East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 4, No. 3, Summer 1996, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


The Catholic Church After Communism

Janice Broun

With the return of "recycled" Communists to power in many recent East European elections, the Roman Catholic Church appears increasingly unable to recover its privileged pre-Communist status.  In times past in Poland Catholicism was inextricably intertwined with national resistance to Russian, German, and Austrian partition and occupation (1772-1918).  In the following interwar period (1919-39) a newly independent Poland maintained the closest of church-state ties.  In Central Europe, because of the Vatican's alliance with the Hapsburg Empire in the Counterreformation drive to suppress Protestantism and Orthodoxy, the Catholic Church accumulated vast estates and wealth and controlled an expansive network of educational and charitable institutions.  In the Russian and Ottoman Turkish empires, Catholic minorities became closely linked with national and cultural survival: for example, Lithuanians and West Ukrainians against the Russians, and Albanians and Bulgarians against the Turks.  In the Balkans, where Catholicism has traditionally ranked second to Eastern Orthodoxy, the Vatican, in the interwar period, nevertheless managed to secure concordats (church treaties with secular states) which ensured some privileges denied to the Orthodox, as in Yugoslavia where most Catholics were minority Croats and Slovenes, and in Romania where most Catholics were Hungarians and Germans.  After 1918 newly independent Czechoslovakia established a secularized state, which suited the free-thinking Czechs, but not the deeply Catholic Slovaks.  The difference helped precipitate the republic's division in 1939, and again in 1992.

With the collapse of European Communist regimes in 1989-91 it can be said that the strongly hierarchical Catholic Church had survived Communism more successfully than had Orthodoxy or Protestantism.  Nevertheless, it survived in a crippled, impoverished, and humiliated state, except in Poland and Yugoslavia.  In these two countries the church had managed to maintain close ties with Rome and to achieve reasonable autonomy from state interference, for example, in the appointment of bishops and clergy and in the survival of orders (communities of priests, monks, and nuns living under special vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience), which Communists disbanded elsewhere.  In the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union state measures reduced church life to tightly controlled worship--and even that was denied to Albanians after 1967 and to Eastern Rite Catholics (who accept papal authority but have married priests and Orthodox liturgy).  The reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, such as worship in the vernacular instead of Latin, had practically no impact on Catholics enduring Communist isolation.  As a result, East European Catholics today experience great difficulty coming to terms with the Council's innovations.

Meanwhile, due to Marxist-imposed secularization, the Catholic Church to a considerable extent lost its constituency.  Communism in its wake left a devastated, sick society, where almost everyone has been contaminated, as Jesuit Boguslaw Steczek points out, "even here [in Poland] where our church was able to influence millions of children and young people by dynamic pastoral and catechetical [instructional] programs."  Peasants were uprooted into huge urban industrial sprawls, where, except in Poland, Communists banned new churches. "The church [in Slovakia] is still strong in rural areas but not in cities like Bratislava.  From the church millions have gone," says radical priest Anton Srholec.  Concerned for the homeless, women, Roma (Gypsies), and the marginalized, he notes, "Now the church addresses problems it doesn't have, but not its real problems.  A third of marriages break up but the church ignores them, refuses to baptize their children."

States and churches are still working out patterns of coexistence or cooperation.  Each Catholic Church has to weigh priorities with practicalities, within the framework of Vatican directives.  The most basic practical issues are interrelated: legal status, state subsidies, property, education, state recognition of church marriages, and recovering access to the armed forces, prisons, hospitals, and the media.

Catholicism finds itself in an ambiguous position, often confronted by hostility from an unholy alliance of former Communists and free-market liberals who exploit the media under the banner of intellectual neutrality to arouse people's fears of a return of Catholic triumphalism.  These fears have been fueled by Polish Catholic determination to return Catholic religious education to public schools and its active political pressure for a strict, new abortion law.  In the 1995 presidential election nine million Poles showed their disapproval by casting their votes against the wishes of their Catholic hierarchs.

To resume normal ministry the Catholic Church seeks to recover property confiscated by the Communists.  This property would be used to reestablish theological faculties and seminaries, sufficient schools to meet parental demands, and monasteries and spiritual orders with their ministries of prayer and care.  However, many states, though ready enough to avail themselves of the church's goodwill to fill yawning gaps in social care, are unable or unwilling to ensure the return of church property.  Most refuse the restitution of church land, which in times past provided the basis to finance institutions--though in Poland, the only country where the church is wealthy, every church unit is allowed a specific limited acreage.  Even where laws favor restitution, Communists still dominate most local governments and obstruct their application.  Alternative accommodations for such public facilities as hospitals, orphanages, and museums have to be found.  Also, much property was deliberately allowed to become dilapidated and is unusable without massive repairs, which most churches cannot afford.  The issues are convoluted and appear largely insoluble.

In 1991 Hungary's first free center-right government passed satisfactory, sympathetic laws to rehabilitate historic churches.  It also has allowed the Catholic Church to operate six percent of the schools, as compared with the 94 percent (2978 of 3139) it controlled in 1948.  But as Hungary's Catholic bishops see it, restitution is still "in the deep freeze."

