Hungary Table of Contents

Mátyás Templom, BudapestParticularly during the early years of communist rule, the churches had faced extensive harassment and persecution by the regime. Many clergy had been openly hostile to the new government at its inception. The new secular authorities, for their part, denounced such attitudes as traitorous, and they mistrusted the churches as a source of opposition.

The most protracted case of tension and open conflict involved the Roman Catholic Church. In 1945 the church lost its landed property in the first postwar land reform, which occurred before the communist takeover. Most Catholic religious orders (fifty-nine of a total of sixty-three groups) were dissolved in 1948, when religious schools were also taken over by the state. Most Catholic associations and clubs, which numbered about 4,000, were forced to disband. Imprisoned and prosecuted for political resistance to the communist regime were a number of clergy, most notably Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, primate of the Catholic Church in Hungary. In 1950 about 2,500 monks and nuns, about one-quarter of the total in Hungary, were deported. Authorities banned sixty-four of sixty-eight functioning religious newspapers and journals. Although in 1950 the Catholic Church accepted an agreement with the state that forced church officials to take a loyalty oath to the Constitution, relations between the church and the state remained strained throughout the decade.

During the 1960s, the two sides gradually reached an accommodation. In 1964 the state concluded a major agreement with the Vatican, the first of its kind involving a communist state. The document ratified certain episcopal appointments already made by the church, although it did not settle Mindszenty's long- standing case. As before, the agreement mandated that certain individuals in positions in the church were obliged to take an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and the laws of the country. But this oath was to be binding only to the extent that the country's laws were not in opposition to the tenets of the Catholic faith. The church conceded the state's right to approve selection of high church officials. Under the agreement, the Hungarian Roman Catholic Church could staff its Papal Institute in Rome with priests endorsed by the government, and each year every diocese in the country would send a priest to Rome to attend the institute. For its part, the government promised not to interfere with the institute's work.

Following the agreement, many vacant church posts were filled. Gradually, the organizational structure of the church was reestablished, and congregations became active again. The church began to take a role in the ceremonial life of the country. Relations between church and state warmed particularly after 1974, when the Vatican removed Mindszenty from his office (in 1971 Mindszenty had received permission to leave the country after spending many years in the American embassy in Budapest, where he had fled to escape detention by the authorities). The new primate, Cardinal Laszlo Lekai, who held office from 1976 to 1986, sponsored a policy of "small steps," through which he sought to reconcile differences between church and state and enhance relations between the two through "quiet, peaceful dialogue." He urged Catholics to be loyal citizens of the state and simultaneously to seek personal and communal salvation through the church.

Evidence suggests that a serious falling away from religion among Catholics (especially a drop in attendance at church services) occurred only during the 1960s and 1970s, ironically during the period when the government no longer energetically persecuted the church. Some observers have suggested that in the 1950s the church earned popularity as an anticommunist institution because of widespread dissatisfaction with material, political, and cultural trends within the country. As conditions improved, the church no longer served as a focal point for the disaffected. Some Catholics, both lay and clerical, felt that Lekai, in his eagerness to smooth relations between church and state, went too far in compromising the church's position.

The Catholic Church of the 1980s had difficulty providing adequate services to all communities. Its clergymen were aging and decreasing in number. Whereas in 1950 the church had had 3,583 priests and 11,538 monks and nuns, in 1986 it had only about 2,600 priests and a mere 250 monks and nuns. It was clear by this time, however, that the church was reaping tangible benefits from its relationship with the state. For example, in the 1980s the Catholic orders of the Benedictines, the Franciscans, the Piarists, and Our Lady's School Sisters were again functioning in limited numbers. A new order of nuns, the Sisters of Our Lady of Hungary, received permission to organize in 1986. In the 1980s, the church had six seminaries for training priests and a theological academy in Budapest.

After the communist takeover, the historic Protestant churches became even more thoroughly integrated into the new state system than did the Catholic Church. They were not a source of organized dissent. The Reformed (Calvinist), Unitarian, and the Lutheran churches all reached accommodation with the government in the late 1940s (as did the small Greek Orthodox and the Jewish communities). These agreements guaranteed the Protestants the right to worship and brought about some financial support (contingent after 1949 on the loyalty oath). Some Protestant leaders praised the agreements as heralding a new era in which all religions would be treated equally. However, a number of Reformed clergy and followers became active supporters of the Revolution of 1956. After the Revolution failed, many of these people joined "free churches" (including the Baptist, Methodist, and Seventh-Day Adventist churches), which functioned apart from the historic Protestant churches.

In 1986, according to Western estimates, about 67.5 percent of the population was Roman Catholic, 20 percent was Reformed (Calvinist), 5 percent was unaffiliated, and 5 percent was Lutheran (its members were in particular the German and Slovak minorities but also included many ethnic Magyars). Other Christian denominations included Uniates, Orthodox, and various small Protestant groups, such as Baptists, Methodists, Seventh- Day Adventists, and Mormons. Most of these smaller groups were affiliated with the national Council of Free Churches and were dubbed free churches as a group. The country also had 65,000 to 100,000 practicing Jews. The remainder of the population did not subscribe to any religious creed or organization. Nor was any single church or religion particularly associated with the national identity in the popular mind, as was the Catholic Church in Poland.

Western observers concluded that although the country possessed about 5 million practicing believers, religion did not provide a viable alternative value system that could compete with the predominant secularism and materialism promoted both by the government and by trends within an increasingly modern society. Thus, religion was unlikely to become a vehicle for dissent as in Poland or, in a more limited way, in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

A noteworthy phenomenon of the early 1980s was the appearance of thousands of intensely active prayer and meditation groups within Catholic and Protestant congregations. Some of these groups came into conflict with the church hierarchies over military service and other aspects of cooperation with the government.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. Until 1989, however, these guarantees were severely circumscribed by the State Office for Church Affairs, which regulated the activities of the churches. On June 15, 1989, the government abolished this office. In its place, the government planned to establish a "National Church Council" that would act as a "consultative organization," not as an instrument for the control of the churches. In addition, the Ministry of Culture assumed responsibility for church affairs. Also in 1989, the government submitted for public debate new "Principles of a Law on Freedom of Conscience, the Right of Free Exercise of Religion, and Church Affairs." The document, prepared by representatives of the churches, banned discrimination against believers, acknowledged the churches as legal entities, and recognized their equality before the law. Yet in the late 1980s, the state's financial support of all major churches continued to give it considerable leverage in influencing church affairs.

Between 1945 and 1986, religious communities erected or repaired 306 Roman Catholic, 46 Calvinist (Reformed), 33 Lutheran, and 23 Uniate churches. Congregations of the free churches built 185 new structures, and the Jewish community built a new synagogue. The various denominations maintained their own modest publishing organs that produced newspapers, periodicals, and books. Occasionally, religious services were broadcast over radio. The various churches and denominations each supported (collectively, in the case of the free churches) at least one theological academy or college for the training of clergy. However, the number of students was small; 75 students graduated out of a total of 648 students enrolled in such institutions in 1987.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress