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Uneasy Catholic Church-State Relations in Slovenia

Marjan Smrke

In Slovenia in the 1960s and early 1970s, changes wrought by the Roman Catholic Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and changes in the attitude of the Communist Party towards religion led to noticeable improvements in church-state relations. With Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church finally implicitly recognized separation of state and church, which intern contributed to a détente in relations between proponents of religious and secular ideologies. It is difficult to imagine the 1 March 1971 meeting between Pope Paul VI and Yugoslav President Josef Broz Tito taking place if corresponding ideological changes had not previously occurred within both the Roman Catholic Church and the Marxist regime of Yugoslavia.

Changing Demographics: Changing Faith

Parallel to church-state ideological shifts were substantive demographic shifts in Catholic adherence in Slovenia. Ninety-seven percent of Slovenes considered themselves Catholics in 1931, and 82.8percent defined themselves as Catholics in the 1953census. But while 71.6 percent of Slovenes still defined themselves as Catholics in 1991, that figure had fallen to 57.8 percent by the 2002 census. In urban settlements the share of Catholics has now fallen tobelow half (46.9 percent). The public opinion survey Slovensko javno mnenje, which has a tradition dating back 40 years and has included religious variables since it was founded in 1968, allows us to make reliable estimate of the situation as regards the deeper dimensions of beliefs. Today only a minority of Slovenia’s self-professed Catholics are devout in the manner prescribed by their church. Belief in arrange of fundamental Christian dogmas (a personal God, the resurrection, hell, heaven, life after death)is professed by only around a third of nominal Catholics in Slovenia. The majority of this also express disagreement with a range of behavioral norms imposed on them by the church, such as the ban on contraception, pre-marital sex, and abortion. According to Niko Toš, such traditional believers account for just18.7 percent of Slovenes,1 while Sergej Flere and RudiKlanjšek claim that the faith of Slovene Catholics is a heightened version of the wider European phenomenon of “belonging, not believing.”2

New Religious Communities

Parallel with the fall in the share of self-professed Catholics, there has been a growth in recent decades in the number of new religious communities in Slovenia. Before the Second World War these could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In the 1970s Slovenia was home to nine religious communities, whereas at the end of the 1980s the number was around 15. Today, the government’s Office for Religious Communities lists43 different religious communities.3 There are also a few dozen groups which are not registered as “religious communities,” but which by sociological criteria are at least partially religious phenomena.4 Although as rule newer religious bodies are small, their very existence is making an important contribution to the growing awareness of religion as a choice. Various New Age phenomena have been embraced by aconsiderable number of nominal Catholics, including various opinion leaders and other influential figures.

Here we need only mention Dr. Jane Drnovšek, the former president of Slovenia who died in 2008. In the last years of his life President Drnovšek wrote a number of best-selling books that were New Age inspirit.5 Unlike the centuries-old tradition of Catholic monopoly, which was interrupted only by the culturally fruitful but violently suppressed period of the Lutheran Reformation, Slovenes today live in conditions which are relatively pluralistic in terms of religion. Harangues along the lines of “one nation – one religion – one church,” which are still, or again, to be heard from the mouths of certain Roman Catholic speakers, are in this light not only unconvincing but a sign of ignorance of the age in which we live.

Changing Church and State Attitudes

In 1979 theologian Franc Rode of the faculty of theology in Ljubljana reflected on state confiscation of church lands in 1945:Before the war our Church was too rich. The parish priest was often also a man of note in the economic sense, monasteries were generally too rich, and bishops spent their holidays in castles. The Church had property which was not necessary for the fulfillment of its mission; property deriving from the feudal era. It should have renounced its possessions itself and given them to the poor. But how many times has this happened in the history of the Church? Not very often. And so God intervenes in order to unburden and purify His Church. Those who carried out this operation were certainly not thinking about the purification of the Church, but even so they were a tool in God’s hands and unwittingly carried out His divine plan. And so we became poorer and perhaps less proud.6

Contemporary changes on the secular side were evident in the abandonment of the dogmatic and restrictive attitude of the League of Communists towards religion. The early 1980s saw the abandonment of the view that a Communist party member must not be religious, and subsequently the return of religious holidays (Christmas) to public life. The change in attitude towards religious holidays, particularly Christmas, was debated by Slovenia’s Communists in 1985. In 1986 the president of the Socialist League of Working People (SZDL – its Slovenian acronym), gave a public Christmas greeting, and the archbishop of Ljubljana gave a Christmas radiobroadcast, provoking a great variety of reactions.

