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János Wildmann {*}

Unholy Alliance

The Church in Hungary Lacks Distance from the Government


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2011, P. 149-154
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Ever since in recent elections the National Conservatives won a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament the Catholic Church remains silent: about the retrospective changes in legislation or the restriction of the authority of the Constitutional Court as well as about the abroad controversial media law of Orbán's government.


In Hungary, in newspaper articles or letters from readers one is time and again reminded of Viktor Orbán's mocking remark in Parliament about two decades ago. When a deputy of the Christian Democrats (KDNP) had taken the floor, the then chairman of the Young Free Democrats (Fidesz) shouted to him, "Churchmen! Let's pray! On your knees!" At that time the Young Democrats were not unpopular in Hungary, but the parliamentary elections of 1994 did not bring the hoped-for breakthrough for them. They reached less than eight percent of the votes, slightly less than four years earlier.

The right-wing bourgeois Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which after the turnaround had become the largest ruling party, suffered a downright crash: It lost admittedly "only" half of the votes, but thanks to the distribution of mandates three-quarters of the parliamentary seats. Winners were the Socialists (MSZP) and the Free Democrats (SZDSZ). They entered into a coalition and had thus a comfortable two-thirds majority in the House of the Nation.

In the liberal camp there could no longer anything be gained by Orbán, but he discovered the vacuum on the right. Until 1998, out of the former anti-clerical Free Democrat a bourgeois Christian Democrat developed who sought the favor of the frustrated conservative citizens and of the churches. Almost the entire party establishment made this change of mind. The party was renamed in "Fidesz - Hungarian Civil Alliance."

Characteristic of the new Fidesz-line was its position on the issue of financing the religious education. This was a contentious issue between the Catholic Church and the government of Gyula Horn (1994 to 1998), since it had not been treated in the agreement with the Holy See (1997). The bishops said that one had forgotten to settle this matter, but the socialist-liberal government rejected this interpretation and emphasized that it was more than replaced by the newly introduced tax assignment (every tax payer may assign one percent of his personal income tax to a church or religious denomination) - the more so as there is a state guarantee for 50 percent of this tax type.

In case of a victory in the parliamentary elections, Orbán promised that he would finance in addition to the guaranteed tax allotment also religious education provided by the churches. Such gestures and the new rhetoric associated with them convinced the traditional Christian churches, which almost unanimously backed him.



The success did not fail to materialize, and after the 1998 elections Fidesz could form a coalition with the Independent Smallholders Party (FKGP) and the shrunken MDF. The KDNP got no seat in parliament. Also Zsolt Semjén failed. Due to intraparty reckoning he was even excluded from the party and tried his luck in vain in the MDF.

But Orbán took the Christian Democrat into the Ministry of Culture and made him the Deputy State Secretary for Church Affairs. Semjén, a Catholic theologian, cultivated good relations with the bishops of the traditional Christian churches, especially with the Catholic hierarchy and was, as it were, their mouthpiece in the first Orbán government. His counterpart was in the office of Prime Minister the pastor of the Reformed Church Zoltán Balog.

It took some time until Semjén and Balog clarified their responsibilities, but eventually they agreed on a basic direction of church policy. It was their declared goal to work out a "uniform, coherent model, applicable to recent history. On the one hand, it had to compensate for the decades-long destructions, done by the overthrown regime which persecuted the churches. On the other hand, it had to avoid the impasse into which church policy got in some Western countries, due to the fact that it allowed to be led by the secular myths of the last century."


The Socialist-liberal Coalition was Faced with a Heap of Shards

The separation of church and state is no separation of church and society; the two must therefore go "the path of harmonious cooperation." What is striking in the thinking of the two theologians is that they grant the churches certain privileges, as e.g. state funding of church institutions, whereas they refuse to grant them to similar institutions which are maintained by others. Their reasoning is like a revelation: If institutions are church-run, then the State had the duty of full funding, but if they are not church-run, then the state has just not the same obligation.

