East-West Church  Ministry Report
Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter 2002, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Catholicism in Postcommunist Europe Today

Timothy A. Byrnes

Catholicism-Holding Its Own
In East Central Europe the Catholic Church was an active agent of resistance to Communism.  But the question is the role the church plays now, after Communism has passed from the scene.  In short, and in the simplest terms possible, the Catholic Church plays a very important role in shaping the postcommunist politics and societies of East Central Europe. At least in its first decade, postcommunist democracy (if we can even use such a phrase with full confidence) has not brought with it a marginalization of the Catholic Church, in either social or political terms.  Far from it, in fact.  On the contrary, a decade or so after the fall of Communism, the Catholic Church remains deeply involved in the central political debates in the region over both political structure and public policy.  It remains deeply implicated (for better or worse) in the ethnic divisions that characterize the postcommunist era.  And it remains profoundly part of the social fabric of just about every postcommunist state in the broad southeasterly arc stretching from Poland to Croatia.

It was by no means obvious or predetermined that the Catholic Church would emerge from the cataclysm of Communism as a viable institution in the region.  Stalinism, with its self-conscious effort to destroy the church, could have been successful.  Instead, the church in Poland, the church in Slovakia, the church in Croatia, and even the catacomb Greek Catholic Church in Romania survived Communism.  All of these local manifestations of Catholicism were still there in 1989 to celebrate the collapse of the regimes that had tormented the church for four long decades.

The Catholic Church has, so far at least, been able to navigate the treacherous shoals of the anticommunist revolutions with some degree of success.  The story is far, far from over, of course.  Secularism appears to have challenged, though not swamped, the church in East Central Europe.  Throughout the region the Catholic Church is still a substantial counterweight to the consumerism and, for lack of a better term, Westernization that arrived in East Central Europe in 1989.  In Poland, the church is the counterweight to secularization and to a kind of postcommunist social democracy; in Slovakia, the church is working to reestablish itself as a viable basis for a kind of postcommunist Christian Democracy; and in Croatia, the church is struggling within itself over its relationship with postcommunist nationalism.  But the main point is that in all three settings the Catholic Church is still actively involved in the political life of these diverse postcommunist states.

The Polish Case
The breadth and depth of the Catholic Church's role in postcommunist politics are due to the church's ability to participate simultaneously at all levels of politics: systemic, national, and individual.  How should one conceptualize the church's role in postcommunist Poland, for example?  Is it a system-level phenomenon growing out of the Holy See's status as a nonterritorial player in international affairs and the Holy See's obvious commitment to shoring up the status of the church in the Pope's homeland?  Is it a nation-level phenomenon growing out of the very specific history of Poland and the role that Catholicism has played in preserving the Polish nation, not to mention reconstituting an authentically autonomous Polish state?  Or finally, is it an individual-level phenomenon, a function of the will and energy of one remarkable man, the Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyla?  The church's role in postcommunist Poland, as well as in postcommunist East Central Europe more generally, is at one and the same time a function of all of these systemic, national, and individual factors combined.

Politically Connected
First, the church, through the Holy See, is formally a part of the various international institutions that comprise a kind of supranational level of political interaction in the post-Cold War period.  The Holy See is a Permanent Observer at the United Nations, a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and a full, duly invited and seated participant in international conferences on global issues such as population, the role of women in society, or the dangers posed to the world community by environmental degradation.  The Catholic Church, through its Secretariat of State and its delegation at the OSCE, had a "seat at the table" during international discussion of the breakup of the Yugoslavian state.  Moreover, it was able to use that access to press, in all ways possible, for the early recognition by the European community of the individual sovereignty of the Catholic republics of Croatia and Slovenia.  Why should the Catholic Church, of all institutions, be granted formal status, and even at times full membership, in political institutions that are otherwise comprised of territorial states?  Controversial though it may be, the special status granted to the Holy See in international politics nevertheless affords the Catholic Church a level of political participation in postcommunist politics that it would not otherwise have.

There is no avoiding the important part that Cardinal Józef Glemp has played, and is playing, in shaping the role of the Catholic Church in postcommunist Poland.  The story is a complex and ambiguous one. But on the whole, I would credit (or, rather, blame) Glemp's triumphal response to the end of Communism, and his general lack of political imagination in the years since, with helping to delay the reconceptualization of the church's role in Poland that must come soon.  Cardinal Glemp, in many ways, is a man of the past.  He was trained in an opposition church and prepared for types of political resistance that are no longer appropriate within democratic Poland.  This particular bishop may have to pass from the scene before the Polish church can truly come to terms with the radically new circumstances within which it finds itself in the postcommunist age.