The Fall of Socialism and the Revival of Catholic Triumphalism

Nevertheless, the fall of the Communists was understood by the Slovenian Catholic Church as a great historical victory and as an opportunity to return to the advantages of former times. After 1991 a rise in a pre-Vatican II Council spirit could be noted. The triumphant, militant, and immutable Church(ecclesiae triumphans, ecclesiae militans, ecclesiale semper eadem) reappeared, as Croatian sociologist Srđan Vrcan observed.7 Particularly during the archiepiscopate of Dr. Franc Rode (1997–2004), a number of demands were expressed under the banner of re-evangelization which could be understood as tendency towards a reconstituted Catholic hegemony.

The view of the past changed radically in many ways. That which in the 1970s was interpreted as God’s will (as can be seen from the above quotation about the secularization of church estates), now became an expression of intolerable Communist violence, the consequences of which needed to be eliminated without delay. The ownership of 32,000 hectares of land, including a considerable part of today’s Triglav National Park, is no longer a sign of pride which the Church should have rid itself of long ago, but something sacred which must be returned as soon as possible.

Since the fall of Communism there have been strongly expressed calls for a revision of the history of the Second World War, when part of the Roman Catholic Church compromised itself by collaborating with Italian and German occupying forces.8 One of Slovenian Catholicism’s most compromising acts waste oath of the domobranci – quisling military groups supported by and partly organized by the Church. It took place on Hitler’s birthday, 30 April 1944, at Ljubljana’s central stadium in the presence of the German army of occupation.

The expression of such views immediately met with a negative response from public opinion. Religious statistics, in which we note the greatest change in the 1990s, show a fall in trust in the Church and the clergy, an expression of dissatisfaction with the Church’s excessive role in society, and a rejection of Church interference in the political decisions of citizens. Between 1991 and 1998 the share of Slovenes who had total or considerable trust in the Catholic Church and its clergy fell from 36.9 percent to 11.2 percent.

The Re-ordering of Church-State Relations:1992-2004

The re-ordering of relations between church and state in Slovenia’s early post-Communist transition can be divided into two periods: 1) the period from1992 to 2004, which is defined above all by the government of the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia(LDS) and its coalitions, and 2) the period beginning in 2004 with the electoral victory of the Slovenia Democratic Party (SDS), which formed a right-wing(or center-right) coalition.

For the most part the LDS advocated consistently for the separation of church and state as required by Article 7 of the Constitution of the Republic ofSlovenia.9 The LDS government did away with various restrictions on church activities, while on the other hand it did not undermine the principle of the separation of church and state. In this stance it could rely on public opinion, which showed resistance tore-Catholicizing tendencies. Slovenia did not follow the route of most post-socialist countries, which in the name of eliminating its Communist past, introduced hasty reforms that, in many ways restored conditions of a semi-state church. Still, the expectations and demands of the Slovenian Catholic Church were greater. It appealed to the examples of not yet fullyde-confessionalized states such as Germany and Austria. It is probable that the constant complaints and demands of some of the more pro-church parties caused the various governments led by the LDS to adopt a number of compromise decisions. Here we can include the Vatican Treaty between the Republic of Slovenia and the Holy See which has caused considerable uneasiness. The Constitutional Court reviewed its constitutionality and in 2003 decided that it is not contrary to the constitution, in so far as it is understood that the Catholic Church will respect the laws of the Republic of Slovenia.