The arsenal of the proposed model includes a series of economic incentives, from tax benefits on churches and church people over various grants up to state funding of religious education provided by the churches. The authors proudly admit that the proposed model of church policy was not totally new. It was "spiritually indepted to the heritage of our king, Saint Stephen. Its conclusion reads: what is good for the church is good for the country, and what is good for the country is good for the church."

However, the first Orbán government was unable to implement an important project of church policy, namely the tightening of the law on the establishment of new churches and religious communities, because in parliament a two-thirds majority was necessary for it. The Hungarian regulation is indeed very generous. At present it is sufficient, if hundred people make a respective application. If they are registered as a religious community, then they are entitled to certain benefits and tax allocations. Already ten years ago, the theologians Semjén and Balog argued that this regulation opens the door for dubious companies, sects and the abuse of the status of a church.

The fourth-largest church in Hungary, the liberal "Faith Church" (Hit Gyülekezete), and other religious and social groups, however, pointed out that the risk of abuse, mentioned by the two church leaders, admittedly exists, but that it is not comparable to the mismanagement in which the large established churches are occasionally entangled. The planned tightening of the law on founding churches is therefore an attempt to restrict freedom of religion, and to favor also in future the so-called historical churches and religions. This dispute certainly contributed to the fact that Orbán lost the elections in 2002. Not only Fidesz, but also the members of the Catholic and Reformed Church were deeply shocked. The third largest church, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church, had already more distance to the Orbán government.

Over the next eight years, the socialist-liberal governments set no new directions in church policy. They tried to some extent to comply with the demands of the bishops or made new donations to the churches. They increased e.g. the state guarantee of tax allocation to the churches to 90 (in reality, almost 100 percent), which made the taxpayers' free disposal completely unnecessary.

This policy of good deeds, however, was not only without clear plan, it also imparted the impression of embarrassment: just as if the socialists had to make good for the persecution of the church before the turnaround, rather than to completely distance themselves from the past. Their attitude was rather irritating than reassuring.

When the government's attempts to curry favour with the two large churches were unsuccessful, the liberal coalition partner became more unruly: Bálint Magyar, minister of cultural affairs, cut some state subsidies to church institutions. This in turn enraged the bishops and faithful, and resulted in a demonstration in front of the Ministry.

At the end, the socialist-liberal coalition faced a pile of shards - not only in church policy. Its incompetence in matters of administration as well as lies and corruption scandals have totally discredited it among the general population. Many people lost their faith in the real existing democracy and wanted a strong leader personality. Viktor Orbán, who in 2004 had got from the John Paul II the highest award of the Catholic Church to non-clerics, the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Gregory, was predestined for this role.



The vast majority of the faithful of both major churches supported him without reservation.

The victory of Fidesz in the parliamentary elections in 2010 was therefore foreseeable, even if it had no convincing government program. Only one question was open: Would their results suffice for a simple or a two thirds majority in Parliament. Orbán regarded the well-known result of the "voting booths revolution" as an authorization to a system change in Hungary. It was possible again to give more attention even to old, during the period of the socialist-liberal governments necessarily suspended projects of Church-State policy.


Promotion of Social and Educational Institutions of the Church

Already before the elections, representatives of Fidesz and KDNP tried to reduce the resistance to an amendment to the law on founding churches. They began a dialogue with the "Faith Church" and promised her they would no longer campaign against her, as in the years 1998 to 2002, and would also consult her while discussing ecclesio-political bills on State-Church relations. In exchange, the congregation should refrain from giving its members central instructions for the parliamentary elections. In forming the government, László Szászfalvi became the new State Secretary for Church Affairs.