The Slovak Case
In the Slovak Republic individual bishops and the particular approaches they take to political circumstances have also profoundly influenced the position of the church.  Some bishops collaborated with the Communist regime in Slovakia (really Czechoslovakia, of course); some did not. And now these two groups of bishops are vying with each other for control of a bishops' conference that is facing very difficult circumstances indeed. Bishop Rudolf Baláz, the president of the Slovak Bishops Conference, has spearheaded the movement of the Catholic hierarchy away from [former Prime Minister] Meciar's brand of nationalism and demogoguery, but he is also leading the effort to "reevaluate" Father Tiso and his wartime fascist government.  And he represents, both as the leader of the bishops' conference and himself personally, the shrug-of-the-shoulders response of the Slovak bishops to the plight of Hungarian Catholics within their flock.  In Croatia, Archbishop Josip Bozanic acted quickly to distance himself and his church from [President] Tudjman and his brand of violent nationalism and to identify himself and his church more explicitly with John Paul II and the Pope's calls for ethnic reconciliation in the Balkans.

A Political Savvy Pope
Individuals are not all that make history, but individuals do matter. Nothing makes this point more clearly than the case of Karol Wojtyla himself. Would the role of the Catholic Church in East Central Europe have been different over the last two decades if the first Italian Pope John Paul had not died in 1978 after only one single month on the throne of St. Peter? Of course it would have. It is no insult to the people of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and elsewhere to point out the central importance of having in the Vatican a Polish pope with a remarkable flair for public relations, insisting day after day after day on the fundamental inhumanity of Communism and embodying in his very person the profound failure of Marxism-Leninism to defeat or tame Catholicism and Catholic humanism in East Central Europe. Alberto Luciani of Italy (Wojtyla's predecessor as Pope John Paul I) simply would not have, could not have, played the same role.

Catholic Hierarchs as Nationalists
I traveled to places like Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania expecting to hear [in] my conversations with church officials carefully worded expressions of Catholic solidarity and pointed endorsements of papal calls for reconciliation. Over the years I have grown used to the characteristic loyalty and calibrated blandness of most episcopal discourse.  In actual fact,  however, I was quite surprised to hear how willing bishops and their aides were to express their unhappiness with each other across national barriers. In Budapest, László Lukács, director of the Hungarian Bishops Conference's Office of Communication, explicitly characterized Slovak bishops as nationalists.  In Trvana, Slovakia, Bishop Dominik Tóth dismissively discounted the validity of Hungarian ethnic resentment. And in Oradea, Romania, Bishop József Tempfli exhibited a palpable fatigue when discussing his difficult relations with some elements of the church in Hungary and especially with the Greek Catholic Church in his own country.  These experiences helped lead me to the conclusion that the Catholic Church in East Central Europe is still very much aware of its multiethnic structure.

There is a delicate balancing act or even an internal contradiction inherent in the outlook and worldview articulated and embodied by many of these bishops. On the one hand, they are committed to the Pope personally and to his vision of a renewed role for Christianity and for the Catholic Church in the new, post-Cold War international order.  But on the other hand, they are apparently unwilling or unable to apply that commitment wholeheartedly to their transnational relations with each other when it comes to ethnic tensions within the church.  Over and over again I have heard bishops and priests echo the Pope's call for the aggressive defense of the church's institutional interests, for the uncompromising application of the church's moral teachings, and for the reevangelization of the post-Cold War European union.  But I have also heard these same bishops and priests change their tone ever so slightly when discussing their role in the ethnic tensions that bedevil Europe and potentially limit the church.  I have heard bishop after bishop wearily blame his counterparts across one national divide or another for the lack of unity and coordination that characterize interethnic episcopal relations in the postcommunist region.

Papal authority and papal vision meet their limits in the face of the historic, deeply imbedded relationships that pertain between the Catholic Church and national identity in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Croatia.  The Roman Catholic Church is, in an unavoidable way, fully Polish, fully Slovak, and fully Croatian.  This fact deepens the difficulty that popes and Vatican officials have in overcoming national identity and in using their church as a vehicle for deepening and redefining European union.  The Vatican's hope that a revitalized Catholic Church will sit at the heart of a common European home is being frustrated at the moment by the powerful force of secularism in the West and by the postcommunist uncertainties of life in the East.  Yet at the same time and at an even more fundamental level, the Vatican's hopes are also being frustrated by the national institutions and national identities that are built right into the very structure of the church itself.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission of the publisher from Timothy A. Byrnes, Transnational Catholicism in Postcommunist Europe (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

Timothy A. Byrnes, "Catholicism in Postcommunist Europe Today," East-West Church & Ministry Report 10 (Winter 2002), 9-11.

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© 2002 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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