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After Cold War, Cold Peace

Trnava, Slovakia and Budapest, Hungary

Even a few hours in lands formerly encircled by the Iron Curtain are enough to convince a visitor of one truth: Anyone who believed religion could be eradicated here is seriously mistaken.

The profuse roadside sanctuaries, the grottoes, the household shrines, the soaring church spires all indicate that Christianity is as much a part of the place as its languages or its varied national histories. While the formal practice of the faith may have waned, there’s a baseline of religiosity that just won’t go away.

An anecdote makes the point.

In Trnava, the historic heart of Slovakian Catholicism, a road leading to the baroque Cathedral of St. John the Baptist passes one of those drab gray high-rises that were the high point of socialist architecture. On the side of the building is a Soviet-era mural, showing three workers in red above a banner reading “1948,” the year Czechoslovakia officially entered the Soviet orbit. In the cathedral, on the other hand, atop the largest and most ornate altarpiece in Central Europe, is a banner featuring the year the altarpiece was installed: 1646.

Given that 302-year head start, it’s hardly surprising the church won.

Actually, Christian roots here reach back much further than the 17th century, into the late Roman era -- making the Soviets merely the latest empire the church has outlived. Yet the church in Eastern Europe confronts numerous hurdles as it struggles back to health. A Catholic renaissance has not, so far, followed victory over the communists.

That hard truth will be much on the minds of the bishops who gather Oct. 1 in Rome for the second European Synod of the decade. The first synod took place in 1991, when newly emancipated Central and Eastern Europeans could still hear Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” -- a kind of theme of that liberating moment -- echoing in their ears. Many synod participants spoke confidently of a new springtime in the region.

In the years since, the church here has hit rough waters. Polls show its credibility dropping; many erstwhile allies now see it as greedy (for demanding the return of vast property holdings seized by the communists) and arrogant (for attempting to dictate social policy on issues such as abortion and divorce). Sociologist and novelist Fr. Andrew Greeley, who has studied survey results from Eastern and Central Europe, told NCR: “What the church there is doing is utterly opposed to what people need.”

Observers such as Greeley note that under the communists, Catholicism was forced to develop flexible pastoral strategies -- most famously including the ordination of a small number of female deacons and priests in the Czech Republic. In the last decade, the hierarchy has focused on dismantling this grassroots apparatus or bringing it under tighter ecclesial control -- in the eyes of some, a case of fixing something that wasn’t broken.

New revelations about priests and bishops who collaborated with communist regimes have also cut into popular support. Mass attendance is flat or declining, even as interest in spirituality is climbing. Decades of atheistic indoctrination have taken their toll. Non-believers are a majority in three countries -- the former East Germany, the Czech Republic and Hungary -- and a significant minority in others.

To discuss these issues, NCR sat down in late September with two leading Catholic figures in post-communist Eastern Europe: Cardinal László Paskai of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary, and Archbishop Ján Sokol of Bratislava-Trnava, Slovakia. Both men spoke through a translator.

Sokol said he regards Western reports of a decline in post-communist Catholicism as exaggerated. Many nations in the region are generating new priests above replacement levels (Slovakia has six times as many seminarians as Belgium, a country of comparable size). He also pointed to the relative absence of internal dissent characteristic of Western Catholicism.

In fact, Sokol believes it’s the church in the West that’s in crisis, and it ought to listen to what Pius XII once called the “church of silence,” the church in the East strengthened by its suffering.

“There’s absolutely no question in my mind” that secularization has done more damage to the Western church than communism did in the East, he said Sept. 22. “We have avoided the hurricane that a mistaken implementation of Vatican II caused in America, for example,” Sokol said, pointing to the shortage of religious vocations in America. “Priests there actually told sisters to get out of the cloister. It was a disaster.”

Sokol spoke to NCR in his headquarters in Trnava, which was used as a military barracks under the communists.

Despite Sokol’s pride in the resilience of the church here -- shared by John Paul, who has called on the West to receive “light from the East” -- few observers doubt that post-communist Catholicism faces several challenges:

  • Accounting for the church’s behavior under the communists, which was often principled but in some cases badly compromised;
  • striking the right tone on nationalistic passions;
  • coping with the religious and political pluralism that come with living in a free society;
  • balancing institutional self-interest against the pastoral needs of the people.

