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Bridget RyderMarch 01, 2024
Pope Francis meets with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at Sándor Palace in Budapest, Hungary, on April 28, 2023. The pope was beginning a three-day trip to Hungary's capital with meetings with government officials. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis meets with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at Sándor Palace in Budapest, Hungary, on April 28, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Just a few days before Christmas, the former Hungarian President Katalin Novak praised church-state relations in Hungary.

“Over the past two days, I welcomed Hungarian church leaders from inside and outside Hungary,” she wrote on X. “This is a tradition and clearly indicates that in Hungary, the state and the churches, Christian and Jewish denominations work well together for the people.”

Photos in her post included religious leaders shaking hands, bowing their heads in prayer and listening attentively while Ms. Novak, who had performed a symbolic and diplomatic role as Hungarian president, spoke from a podium. As in some of her other posts on X, she boasted about the visit of Pope Francis to Hungary last year. In another post, she celebrated the last days of Advent, highlighting her attendance at a crowded Mass. (Ms. Novak resigned on Feb. 9 after a public uproar followed revelations that she had pardoned a man convicted of helping to cover up sexual abuse in a children’s home.)

Even as Prime Minister Victor Orban positions his government as one of the last defenders of Christian culture in Europe, religious affiliation in Hungary has dropped to a record low.

While the former president emphasized a strong religiosity in Hungary, some replies on X challenged her sense that church-state relations in the country were perceived as strong and mutually beneficial among other Hungarians.

One poster disparaged Cardinal Peter Erdo, who has led the Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest since 2003, accusing him of acting as a puppet of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Another charged that Ms. Novak was only “pretending” to be a follower of Christ. A third respondent complained that the government was not addressing the real concerns of Hungarians, noting that most people were more concerned about high taxes than church-state relations.

The responses suggest a more complex relationship between church and state in Hungary than the Orban government perhaps cares to acknowledge. And even as Mr. Orban positions his government as one of the last defenders of Christian culture in Europe, religious affiliation in Hungary has dropped to a record low.

Hungary is a Catholic country with a strong Protestant presence, but in its latest census, published late last year, a majority of Hungarians, 57 percent, failed to declare an affiliation in any faith tradition: Forty percent did not answer the question about affiliation at all, and 17 percent declared “no religion” after being asked which church they belonged to. The census outcome marks the first time that religious identity has fallen below 50 percent in Hungary.

The Catholic Church in Hungary saw the steepest loss of membership, dropping 30 percent since the last census in 2011. Now 1.1 million fewer Hungarians identify as Catholics than 10 years ago. The contemporary decline reflects a long-term trend. Two decades ago, over half of Hungarians identified as Catholic; today only 28 percent do.

Hungary is a Catholic country with a strong Protestant presence, but in its latest census a majority of Hungarians failed to declare an affiliation in any faith tradition.

The Hungarian Catholic bishops’ conference acknowledged that the church in Hungary is subject to the same dynamics as the rest of Europe—societies marked by decades of secularization and decline in traditional religious practice. “International trends can also be observed in the census data, from which Hungary and within this our Catholic communities are no exception. This is also a task for the Hungarian Catholic Church,” the bishops said in the statement reflecting on the census data.

Gergley Rosta, a Hungarian-born sociologist at the University of Munich, agreed with the bishops, calling the latest numbers in Hungary a reflection of steady and broad European secularization that reaches back—in Hungary’s case—to change that began even before the communist era. The secular advance was halted briefly in the late 1980s and into the 1990s as church membership grew, he said, possibly part of a reactionary movement against communism. By the end of the 1990s, however, church affiliation leveled off before resuming a decline that continues into the new century, he said.

But even as the Catholic Church in Hungary lost membership steeply under Mr. Orban, it has been lavished with financial and practical support by his government. Botond Feledy is a political analyst and the deputy director at the Jesuit European Social Center in Brussels. He said that when Mr. Orban and his Fidesz Party gained leadership in 2010, most of the church property nationalized under communism remained under the control of the Hungarian government.

Seeking to firm up public support for his political agenda, Mr. Orban sought first to improve relations with faith groups in Hungary, particularly the Catholic Church and the Calvinist Reformed Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Returning confiscated properties was one way to improve his standing with Hungary’s churches.

The property restoration, said Peter Zachar, a political scientist at the Ludovik University of Public Service, was a tremendous opportunity for the Catholic Church to rebuild its institutions in the post-communist era. According to Mr. Zachar, from 2010 to 2020, the number of Catholic primary schools in Hungary almost doubled, increasing from 9.4 percent of all schools in Hungary to 17 percent. Secondary schools increased from 10.4 percent to 25 percent of all high schools.

Exploiting such culture-war issues, Prime Minister Orban has flooded Hungarians with “excessive propaganda on illegal migration and L.G.B.T.Q. issues.”