He is also a pastor of the Reformed Church, KDNP politicians, and committed to the "Hungarian model" of church policy. Its architects were promoted in the new government: Zoltán Balog became Secretary of State for Social Inclusion (responsible for Roma affairs) and Zsolt Semjén Deputy Prime Minister. Since 2003 Semjén is also chairman of the KDNP, which became a satellite party of Fidesz and cannot independently compete in elections but only in an alliance with Fidesz. According to Szászfalvi it is planned that the new bill on founding churches is still in this spring submitted to Parliament. In the future, by the state are acknowledged only those churches and religious communities which are either rooted "historically" or / and have at least ten thousand members. It is planned to examine also the already registered churches, in order to prevent the misuse of taxpayers' money.

Shortly after the new government was set up, Semjen and Szäszfalvi submitted to Parliament a new amendment on the financing of such educational institutions, some months later also of social institutions that the political community transfers to the church as provider. The previous regulation said that also after the transfer of the institution only the general statutory subsidy (about half the operating cost) is still paid for five years from the state budget. While the former owner, in this case the political community, continues to pay the rest. By this measure, the state wanted to prevent that communities try to get rid of their institutions only for financial reasons.

It was different with institutions that from the start or for a long time belonged to the churches. Their operating costs were entirely refunded from the state budget. The amendment proposed by the KDNP politicians now planned that the municipality in case of transferring an educational or social institution to the Church is no longer obliged to pay the residual costs for years, but these, too, are from now on (from the next school year) paid by the state. The law was adopted in Parliament by a two thirds majority of Fidesz-KDNP.

The new regulation admittedly discriminates all providers except the churches, because also in future they have to pay about half of the costs. But their protests were kept within bounds not least because they or the staff affected by the transfer were afraid of retaliation by the government or the church provider. It really happened that teachers who were critical of the transfer of their school were dismissed by the church supervisory authority after the takeover.


The Controversial New Media Law

After the elections, Orbán has thoroughly reorganized the governmental structures by the creation of "super ministries". His concept is not clear, but the centralization and the concentration of power are evident. The popular support for the Orbán government, however, seems to be almost continuously high in the opinion polls. Besides the already mentioned frustration, which was caused by the socialist-liberal economic mismanagement, the main reason for this is the vocabulary of the Prime Minister: it is national conservative and critical of globalisation. He puts the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its place, imposes taxes on the multi-nationals and banks, declares war on the Offshor'e companies and big earners, provided as long as they do not belong to the Fidesz cadres, nationalized the assets of the private Pension funds, withdraws responsibilities from the Constitutional Court when it takes decisions that are inconvenient for him, grants Hungarians who are living in neighboring countries citizenship, etc.

Certainly, there are also people who are afraid: officials, scientists and independent journalists who are declared to be politically unreliable. After the amendment of the respective law officials can now be dismissed without giving a reasons. A number of independent scientific institutions will be closed or their funding simply suspended.



If a scientist criticizes the government or the prime minister, the government commissioner for audit committees (some years ago he was involved in dubious dealings) or the tax office can immediately initiate legal proceedings against him. If nothing is found, the character assassination has already ruined the person affected. The pro-government Christian-nationalist newspaper "Magyar Nemzet" (Hungarian Nation) has a leading role in defaming critical intellectuals. One of their employees, who explicitly calls himself Christian journalist, was obedient to his conscience and recently dropped out. He apologized to those defamed by him, and confessed to deliberately vilifying them.


The Silence of the Churches

Hungary has for some months a new media law. It expands the state's control over the media. The great wave of protests from abroad has obviously surprised the government. Due to the results of EU investigation, it will certainly have to change a few paragraphs, but the real problem remains unresolved: the subjugation of free journalism and thought. The government has delegated only Fidesz members in the respective supervisory authority, and the former editor of an porn magazine was appointed chairman. She shall now rule over law and morality. There is no question that the supervisory authority will meet the expectations of Fidesz.

However, she will hardly proceed against pro-government media which denigrate others, as e.g. "Magyar Nemzet", for political reasons not even against government-critical organs - due to the critical observation by media professionals from the EU. However, with it unmistakable signals are given, which are understood by the submissive addressees. The leader-democracy rarely uses direct reprisals. It postulates submissiveness at least in the senior executive positions, not only in the state administration, but also in independent institutions such as economic chambers or courts.

Even from the conservatives can increasingly be heard criticism of the government, and especially of the Prime Minister in person. Not only his understanding of his leader role or the embarrassing media law are held against him, but also nepotism. Positions are filled again or created, and then often relatives and friends of Orbán and the ruling party cadres get a chance. You have to start somewhere with the creation of jobs, grin cynics.

But the churches maintain their silence. Gábor Czene, as columnist of the largest independent daily newspaper "Népszabadság" (People's Freedom) in charge of church affairs, wrote in late January 2011 about the silence of the Catholic Church. Before the change of government, her bishops had addressed themselves in dramatic appeals to the faithful. Before the elections of 2006 they had warned the faithful, "Our nation is in very great difficulties. Only the grace of God can save us." And after the so-called "lie speech" of socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany they had warned that "a healthy society cannot be built on a lie."

In the spring of 2009, the church called on the government to take at once the necessary steps in the interest of the indebted borrowers, because the "intolerable burden" oppressed the weakest and most innocent to an extent that "contradicts a sober moral value order". But since the right-wing camp has won a two-thirds majority in Parliament, writes Czene, it seems that nothing can disturb the Catholic hierarchy. Neither the retrospective changes in legislation or the limitation of the powers of the Constitutional Court, nor the Media Law or the changes in tax rules in favor of the rich and at the expense of the poor motivate the hierarchs to submit comments.

The churches have certainly benefited from the benevolence of the Orbán government. Before Christmas, Semjén has e.g. proposed to Parliament to approve of extra 5.3 billion forints for the Catholic Church, in addition to the planned amount of about 55 billion in the 2011 budget, from all that one hears as compensation for the deductions decreed by the socialist-liberal governments. The motion was adopted. It seems as if the prosecution authorities and courts treat suspected delinquents of the opposition harder than members of Fidesz and the churches.

In the diocese of Pecs in southern Hungary already several years ago serious allegations were raised against the diocesan leadership. Among other things, the headmistress of a church school was unlawfully dismissed by the bishop. But it is supposed that the document of dismissal has been faked in the ordinariate. The chief editor of a weekly paper turned to the prosecution, which consequently had to initiate an investigation. But the case has quietly been shelved without giving reasons. No information was given to requests. Also the Vatican has in various ways and repeatedly been informed, but from there, too, never an answer was given. One did not even initiate an investigation, but informed the Pécs bishop's palace about the complaint and its authors, who then had heavily to suffer from the consequences.

Only a scandal can induce the competent authorities to seek a solution, said a high ecclesiastical dignitary. In autumn 2010, this scandal was there: Someone reported an offence to the prosecutor against the management of the diocese, regarding several dozens of suspected offenses, including embezzlement, fraud, withholding of state subsidies, falsification of documents, abuse of power, sexual harassment and cover-up of pedophilia. The author also informed the independent media, which since then attentively follow the case.



The bishop first denied all accusation against him and his economists. In the following months, however, further complaints were presented to the prosecutor, before Christmas, one even by a close co-worker of the ordinariate. She accuses the diocesan leadership of embezzlement in the amount of several hundred million forints. Only afterwards, the Vatican decided to induce the bishop to resign. In view of their good relations with the diocese, the prosecutors and police in Pécs, however, declared themselves to be biased and passed the case to the authorities in another county. Meanwhile, more and more people in Hungary believe in the resurrection - but in that of the holy alliance of throne and altar.


    {*} János Wildman (born in 1954), economist and doctor of theologian works at the University of Pécs (South Hungary) Chair of Sociology of Religion,) editor in chief of the pastoral theological journal Egyházfórum (Church Forum).


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