In the days just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the story line seemed simple enough: Heroic dissenters triumphed over state-sponsored terror. As the historical picture slowly comes into focus, however, the truth seems more complex. Just as a generation of Western Europeans had to account for their behavior under the Nazis, so too people in the East today face the question “What did you do?” under the communists. It is a matter of both pride and fierce debate within Catholicism.

In the early years of communist suzerainty, Hungary’s church was synonymous with Catholic resistance. Cardinal Josef Mindszenty was sentenced to life at hard labor in 1949 in one of the first communist “show trials” (he escaped to the American embassy in Budapest in 1956 and left for Vienna in 1971).

After Mindszenty, the bishops opted for a much softer tone. In 1981, for example, when a Piarist priest and activist named György Bulányi began preaching pacifism, church leaders said conscientious objection was barred under Hungary’s constitution, and the church would not sanction disobedience. It supported government action against priests who defied the law.

These days Fr. Bulányi does not mince words: “In this country, the scum rose to the surface,” he said in a 1997 interview.

Such perceptions are part of the reason that church attendance here has never recovered after the fall of communism, hovering at 15 to 18 percent of what it was before World War II, according to Hungarian sociologist Miklós Tomka.

Cardinal Paskai insists, however, “We had to co-exist.” He said the Vatican under John XXIII and Paul VI endorsed the bishops’ decision to find a modus vivendi.

Paskai spoke to NCR Sept. 23 in his residence in the center of old Budapest.

“What is collaboration?” he asked. “If we talk to each other, is that collaboration? Here in Hungary we learned to talk rather than fight. The point is that the Catholic church never supported the socialist ideology.”

In Slovakia, Cardinal Jan Korec’s resistance is the stuff of legend. Yet such valor was not universal; estimates are that up to 10 percent of Czechoslovak priests informed for the secret police, the Státní Bezpecnost. Many more took part in events sponsored by Pacem in Terris, the official priestly society sponsored by the communist government. Its aim -- like Opus Pacis in Hungary, Pax in Poland, and similar societies elsewhere -- was to encourage progressive priests to distance the national church from Rome.

Paskai was unwilling to condemn these priests. “If that’s collaboration, then call it collaboration,” he said. Paskai himself was active in another government-sponsored group, the Patriotic People’s Front.

Sokol said the number of genuine Pacem in Terris priests in Slovakia was never more than 12 or 15 out of 800, and that while a few of them were crass careerists, most were excellent priests who believed they were saving the church.

Many accused of collaborating were guilty of nothing more than being interrogated by the secret police, Sokol said.

“You can’t understand it unless you lived through it,” he said. “It was a comedy. These guys [the secret police] sat in their offices in Bratislava for eight hours a day with nothing to do. So they decided to go out and visit priests, robbing them of their time. That way the agents could justify their government car, even get paid overtime. The priests tell them nothing they don’t already know. When they file their report, someone then turns around and says the priests collaborated.”

There is little question, however, that some priests in Slovakia and elsewhere did inform on other priests and parishioners. The question of what to do about them promises to remain contentious. In Poland, author Andrzej Grajewski’s new book The Judas Complex alleges that one in 10 priests there acted as informers. Grajewski urged the church to conduct its own soul-searching before secular researchers do so in more damaging fashion, but so far the bishops have resisted.

The pattern largely holds true across the region. In Hungary, the bishops have opposed calls to screen priests in the manner of a 1994 federal law that applies to judges, broadcasters and other office-holders.

Paskai was cold to the idea of vetting priests for former ties to the state security apparatus. “In some circles there seems to prevail the opinion that the only mortal sin is to not have been active in the resistance,” he said. “If a Catholic priest gets married, people think he’s still a good man. He’s doing what people expect.” Paskai said it was questionable whether the “time is ripe to pass judgment.”

Given the renewal of ethnic antagonisms that followed the collapse of communism, coping with nationalism is another urgent concern. It is an especially delicate matter in Slovakia, where nationalism has both historical and contemporary dimensions.

The last era of Slovak independence came during World War II, when a government led by a Catholic priest, Msgr. Josef Tiso, allied itself with the Nazis. When Tiso became president in 1938, Pius XI sent him a personal blessing.