Religious Instruction in Schools

One of the most controversial church-state issues was, and is, education. While the Catholic Church wished to enter the public school system with confessional religious instruction, the LDS governing coalition succeeded in passing legislation which defends the autonomy and ideological neutrality of the public school system. Article 72 of the relevant1996 Act prohibits confessional religious instruction in public schools.10

Confessional instruction remains an unfulfilled Catholic Church ambition and a source of anger.11 Archbishop Rode threatened, “We shall destroy this school by democratic means as soon as this is possible!”12 Even in more recent political circumstances, however, confessional instruction in public schools does not appear to be a realistic goal. First and foremost, a Constitutional Court decision in 2002 confirmed the constitutionality of the ban on confession-based activity in public schools. Furthermore, the greater part of the public opposes religious instruction. In public opinion surveys the notion of “religious education in schools” has proved to be very unpopular. In 2003 it was rated “positive “or “very positive” by just 20.4 percent of Slovenes.13

Property Restitution

A second controversial area concerns the return of property to the Roman Catholic Church. In November 1991 (before the LDS came to power), the Denationalization Act was rapidly adopted. This Act regulated the restitution of property nationalized during the socialist period. Property of feudal origin was excluded from denationalization. Was this supposed to mean that the Catholic Church was not entitled to 32,000 hectares of forest and land? After numerous discussions, most of which centered on the suspicious manner in which the Catholic Church came by this property immediately before the Second World War, and following a moratorium of several years on the restitution of property, the Constitutional Court decided, through the Act amending the Denationalization Act (1998), that the Church was entitled, as an “institution serving the public good, “to the disputed estates, even if these were of feudal origin. When delays then occurred in the restitution of property, the Church, like the most conscientious capitalist, claimed compensation for lost income. In the meantime it has succeeded in establishing itself as an important economic player. In banking, the timber industry, catering, and the media, it is strengthening its presence and doing business with everyone – even with five pornographic television channels.Many Slovenes have been greatly disappointed by such Catholic actions and positions during the transition period. Take, for example, the experience of Slovene philosopher Alana Goljevšček, who at the end of the previous regime was, along with her husband, initially enthusiastic about the Catholic Church, and then distanced herself from it: “After a painful period of searching we turned to Christianity and the Catholic Church. Because we didn’t know any better – we are both from liberal families – we believed its words about love, forgiveness, humility, and so on. With enthusiasm and great inner joy we surrendered ourselves to the message of the Gospels. But after 1990 the Catholic Church in Slovenia pushed us away, changed the record and turned into a greedy dictator, and we ran away from it as fast as our legs would carry us – would that we had never entered such a church!”14

The Re-ordering of Church-State Relations:2004-

The second period (2004-) is defined by the government of the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS).As regards church-state relations, especially noteworthy has been the adoption of a new law, the Religious Freedom Act, in 2007, but with a parliamentary majority of only a single vote (46/90).The new Act begins by expressing the principle of the neutrality of the state in religious matters(Article 4), but in the same breath, the state defines religious communities as organizations serving the public good (Article 5). From this derive numerous forms of state funding of religious activities, including church involvement in prisons, police, the army, and hospitals. This is supposed to be in accordance with the “friendly separation” of church and state. Owing to the historical differences in size among churches, state funding mainly benefits the Catholic Church. It is mainly Catholic priests for whom the state pays social and health insurance and who now appear in the role of state functionaries in numerous situations. In 2007,in addition, 69.5 percent of Ministry of Culture funds intended for “real estate of cultural heritage” went tithe Roman Catholic Church.

Conditions defined by the new Act for the registration of religious communities are more restrictive than criteria set out by the old “socialist” law (1976). Religious community which wishes to register itself must have been operating in Slovenia for at least ten years and must have at least 100 members. It has been established that more than half of the currently registered religious communities would not have met these conditions at the time they were registered. Ironically, not even Jesus Christ would have been able to register under these criteria, if we consider that he was active for a total of three years and had just 12 disciples.