Other church institutions like nursing homes and services for the poor have also increased. And under Mr. Orban, Hungarian taxpayers are footing the bill for the maintenance and upkeep of churches, Mr. Zachar said.

“Many believers are pleased that their church building has been renovated, that the village parish has new and modern heating in its communal areas and a modern church-run school, and that the church has a strong and assertive presence in the media,” Mr. Zachar said.

In 2016, responding to the migrant crisis that first erupted across Europe in 2015, Mr. Orban also established the State Secretariat for Assistance to Persecuted Christians within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as well as Hungary Helps, a state-funded development agency that provides aid to Middle Eastern and African countries with a particular focus on assisting persecuted Christians to allow them to remain in their homelands.

“As a result of [the secretariat’s] existence, the government, and Viktor Orban in particular, is happy to meet with church leaders, to invite bishops of the Christian churches of the Middle East to Hungary and to project the image of [Hungary as the] ‘bastion of Christianity’ to the outside world,” Mr. Zachar said.

He adds that Mr. Orban, a Reformed Calvinist, is also regularly seen attending Catholic services and that “members of the government he leads feel obliged to regularly report on their presence at religious events.”

The prime minister “considers churches as allies, his friends, and the historic churches didn’t reject the friendship,” Mr. Rosta said.

The politicization of faith has made charitable debate nearly impossible.

According to Mr. Zachar, that alliance has led to some confusion about the role of church leaders and even popular resentment against the church in a nation that, despite the intentions of its leadership, remains a fundamentally secular state and society. And, as the disgruntled replies to Ms. Novak suggest, many Hungarians sense that churches have let themselves be captured by Mr. Orban.

The reality is a bit more complicated, Mr. Zachar believes. Rhetorically, Fidesz positions often overlap with basic Catholic doctrine, insisting that marriage can only be between a man and woman, for example, a position recently written into the Hungarian constitution by the Orban government. But even as Pope Francis has praised Hungary for upholding “traditional values,” he has strongly criticized its opposition to receiving Middle Eastern and African refugees.

Mr. Orban’s government ran a pro-life campaign in 2011, but according to Mr. Rosta, “there was never a serious discussion about changing the abortion law,” which allows broad access to abortion for up to 12 weeks and under certain circumstances up to 24 weeks. When it became clear that restricting abortion would result in losing votes, Mr. Orban stopped pressing the issue, he said.

Freedom of worship is enshrined in the Hungarian constitution, so any denomination can open a church. But churches can also establish legal status that allows them to enter into service agreements with the government, receive funding from tax payments from church members (a common arrangement in Europe) or teach religion in public schools. The controversial Act on Churches, passed in 2012, revoked that status among many small churches and denominations and changed the approval process.

Previously the outcome of a judicial review, approval for the highest status that allows teaching in public schools, is granted now by a two-thirds majority vote in parliament. Many see the law as a move by Mr. Orban to exert more control over Hungarian churches.

The prime minister “considers churches as allies, his friends, and the historic churches didn’t reject the friendship.”

Mr. Zachar noted that the Christian self-identification of the Orban government has been founded principally on two issues—keeping non-Europeans and presumably non-Christian asylum seekers out of Hungary, and taking a stand against gay marriage and transgender issues. Fidesz, known for its well-oiled propaganda machine, intensely leverages the culture war for political purposes that can have negative secondary effects on Hungary.

The politicization of faith has made charitable debate nearly impossible, Mr. Zachar said. “The existing political trenches deepened and walls between different social groups rose even more,” he said. “Reconciliation has become even more difficult, the possibility of understanding is very far away.”

“L.G.B.T.Q. issues have been present in Hungarian society since the [end of communism] but never as issues of such importance that they have dominated the entire social public sphere,” Mr. Zachar said. Now “it has become one of the most important debates and one of the most divisive issues.”

Mr. Zachar said that in exploiting such culture-war issues, Mr. Orban has flooded Hungarians with “excessive propaganda on illegal migration and L.G.B.T.Q. issues.”

Mr. Orban’s government passed a controversial law in 2022 that bans public showings of L.G.B.T.Q. content to minors. As a result of such campaigns, according to Mr. Zachar, “the general public unfortunately confuses the commission of real crimes with the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”

According to Mr. Rosta, there is no direct evidence linking Mr. Orban’s politicization of faith and values to diminished church affiliation, nor has the Hungarian Catholic Church been shaken by the kinds of scandals that has demolished church identity in other European states like Ireland.

But social surveys conducted over the last decade suggest a possible source of disquiet, he said, tracking a growing sense among Eastern Europeans that churches are too involved in politics. A recent study from the International Social Survey Program found that Hungarians increasingly believe that churches have too much power, a position steadily on the rise in Hungary since 2008.

“The proximity of religion and politics” over the last decade and more, Mr. Rosta said, may explain why far fewer Hungarians are now willing to describe themselves as members of a contemporary church.

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