Slovaks argue over whether Tiso embraced anti-Semitism or was forced into it; either way, more than 50,000 of the country’s 90,000 Jews were rounded up under his authority. Tiso carried out these policies with the support of Slovakia’s prelates. Bishop Karol Kmetko of Nitra told Slovakia’s chief rabbi in 1943 that Jews deserved punishment and could expect no help without embracing Christianity.

Some Slovaks say the failure of the church to clearly reject Tiso’s conduct has fueled nationalist excesses today.

Sokol, however, says Tiso was presented with an impossible choice. “The Nazis said you can either have a small state, or Slovakia will be sliced up three ways -- part going to the Czech state, part to Hungary, and part to Poland,” Sokol said. “He believed it was best to save the nation.”

“It is like coming to an intersection on a country road, without a soul to tell you which way to turn,” Sokol said. “How do you know what the correct way is? Then later someone criticizes you for going right instead of left.”

Of the deportations, Sokol asserts that many were actually carried out by Hungary, “but history has assigned them to us” because Hungarian towns with heavy concentrations of Jews are now part of Slovakia. He also said that it’s unfair to single out Tiso for his Nazi ties, when the Hungarians fought “to the last minute” at Hitler’s side.

Sokol says he has received hundreds of letters from people stating that Tiso released Jews marked for deportation.

“I don’t mean to defend Tiso by this … but Christ is the best example and the most beautiful example for us. He was absolutely not guilty and he ended up on the cross,” Sokol said, suggesting that Tiso, too, is often treated as guilty for matters beyond his control.

The depth of the challenges posed to church leaders -- who often share the fierce national pride of their countrymen -- is clear in the differing perceptions Sokol and Peskai have of the situation facing the Hungarian minority in southern Slovakia.

As Sokol sees it, tension between Slovaks and Hungarians is largely the latter’s fault. “I love my Hungarian brothers, but it’s crazy down there,” he said. “They still think of themselves as Hungarians. You try to tell one of them he’s a Slovak, he’ll kill you.”

Paskai disagrees. He said in both Slovakia and Romania, there is an attempt to rob Hungarian minorities of their identity. Where Sokol sees the ethnic cohesion of Hungarians in Slovakia as a threat, Paskai sees it as an asset to be supported by the church. “We must try to help them maintain their culture,” he said.

In addition to nationalism, pluralism -- both the political and religious sort -- is placing a strain on the church here. Zdzislaw Mach of Jagiellonian University in Kraków wrote in a 1999 essay that many Eastern Europeans see the church’s priorities as “moral monopoly and direct influence on the state and law.” They believe the church seeks control, for example, over marriage and abortion, imposing dictates without listening to the experience of the very people who sustained it during communism.

The perception has generated resentment. As one Pole, quoted by veteran Vatican writer Desmond O’Grady, put it, “We didn’t fight the reds just to end up under the blacks.”

London-based sociologist Eileen Barker, who tracks new religious movements in Central and Eastern Europe, says the new free market of religious options in Eastern Europe has thrown the established churches off balance. In some cases, new religious groups -- such as the Unification Church or the Scientologists -- offer converts access to business networks and Western capital. Sometimes the new movements offer what the communists used to -- job security. The Mormons, for example, have built a concrete plant in Armenia and offer jobs to new members.

What’s important is not the number of converts to the new religious groups, which Barker says is still small, but the response of the older churches, which has largely consisted of demands for legal prohibitions against new movements -- in effect, a form of spiritual protectionism.

They have not, in other words, learned to hustle.

Some observers hope that the church in the East, as it emerges from the “refrigerator of history,” will experience the same uplift that Western Catholicism did after surviving the Nazis. New post-war energies led to the liturgical movement, a renaissance in biblical studies, greater ecumenical awareness and other currents that flowed into Vatican II. If it is taking longer to discern the outlines of such growth in the East, perhaps that’s because the Soviet empire outlasted Hitler’s by four decades.

Such an outcome, however, is not pre-ordained. At a meeting just prior to the last European Synod in 1991, a Polish priest, Adam Boniecki, issued a warning that remains relevant: “The church could recover all that was confiscated by the communists, its property, its institutions, its press, and even a political party which sustains it. But at the same time it could lose its most important acquisition in recent years: its credibility, because each new attempt at discussion within the church is interpreted as a threat to unity.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999