In short, the impression is that the adopted Act has put into effect a regulated religious market in which the former Catholic monopoly has managed to reassert certain privileges and benefits. As of December 2008the Constitutional Court has not yet rendered a decision on the conformity of the Act with the Constitution.


The fall of Communist, single-party rule in Slovenia in 1989 meant an opportunity for a regulation of relations between the state and churches that would give privileges to no one and discriminate against no one. In the 1990s Slovenia successfully did away with restrictions placed on religions by the previous regime without favoring the Roman Catholic Church over other confessions. Since 2004, however, and in particular with the Act adopted in 2007, the equality of religions, the equality of religious and non-religious citizens, and the separation of church and state have been compromised since the Roman Catholic Church is rapidly making inroads into state institutions. However, in the wake of the September 2008 elections and the confirmation of Borut Pahor, president of the Social Democratic Party, as prime minister (at the head of four-party coalition government), there may be some efforts to assure greater neutrality in church-state relations in Slovenia. F


1 Niko Toš, “(Ne)religioznost Slovencev v primerjavi z drugimi srednje in vzhodnoevropskimi narodi” in Niko Toš, ed., Pobede o cerkir in religiji na Slovenskem v 90-ih (Ljubljana: Fakulteta za družbene vede, IDVCJMMK, 1999), 72.

2 Sergej Flere and Rudi Klanjšek, “Ali je vottost značilnost vernosti na Slovenskem?,” Družboslovne razprove 23 (no, 56, 2007), 7-20.

3 See the website of the Office for Religious Communities: http://www.uvs.gov.si/en/religious_ communities/.

4 A. Črnič and Gregor Lesjak, “Religious Freedom and Control in Independent Slovenia,” Sociology of Religion 64 (no. 3, 2003), 349-66. 5 A. Črnič, “Predsednik za novo dobo: religiološka  analiza Drnovškovega obrata,” Družboslovne razprave 23 (no. 56, 2007), 21-37.

6 Franc Rode, “Through Christianity in Slovenia: Today and Tomorrow,” Lecture at the Theological Faculty of Ljubljana, 1979.

7 Sratjan Vrcan, Vjera u vrtlozima tranzicije (Split: Glas Dalmacije-revija Dalmatinske akcije, 2001).

8 Jože and Božo Repe, “O reviziji zgodovine” in Murko Drčar, ed., Pet minut demokracije; podoba Slovenije po letu 2004 (Ljubljana: Liberalna akademija, 2008), 37-54.

9 See: http://www.dz-rs. si/?id=150&docid=28&showdoc=1.

10 Marjan Smrke and Tatjana Rakar, “Religious

Education in Slovenia” in Zorica Kuburić and Christian Moe, eds., Religion and Pluralism in Education: Comparative Approaches in the Western Balkans (Novi Sad: CEIR, 2006), 9-38; http://kotor-network.info/ research/joint/2005/RelPlurEdu.pdf.

11 Izeri življenje (2002), 149-50.

12 France Rode, “Cerkev na pragu tretjega tisočletja,” lecture in the Bishopric Hall in Maribor, 16 March 2000.

13 Slavko Kurdija, “Vrednotne delitve v luči političnih izbir” in Brina Malnar and Igor Bernik, eds., S Slovenkami in Slovenci na štiri oči (Ljubljana: Faculteta za družbene vede, IDV-CJMMK, 2004), 124.

14 Alenka Goljevšček, “Vse življenje za eno ljubezen (intervju),” Ona 10 (No. 20, 2008), 12.

Edited excerpt published with permission of the author from a paper presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 2008; subsequently published in Separation of Church and State in Europe, ed. by Hagg de Beaufort and Patrick van Shie (Brussels: European Liberal Forum, 2008), 163-73.

Marjan Smrke holds a Ph.D. in sociology. He lectures on sociology of religion and comparative religion and is a researcher at the Center for Cultural and Religious Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Ljubljana, Slovenia.