Churches of East Central Europe in Transition:
A Checklist of Issues to Track
Sabrina Petra Ramet
Former State Churches Reascendant
The repluralization of Eastern Europe has radically transformed the conditions in which religious organizations function. It has changed the relationship of church and state and altered the balance of forces in these countries. The essence of these changes is that the regulatory mechanisms of the communists, which, among other things, served to bridle the strength of the larger churches, have been dismantled. In the new, less-regulated environment, the larger churches are now able to flex their muscles. This has quickly led to dispute, above all in Poland, but also in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and elsewhere.
Property and Media Access
The churches have moved quickly to establish themselves on surer footing. Their first moves focused on obtaining the return of property confiscated at the time of the communist takeover, expanding their media efforts (both print and broadcasting), and pressing for the restoration of religious instruction in the state school system. Religious programs, once considered a media anathema, are now commonplace on East European radio. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and various Yugoslav republics have all allowed religious programs to be broadcast, and pressure has built for similar permission to be granted in Bulgaria as well. In Hungary, churches also have been allowed to schedule religious programs on television.
But it is in the sphere of education where church gains may have the greatest impact. In the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, and Slovenia, theological faculties, which had been separated from the universities in the late 1940s or early 1950s, have now been allowed to reaffiliate with local state universities. Potentially far more important, however, are pressures to restore religious instruction in state schools. These pressures already have led to the reintroduction of religious instruction in public schools in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, and Romania, and have stirred controversy in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia. In Poland, for example, non-Catholic parents complain of ostracism of their children if they do not enroll for Catholic religious instruction.
The Repudiation of Past Church Compromise
With the collapse of communism, there have been changes in the organizational infrastructure. In Hungary, for example, the Free Church Council (which performed administrative functions for the State Office for Church Affairs) and the controversial "patriotic priests" organization, Opus Pacis, were both dissolved in late 1989. In Czechoslovakia, Pacem in Terris, the state-sponsored association of Catholic clergy, condemned by the Vatican in March 1982, was disbanded on 7 December 1989; it literally collapsed hand in hand with the communist regime. The Christian Peace Conference, based in Prague and long tainted by its collaboration with its communist backers, decided to continue its operations, but to try to redefine its role.
The normalization of church life also has meant discarding theologies of service, which were developed in the communist era. In Hungary, the so-called Theology of Diakonia, under which the late Lutheran Bishop Zoltan Kaldy advocated church cooperation with the regime, was successfully repudiated, and a process of theological reexamination was begun. In the German Democratic Republic's final months, Christians openly began to criticize the slogan "Socialism is the Gospel in action."
Ethnic and Religious Tensions Interwoven
Communist constriction also gave the churches certain reasons for solidarity that no longer seem to exist. Hence, the various resentments accumulated over the years, even over centuries, easily have pushed to the surface, especially where there are controversies about the ownership of church buildings or nationalist issues to worry about. One need only think of relations between the Catholic and Lutheran churches in Poland, between the Eastern-Rite Catholic and Orthodox churches in Slovakia and Romania, and between the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Serbian Orthodox Church to see the point. The new chauvinism also is reflected in a rise in anti-Semitism, not merely in Poland, but in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, where numerous periodical publications, most prominently, the weekly newspapers Romania Mare and Europa, make anti-Semitism their regular fare.
The Dangers of Spiritual Illiteracy and Religious Activism
Forty years of communist rule have left a legacy of widespread ignorance of religion. Some striking exceptions to this rule (chiefly Poland and Croatia) exist, but in many cases ordinary believers have little knowledge of the tenets of their faith. Their faith is, accordingly, simple and distorted, and often authoritarian. In fact, a sociological study conducted in Poland found a strong correlation between the degree of religiosity and the degree of deference to authority.
Second, forty years of communism have resulted in the triumph of atheism among much of the population of Bulgaria, sections of former Czechoslovakia, and what is now the eastern part of united Germany. Where religious organizations seem to have been the most active for example, in Poland, in the GDR during the 1980s, and in Serbia since the accession of Slobodan Milosevic to power in 1989, religion has drawn its strength as much from politics as from spirituality. But politics is a fickle mistress. To the extent that religious organizations in the region attracted support through their identification with the struggle for freedom, the achievement of their goals brought that struggle to an end and loosened the bonds that succored religion. Within weeks of the crisis of communism in the GDR in October 1989, attendance at Evangelical [Lutheran] Church services fell dramatically. Finally, the current uncertainties have provided a fertile ground for new strains of religious and ethnic chauvinism, often going hand in hand, and for a new stridency on the part of Christian churches.
The Psychology of Exile
Father Vaclav Maly of Czechoslovakia, jailed by the communists in 1979 for his dissident activities, said in 1990 that "psychologically, Christians have been in exile." When a people, or a group, returns from a long exile, it is unrealistic to expect it to shed all at once the psychological effects and habits of mind developed under those conditions. The reintegration of believers on a normal basis, like the rebuilding and reintegration of these societies as a whole, will be a lengthy process.
A Parting Prediction
Now that the homogenizing communist system has been overthrown, the historic heterogeneity of the region is likely to reassert itself. That is likely to include as well a diversity in patterns of religiosity, religious behavior, and church-state interaction.
Sabrina Petra Ramet is an associate professor of international studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. This article is an edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Eastern European Politics and Societies and from "The New Church-State Configuration in Eastern Europe" in Protestantism and Politics in Eastern Europe and Russia, The Communist and Post-Communist Eras, ed. by Sabrina P. Ramet (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).
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© 1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies