New Kind of Church-State Relations in Hungary

Vincent_van_Gogh_-_The_Church_in_Auvers-sur-Oise,_View_from_the_Chevet_-_Google_Art_Project
Vincent Van Gogh: The Church at Auvers 1890 // Public domain

On July 23, Viktor Orbán, PM of Hungary, held his annual speech at Tusványos – Baile Tusnad in Romanian. The speech has gained international infamy because of one line the Hungarian prime minister used when talking about the difference between the West and Hungary. The line that has received the most international attention is “This is why we have always fought: we are willing to mix with one another, but we do not want to become peoples of mixed-race.”

The rest of the paragraph was similar describing the Muslim migrants as invaders, retreading the paths of their ancestors at Poitiers, assaulting and occupying Europe. This xenophobic rhetoric about race-mixing and race-wars is not the topic of this paper, but it is a strong springboard for us to discuss the real, moral crisis happening in Hungarian religious circles.

The international outcry regarding the comments echoed in Hungarian circles as well. Scientists’ comments labeled them as echoes of an ideology that caused a list of calamities. One of the PM’s oldest advisors resigned over these comments – admittedly, she later tried to revoke her resignation, but that is a comedy for another time. Understandably, the Jewish community led the way in the condemnation of the speech, their official community (Mazsihisz) expressed concern over the wording of PM Orbán’s statement.

Other religious communities, however, remained conspicuously silent on the matter.

None of three great historical churches in Hungary raised their voices or offered moral guidance. When the opposition news-site Telex sought them out for comment, neither the Hungarian Catholic Church nor the Hungarian Reformed Church had anything to say on the matter.

The Evangelical Church was the only one that replied to the site, saying they do not seek to comment on current political issues. Their newfound neutrality is well-timed indeed, as just a few months prior to the PM’s speech, during the election-season, each of the three historic Hungarian churches had been keen on attacking Orbán’s opponents with public fearmongering.

Let us not beat around the burning bush: the Hungarian Churches are not apolitical. They are part of Viktor Orbán’s system, and in this article, I try to show how their loyalties have been paid for. Moreover, I seek to answer the question of how this happened and why many religious leaders in Hungary are willing to pay with their credibility for Orbán’s alimony.

Historical background

First and foremost, we must understand that the Hungarian religious institutions – especially the Catholic Church – suffered immensely under the early years of the Communist dictatorship. Up until 1945, the Hungarian Church carried immense political, societal, and economic power due to the nature of the legislature, and their considerable landed holdings.

These landed holdings were stripped away, usually without any form of compensation, and the road to political power was also shut before them as the second chamber of the Hungarian Parliament was abolished. Religious education and Church-ran schools, the two bases of their societal power, were also taken from them through a combination of laws, nationalization of schools, and plain old-fashioned intimidation.

While there was a later reconciliation, it came at a high price for the Church and the relationship between them. Consequently, the Communist state was never one of equals that they were used to, but rather that of a dictator and a subject. This was a shock to those who were used to a privileged status and the fact that the State sought to gain influence amongst the priesthood did not help.

I consider it important to look at the historical perspective of these Churches because they, out of any institution, have the most conservative bend and the strongest memory. Experiencing such a humiliation at the hands of the communist regime taught them a lesson that unless they wield power, that power will be used against them. And while they were clearly favored after the collapse of Communism (see the 1993 law restricting the definition of what counts as a historical church and what does not), they never wielded the same power they did before Communism.

So, it is understandable that when Fidesz came to power and began strongly supporting the Churches, they fell in line with the government’s narrative. Now, let’s illuminate ways the government favored Churches even over what has previously been the government’s own jurisdiction. What keeps Fidesz’s ‘natural alliance’ going?

Government support

The most visible case of the Hungarian government’s alliance with the Historical Churches in Hungary is very simply the financial support they had given them. Now, Orbán’s regime did not simply decide to give the money to the Churches. Since the 90s, Hungary had an agreement with the Vatican stating that religious institutions are entitled to the same fiscal aid as state-held ones, which ensured that the government bore at least part of the financial burden for schools and social services, regardless of whether they were held by the State or the Church.

This agreement said nothing of the church-buildings themselves. And yet, in 2021 alone, the government has decided to support the renovation and improvement of 1,800 churches in the Carpathian Basin, 400 of which are not even owned in Hungary. And this is just the churches themselves. The government spent millions of forints building sport-centers that are owned and operated by religious entities both in Hungary and outside the country’s borders.

Over ten years, over 100 billion forints (nearly 250 million euros) have been spent on supporting the Churches in various ways, including paying for church events (International Eucharistic Congress), paying reparations for the assets seized by the Communists, and allocating billions of forints annualy to support religious education.

However, this is not the only way the government has been supporting the churches. It has also given properties worth billions of forints to various religious groups completely free of charge. Most of them have been used since then for religious teaching or everyday Church activities, but it is not uncommon for them to be used for purposes of sport and recreation.

Undoubtedly, Churches have been doing a good job – primarily caring for the sick, infirm and elderly – sometimes better than government institutions. It is obvious that they are aware of the quid pro quo going on. They remain conspicuously silent on the matter of many societal shifts, during which one would expect them to take a stand. The speech I mentioned at the beginning of this article is just one example.

Religious education

Educational institutions Church-held in 2010 Church-held in 2022
Kindergardens 5,6% 10,4%
Elementary schools 9,4% 17,1%
High schools 10,4% 25,2%

Since 2010, the number of educational institutions held by religious entities has doubled. Moreover, there are school districts where the number of students that go to shools maintained by the Church is higher than the number of those that go to schoold maintained by the state. And while the number of schools attended by Church-maintained students has doubled, the amount of funding going to these educational institutions has roughly quadrupled.

Why it matters how much the government spends on religious schools? After all, we have established that they are bound by an agreement made by previous governments to not differentiate between State-held and Church-held schools – to the detriment of Church-held ones. The issue arises with the decline of public education in Hungary – long and sad subject I wish not to wade too deep into at this point.

However, with the enforced decline of the public education system, many parents are trying to get their children into alternative educational institutions. Private schools are not widely available for everyone outside the capital city, Budapest, and they are often way too expensive for many parents to afford. Religious schools then offer an easy free alternative to public education, where their children are not hampered by the rules enforced on public schools.

The problem that arises here is that religious schools are not mandated to offer education to everyone: they get to pick and choose who gets into their schools. There is data[1][2] that suggests that they utilize this for enforcing racial and economic segregation. Religious schools then become safe havens for the children of the white middle class, while Romani children (Hungary’s most populous minority) and the children of low-income parents are stuck in public schools.

Even worse, in many places in Hungary’s poorest regions religious schools became the only available option. This makes their tendency of segregation even more troubling.

And it is not simply the funding that differentiates the religious school from the state-held one. There are other factors, such as the restrictive legal environment in which public schools find themselves: they are forced to teach from pre-approved, government-issued textbooks, while religious schools get to pick and choose freely.

There is also the matter of teachers’ salaries, which religious schools can supplement more freely, while the public-school teachers have to get by on what is essentially a starvation wage. In the European Union, Hungary spends by far the most on religious schools, and every year, that number increases, mainly through the self-fulfilling prophecy of supporting the option that gives better returns.

State-violence

So far, what we have seen, while disturbing, can be explained by the government’s goals of restoring a certain pre-war status quo in a decidedly post-war society. The aim of the monetary support and Church’s influence on education is to restore something the Communist regime had taken away. Even though Hungarian society has moved on, Orbán’s attempt to restore it is at least something that can be understood within their philosophy.

For something more sinister, we need to examine the story of Attila Pető. He was a young man who was sexually assaulted as a child, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, by a priest whom he confided in. When the story became public, the priest was removed from his post and the clergy. Pető, however, wanted the Catholic Church to publicly acknowledge what happened to him and other young men, and furthermore he wished to receive a public apology for their ordeal. His story is a clear representation of how the Hungarian government is willing to use its resources to help out the Church, and how toxic and dangerous this ‘special relationship’ has become.

What happened to Attila Pető is in no way normal and is only understandable in the light of the special relationship I have described above. This story emphazises how the relationship between the Hungarian state and the Church goes way beyond reparation, restorations, and becomes the kind of partnership generations of liberals spent their entire lives trying to dismantle.

In this case, the authorities of the state have been used to intimidate and silence a man whose main crime was being increasingly uncomfortable for the Church. While I intend to relay the key parts, the whole story is both too long for this article, and beyond the scope of what we are talking about.

While originally open to the suggestion, the mid-tier Hungarian clergy quickly closed ranks and refused to engage with Pető. His attempts to get an audience with someone who could help him attain his goal led him to make numerous phone calls to numbers he was given in confidence by their owners, and to attend church services that were open to the public. He did not cause a disturbance, and only left a few leaflets one time.

On August 20, 2019 – Hungary’s national holiday that beard heavy religious overtones – he was arrested by the police and taken into custody, held there for a crucial period of time. The bishop he was seeking an audience with, Péter Erdő, was part of the public celebrations on that day. By the time Pető was let out, the celebrations were, coincidentally, over. When he was taken to trial (for harassment), one of the priests who had previously offered to help him said he had ‘besmirched the church’ with his insistence on a public apology and forcing the case to remain open for so long.

In the end, the judge gave Pető the least harsh sentence possible while also finding him guilty in harassing the priests.

Conclusion

Dante Alighieri once wrote: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of a moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” It would be difficult to argue that Orbán’s speech at Tusványos was not such a moral crisis – an elected leader of a member country of the European Union  talking about race-mixing and the refusal of diversity in a tone that would have been considered slightly right of center in the 1930s.

And yet, the historical Churches in Hungary remained silent. They did it not because of cowardice, although I imagine there was a lot of that. They kept silent because their silence was bought.

In a liberal democracy, religion and organized religion still play a purpose. It is a purpose similar to academia and journalism: the role of the critic. Churches are uniquely equipped to criticize the governments from a moral standpoint, but once they start being hand-fed by the government, they are presented with a choice. Fulfil their critical role or simply stand aside and allow the erosion of morality.

The Churches in Hungary made their choice.

[1]https://mandiner.hu/cikk/20190805_kende_agnes_iskolai_szegregacio_az_egyhazak_vegtelenul_cinikus_szerepet_vallaltak (2022. 10. 19.)

[2] https://444.hu/2018/05/21/az-allam-es-az-egyhaz-elerte-hogy-a-gyerekek-mar-nem-is-koszonnek-egymasnak-az-utcan (2022. 10. 19.)


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