Page 5, 6th October 1989

6th October 1989
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Page 5, 6th October 1989 — Time to choose for Hungary's Church
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Time to choose for Hungary's Church

John Eibner continues our series on glasnost and the churches of eastern Europe with a look at Hungary

THROUGHOUT the Soviet bloc communism is facing a crisis of survival; perhaps nowhere more so than in Hungary. The totalitarian Marxist-Leninist system imposed on the country after the second World War is crumbling at a breath-taking rate. The profound changes taking place there amount to no less than a bloodless revolution.

This process is providing the Hungarian Catholic Church with broad de facto freedom, which it is taking advantage of for the purposes of renewal.

For some years the leadership of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers Party (HSWP) has recognised the failure of communism to deliver the goods anticipated by the Marxist utopians of the 1940s and 1950s. The late party leader Janos Kadar, tried to make the system work by implementing reforms. He succeeded up to a point. Having brutally consolidated power following the suppression of the 1956 uprising, Kadar gradually scaled down the intensity of the class struggle, and in the late 1960s he departed from orthodox communist economic theory by tinkering with market forces.

By the 1970s Hungary had become the show-case of the Soviet bloc. But it was full of counterfeit items bought at the price of massive western credits that the country's stagnating economy could not repay without radical measures. Those who are currently ascendent within the post-Kadar collective leadership — Rezso Nyers, Imre Pozsgay and Miklos Nemeth — are aware that nothing short of the abandonment of MarxismLeninism and the establishment of a market economy, the rule of law and representative government can avert economic ruin and the social chaos that inevitably follows.

Among the glittering counterfeits of the Kadar regime was its church policy, lauded from time to time in the V. cst for its lack of crude violence.

During the Kadar era Churchstate relations come to be characterised by what both sides called an 'alliance". Its most basic principle was that in return for political loyalty the Church would gradually be allowed to expand its severely restricted field of activity.

The late Primate, Cardinal Laszlo Lekai, proved to be a faithful alliance partner of the communist authorities. Cardinal Lekai's episcopal ,colleague, Bishop Jozsef Cserhati of Pecs, observed at the time of the Primate's death that the cardinal "always supported the social and political requirements of the Hungarian socialist government". In return the Church received such concessions as permission to establish a new order of nuns, to operate a lay pastors programme, to increase the size

of religious instruction classes and to run a correspondence course in theology for the laity. In Cardinal Lekai's view this alliance held out hope that the Church would eventually be able to recover enough of an institutional base for it to be able to halt the sharp decline in the number of practising Catholics.

Meanwhile the HSWP continued to pursue policies designed to lessen the influence of the Church amongst the masses and to push the so-called "clerical reaction" — ie, nonconforming churchmen — to the margins of society. By•the end of the Kadar era only about 15 per cent of Hungary's six million baptised Catholics attended Church with any degree of regularity or admitted to accepting the teachings of the Church.

The alliance was a tactical pact rather than a genuine covenant between two equal parties with common objectives. It therefore quickly collapsed afterit became apparent that the Kadar system was rapidly unravelling. But the HSWP is eager to establish a new alliance — one with much better terms for the Church. The Party's fear is that without a new deal it may find the Church giving spiritual strength to the political opposition, as was the case in Poland for the past ten years.

Last summer the HSWP formally signalled its intent to pursue a new church policy. On July 28 the Central Committee renounced "militant atheism" and took the longstanding policies of "struggle against religion and clerical reaction" off the agenda. Furthermore it called on the government to respect church autonomy and to invalidate the bureaucratic rules and regulations restricting its sphere of legal activity. The Central Committee also decided to allow the faithful to become party members, though it stopped well short of renounciag atheism as a fundamental tenet of its ideology.

The more tolerant attitude of the HSWP towards the Church was also reflected in its decision to dismantle its own and the state's apparatus for controlling church life. The "religion section" of the party's Agitation and Propaganda Department, where the main lines of its church policy were devised, has been disbanded, and the Department's hardline chief, Janos Berecz .once the heir apparent of Kadar — has been sacked.

The State Office for Church Affairs (SOCA), which (since its establishment in 1951), was the state's main instrument for supervising the churches and acted as their legal representative was also dissolved. At the end of last year the Hungarian Parliament passed a law permitting the establishment of independent associations, which has resulted in the formation of all sorts of religious groups, including Catholic political parties. While the authorities are willing to end most of the old restrictions on church activity, they have stopped short of implementing the principle of separation of Church and state enshrined in the Hungarian Constitution.

Despite the promise of the PrimeMinister, Miklos Nemeth, that the notorious SOCA would be dissolved "without a successor", three apparatuses — one old and two new have been designated to share competance for the government's church policy.

The Ministry of Culture had inherited broad "administrative tasks" from the SOCA. The newly appointed Minister of Culture, Professor Fereno Glatz — a distinguished historian and severe critic of the SOCA's abuse of power — enjoys the right to grant and withdraw legal recognition from churches, to sanction the establishment of religious foundations and to dispense financial subsidies to the churches. The latter gives the minister great powers of patronage. Glatz, who seeks his inspiration from pre-war Hungarian tradition rather than Marxist dogma, is now trying to resurrect an old Hungarian practice: the appointment of church representatives to work in the Ministry's Department of Religious Affairs.

The government has also decreed the establishment of the National Religious Affairs Council. This body is empowered to advise the government on all important matters of church policy. The council was established in part to serve as a public political forum for church leaders who will no longer have seats in Parliament reserved for them — on of the perks of the old alliance — after next spring's general election. The Council's Chairman is the Prime Minister, but the real executive director is its Secretary, Barna Sarkadi Nagy, who for five years worked as Deputy Chairman of the SOCA.

Sarkadi Nagy has also been appointed to head the government's new Secretariat for Religious Affairs which has been given the vaguely defined task of "coordinating" churchstate and inter-church relations. If nothing else, this new institutional arrangement will mean there are now several competing bodies with competence for religious affairs, which may help to check the sort of abuses committed by the SOCA. The question now facing the Hungarian Bishops' Conference is whether to accept the government's overtures for a new alliance or press for a complete separation of Church and state. Catholic opinion in Hungary is divided. One body of Catholics, made up largely of basis community activists and political liberals, believe that engagement with the new government institutions will inevitably lead to growing state interference in church matters. Why should the state, they ask, have special organs to deal with the Church, when associations and political parties are left without special supervision?

The bishops, however, are more open to the government's proposals. Their main aim now is to bring about the restoration of widespread religious instruction in state schools, reopening of nationalised church schools and the reestablishment of dissolved religious orders, in other words, to re-establish a viable institutional base for the Church. But for this the impoverished Hungarian Church requires the goodwill and financial resources of the state. The government may well be making an offer that the hierarchs will find hard to resist. John Eibner is a researcher at Keston College which monitors religion in communist lands.




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