Some property disputes have been particularly acrimonious.  In 1995 the Lithuanian Parliament passed such a restrictive law, counter to the wishes of the majority who respect the church, that President Algirdas Brazauskas used his prerogative to force a revision.  Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus regarded the Czech church's demand for the return of 70 percent of its land in 1990 as excessive.  For a time the Czech dispute with the Sudeten Germans over the return of their property confiscated at the end of the Second World War caused Klaus to refuse the restitution of any property confiscated prior to 1948.  But as of late July 1996, political pressure was mounting for a substantial return of church property.  In Romania, Catholic and Protestant Hungarian and German minorities working together are still unable to reopen parish schools to safeguard their culture, language, and community life.  And Romanian Orthodox still control all but 135 of 2,000 churches previously belonging to Romanian Eastern Rite Catholics.  Since 1989 Western Ukraine people have even been killed in the course of disputes between Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics.

An understandable desire to be free of the state clashes with continuing dependence on its subsidies.  For example, the once affluent Hungarian Catholic Church is now dependent on state subsidies for half of its income. And the Czech Catholic Church has petitioned its hostile government to link modest state-funded clergy stipends to rates of inflation.  In Lithuania mutual suspicion between Catholics and Communists, kept under wraps since independence, flared up beginning in 1994:  the government accused the church, which is under the tactful leadership of U.S.-educated Archbishop Juozas Backis, of usurping excessive powers and insulting priests by labeling them "servants of the cult."  Nevertheless, the Lithuanian Catholic Church is set on reclaiming its stake in education by reopening parochial schools and having Catholic religious instruction reinstated as part of public-school curricula.  In Poland and Croatia the Catholic Church is achieving these aims.

In Romania religious instruction is compulsory in schools, but Catholic schools encounter official disapproval because of their association with national minorities.  Most East European states provide a choice between religion and ethics.  Major practical problems include training enough qualified teachers, gaining salary parity with other faculty, and finances.

The extent of secularization is indicated by the fact that in Lithuania, a country that is at least nominally 90 percent Catholic, only 65 percent of families opt for religious education. In the devout north of Slovakia virtually every child is enrolled for religion, but few are in the capital of Bratislava.  At present in Lithuania and Slovenia the governments are trying to renege on previous agreements by replacing instruction in religion with ethics.  In Hungary Catholic schools are jeopardized by the freezing of state subsidies, part of the current Socialist government's austerity drive.  Despite Albanian President Sali Berisha's pledge to foster tolerance and defend pluralism, Catholic bishops--traditionally representing some 13 percent of the population--contend that the state favors the Islamic majority--traditionally 70 percent of the population.  Mosques are mushrooming in all 600 villages, even those with no Muslims.

Minority Catholic Churches in Belarus and Bulgaria, which lost most of their clergy, are heavily dependent on expatriate priests to reestablish parish life.  In 1996 Belarus, Russia's most docile ally, even tried to expel Polish priests and nuns and did deny entry visas to 12 foreign priests, even though a majority of Belarus Catholics are Polish and as yet lack sufficient indigenous clergy.  In Bulgaria expatriate Catholic priests are heavily taxed, but in Albania they have been able to work unhindered.

Polish President Lech Walesa's defeat in 1995 delayed the ratification of a Polish Concordat with the Vatican.  As currently worded it would provide for Catholic Church autonomy and independence, but not separation of church and state, a formula that worries Orthodox and Protestant minorities.  Six other East European Concordats are under negotiation.  The Croatian Concordat can be expected to be signed, once pending property restitution legislation becomes law.

Its promotion of the family and defense of the rights of the unborn does, however, run counter to the abortion-on-demand mentality promoted by Communism.  In Croatia, under excellent leadership by bishops like Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, Catholics have successfully opposed efforts from President Franjo Tudjman and the church's own small fascist wing to tie it to the state.  Since 1993 the church has cooperated with democratic parties to condemn Tudjman's Greater Croatia policy, including ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Herzegovina.  Despite its endorsement of the military campaign in Krajina, it condemned the ethnic cleansing of Serbs there.  Its policy of providing guidelines, but not pressuring Catholics, has been a factor in preventing Tudjman from winning a clear parliamentary majority.

Slovak bishops, who previously endorsed populist Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar's split from the Czechs, now distance themselves from him.  They support President Michel Kovac, the constitution, and freedom of speech, against recent government attempts to undermine them.  Attacks by security police on a leading Catholic politician and bishop aroused widespread indignation.

In summary, the Catholic Church is having to learn to adjust to increasingly pluralistic secularized societies and to cooperate with other religious groups.  Its accommodation and its tolerance are much more pronounced where it has to take into account the views of other churches and faiths--that is, where it does not enjoy an absolute majority as in Poland.  Elsewhere, it is learning, if painfully at times.

Janice Broun is a freelance jounalist from Kirkcudbright, Scotland.


Janice Broun, "The Catholic Church After Communism," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 4 (Summer 1996), 2-4.

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1996 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664


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