands of men who, like the Catholic peace priests. have put themselves entirely at the disposal of the Communist government: they work for the party either from self-interest or for other reasons which may be less descreditable.
The result is that relations between the Protestant bishops and the State authorities arc excellent. but the same cannot be said of the bishops and their parish clergy. The resistance of a great number of ministers to Communist influence in church affairs has led to tension between these men and their superiors.
The latter usually side with officialdom against their subordinates, and rebellious clergy are subjected to severe discipline. It is by no means a rare thing for a minister to' be reported to the civic authority by his own bishop and accused of activity injurious to the State.
Bishop Kaldy and Bishop Bartha are particularly feared on this account. Quite recently a theology student who had been speaking out in favour of a revival of foreign missions fled the country because Bishop Kaldy had denounced him to the State Church Office for sedition.
The Synod of the Calvinist Church in Hungary. which is completely under Communist influence, is reported to have. decided to dissolve the Church Convention which is the one and only guarantor of the Calvinist Church's autonomy. Up to now the Convention has maintained a tradition of freedom of worship and the Church's right to manage its own internal allairs.
If the Convention is dissolved, a decisive step will have been taken towards centralisation of h e Church's organisation, which will then come fully under the control of the State Church Office. Many pastors say that this decision is the beginning of the end, and they foresee total destruction of the foundations of their Church; this in spite of the fact that for years the Convention has been presided over by pro-Communists.
Freedom of religious practice is laid down in the constitution of the country, but ministers who resist Communist influence and insist on freedom to carry out their pastoral duties are in a very difficult position. Many cases are known of ministers being placed by their bishop on the list of "unreliables", and the consequences for a married man with children can he very
He will be placed on a salary scale somewhere between 250 and 500 forints a month. which is hardly a third of the minimum living wage. The rest of the money he needs to live on will have to be earned at such unskilled work as he can find.
In effect, every minister has to listen to the voice of his own conscience and try to find a compromise between faith and duty on the one hand, and harsh necessity on the other.
The Protestant laity and a large proportion of the junior ministry in Communist countries have been thrown back on their own resources. And this predicament has been accentuated by those weft-meaning but naive members of the Christian organisations in the West who take part in Christian congresses and rallies in Communist countries without studying the real position of the senior clergy with whom they will come into contact.
But in periods of uncertainty and failing authority, history has shown that the laity has a way of finding an answer. Protestant communities in Eastern Europe arc slowly building up an independent religious life, owing nothing to any central direction.
In fact it is not too much to say that a Quietist movement is gaining ground in these countries, and • that it is powerful enough to he a source of great anxiety to the bishops. it is certainly the main internal problem facing the non-Catholic Churches in Eastern Europe
today. Conventicles, groups of the
faithful, are coming together street by street and in country villages. They meet for worship, but their intention goes further than this. What they hope to do is nothing less than to preserve the whole deposit and practice of their Christian faith as it was handed down to them from their fathers. It is a battle on two fronts: against the Communist State, and against their own Church authority.
To indulge, after our ample Sunday lunch, in a wave of righteous indignation at the expense of the Protestant bishops and senior clergy. would be out of place. Where martyrdom and resistance to persecution and political pressure are concerned, the Catholic Church has no monopoly.
And the shame which we feel about the innumerable Catholic priests who belong to the peace priest movement is bound to outweigh any criticism of leading Protestant clergy in their predicament. All are Christians, and all of them are in an agonising situation.
How many of us can imagine what it means to live for years under Communist dictatorship? And without hope of freedom in our lifetime? For a Catholic, the issues are plainer to see: Holy Church is visible, united for all its variety, and in this unity lies is strength.
In several Communist countries there are Catholic bishops — even one or two archbishops
— whose will and resistance are broken, and they are now little more than Communist puppets. By contrast, Hungary has its M indszenty, Poland its Wyschinsky, Yugoslavia had its Stepinac. But the autonomous structure of the Protestant Churches has placed an even greater personal responsibility on its leading men.
Faults of character and of judgment are evidently present in some cases, but an explanation of the conflict between senior clergy and the parish ministry must be sought elsewhere. Perhaps with the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church in mind, the Protestant leaders have felt that a pronounced degree of collaboration with the State is essential to the survival of the life of the Church.
But insofar as they have actively collaborated they have reduced themselves — as Catholics who arc similarly minded have reduced themselves
— to the status of minor government officials. The saving grace —and the term is not used lightly—of Protestant Christians under Communism will lie in that profound sense of the priesthood of the laity which has lent such strength and dignity to Protestant communities ever since their inception.