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Structure meant survival, study finds

NCR Staff
Vienna, Austria

For all the flaws communism exposed in the Catholic church behind the Iron Curtain, all the human and structural damage it caused, there is a provocative conclusion to that era, according to a pair of researchers here: Catholicism endured while Protestantism largely crumbled.

That conclusion is among the more remarkable findings of the first comprehensive study of religion in post-communist societies, conducted by Professors Paul Zulehner of Vienna and Miklós Tomka of Budapest. Their book, Gott Nach Dem Kommunismus (“God after Communism”), appeared earlier this year.

Zulehner spoke to NCR Sept. 28 from his home on the outskirts of Vienna, which also serves as headquarters for his Pastoral Forum, a center for research on pastoral activity.

The question now, according to Zulehner, is whether the strength that allowed Catholicism to survive - its strong institutional identity - will be an agent of change or an obstacle to it.

Zulehner and Tomka found that two societies in the heart of Christian Europe now have overwhelming atheist majorities: The former East Germany and the Czech Republic. In 1999, self-described atheists are more than 60 percent of the population in both places.

“In Central Europe, we have the tradition of what is called the Volkskirche, or ‘popular church,’ ” Zulehner said. “For example, in Bavaria, if you are Bavarian, you are Catholic.

“In these two places, atheism is now the Volkskirche. It is what parents teach their children, it represents the social consensus.”

It is no accident, Zulehner believes, that prior to the communist era in the Czech Republic and East Germany, liberal Protestantism was the dominant religious tradition.

“Communists wanted to privatize religion, to deprive it of its connection to an institution that could act as a counterweight to the state,” Zulehner said. “Protestantism was more congenial to this aim because it has a much more individualistic approach, and liberal Protestantism especially -- it stresses the Protestant Geist, or ‘spirit,’ the cultural phenomenon of Protestantism, not attachment to a church.

“In these two societies the theological currents and the communist approach came together to radically privatize faith, and, for the most part, it did not survive,” Zulehner said.

Zulehner pointed out that while in the former West Germany it remains common to have religious instruction in the public schools, in East Germany public schools offer philosophy and ethics, not religion.

The statistical data is supported by the anecdotal experience of a former activist in the underground Catholic church in the Czech Republic, who spoke to NCR on the condition of anonymity. She fears harassment today not from the state, but from church officials, who take a dim view of some of the innovations that went on underground in the church during the communist era.

After the fall of communism, she took a job teaching religion at a local high school. At first, there were enough children to fill three classes, as parents, energized by the victory over communism, sent their children back to church. That enthusiasm has largely expired. When there were no more students at the high school taking religion, she moved to a primary school -- where the numbers are dwindling so quickly she fears she will soon be out of work.

“For most people, religion is just not a part of life here,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum, religious affiliation is high in Poland, Croatia and Romania, according to Zulehner and Tomka’s study -- countries where the established churches (Catholicism and Orthodoxy) have strong institutional structures closely tied to national identity. Believers remain a majority in the other Catholic nations of the region, such as Slovenia and Slovakia.

Support systems formed by attachment to an institution are critically important to keeping the faith alive, Zulehner says, whether the social context is Marxism or Western liberalism. “You can’t be a Christian alone in a post-Christian society,” Zulehner said. “Even forgetting about theology, sociologically it is impossible.”

What’s the lesson for Western Catholics? “To appreciate more the institutional dimension of the church,” Zulehner said. “We learn from the Communist Party that if you want to damage religion, you must destroy the organization. We in the West are always rebelling against institutions and organizations, but we must not forget they are important for the community life of the church.”

Zulehner said the growing strength of the so-called “new movements” in the Catholic church -- Focolare, the Legionaries of Christ, Communion and Liberation -- show, despite their reputation for right-wing attitudes, that Catholics need solidarity in a culture hostile to religious belief.

Zulehner is no apologist for institutional Catholicism; indeed, his independently funded Pastoral Forum has come in for heavy criticism from right-wing Austrian Bishop Kurt Krenn for being too independent and too critical of the hierarchy. Yet Zulehner does not hesitate to say that Western distaste for structure carries dangers.

“One of the main reasons we have a crisis of Catholicism in Western Europe is this privatization of religion,” he said, “In our case it is not the result of oppression, but it is the same dynamic.”

None of this means, however, that Zulehner sees the Eastern church through rose-colored glasses.

“Under the pressure of communists, the churches tried to avoid any sort of evolution,” he said. “In terms of Vatican II, the only real adaptation they made was in liturgy. They have very little lay leadership -- no pastoral councils on either the parish or the diocesan levels. There is also a very low level of theological reflection.”

Perhaps the central weakness of Catholicism behind the Iron Curtain, Zulehner said, is that it retreated almost completely from public life. In the first years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the church sought to re-establish its public presence through legislative means -- dictating social policies on political and moral issues.

The rebuff church leaders experienced drove many of them to become hostile to the new pluralistic societies in which they find themselves.

Therein, Zulehner says, lies the real danger to the church in the East. “Our study shows that nostalgia for the communist period is high in many countries,” Zulehner said. “They say it was a warm time, a socially secure time for us. There is a real danger of a backlash against democracy.”

This view is supported by the failure of the church to offer a positive vision of democratic society. “The churches must learn to support the way of freedom,” Zulehner said.

“Under the communists, the churches were the place of freedom. Now they are seen as enemies of freedom. If they fight against democracy, they are again pulling out of the evolution of their societies,” he said.

Zulehner said he hopes the upcoming European Synod will give attention to this problem.

“I think what the hierarchy must learn - in both the East and the West - is that it is not the group to be proposing political solutions,” Zulehner said. “It must form the laity, and then allow them, in different political parties, to ensure that social policy flows from a gospel spirit.”

The challenge is to capitalize on what communism showed to be Catholicism’s core strength -- solidarity created through the medium of an institution -- without insisting that all the answers flow from that institution.

“We need the institution for the faith to survive, but its leaders must realize they have to work with and through the people, not alienate them,” Zulehner said. “The best success for the communist policy would be to have churches like museums -- no people, no life, just going through the motions,” he said. “It could happen. In some ways, it is happening.”

“As a theologian, I have to believe that God gave the church 40 years of communism to teach it something,” Zulehner said. “The question is, have we learned the lesson?”

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999