Yesterday I heard about a new school controversy: the last public school in the city of Tatabánya will be passed over to the Catholic church. Thus, there will be no choice. All children of Tatabánya will have to attend parochial schools.
Some background. Prior to the nationalization of schools in 1948 most of the high schools were in the hands of the Catholic church. A few belonged to the Hungarian Reformed and the Lutheran churches, but relatively few. Just to give you an example, in my home town there were three gymnasiums (from grade five to grade twelve) and all three belonged to the Catholic church. Two of these were boys’ gymnasiums, run by Jesuits and Cistercians; the girls’ gymnasium was under the control of Notre Dame nuns. There was no choice: if parents wanted their children to attend public school, tough luck.
With the change of regime came negotiations between the churches and the new democratically elected governments to return some of the nationalized schools to their original owners. Running these schools posed no financial burden to church authorities since the state paid per student regardless of whether the school was public or parochial. Actually parochial schools today receive more money per student than do the public schools. The Catholic church fought very aggressively for the extra money, and while the ministry of education kept saying that financing already favored the parochial schools, the church eventually got its way. And the Protestant churches clung onto the Catholic church’s coat tails and also profited. Take, for example, the overwhelmingly Catholic city of Pécs where the Hungarian Reformed Church couldn’t even build a decent church until the mid-1930s and where there was only a short-lived middle school (polgári) for girls.Today there is a Hungarian Reformed school complex, including dormitories, with 500 elementary to high school students. And although there probably aren’t 500 Hungarian Reformed kids in all of Pécs and its surrounding villages, for one reason or another parents seem to be convinced that a parochial school must be superior to its public counterpart. This is not the case. Among the top Hungarian high schools public schools predominate.
Other than academic excellence, why is it dangerous to transform public into parochial schools? The church leadership in Hungary is extremely conservative by western standards. As if time stopped at the end of World War II. All churches side with the Hungarian right, and their representatives are either extremely conservative or, in the case of the Hungarian Reformed Church, radical nationalists. The parochial schools disseminate a world view that may not be the best for the youth of the future. The political atmosphere in these schools is decidedly right-wing, echoing the tone of most sermons in Catholic and protestant churches. I find the whole thing fairly alarming.
Meanwhile Orbán is courting the churches. He himself was baptized (or most likely not) as a protestant, but he married a Catholic girl in a civil ceremony. They already had two children when a liberal Methodist minister convinced him to baptize them. Thus, the first two became Methodists. Then came the third, and perhaps he was baptized as a Hungarian Reformed. The last two, if I recall properly, are Catholics. An ecumenical family. Orbán’s attitude to the churches has changed dramatically since the founding of Fidesz twenty years ago. Then he was not only not religious but he was outright antagonistic toward the churches. One infamous scene in parliament occurred when he and his fellow Fidesz members got up and in unison made fun of the Christian democratic members, calling them "csuhások" ("cowl" in English). The insult is lost in translation, but it was not a very friendly gesture. Now he extols the role of the churches in Hungarian society.
Yesterday one of the groups attached to his party organized a gathering entitled "The church and the soul of the country." Orbán, in his keynote speech, practically put the churches above the state. The churches should tell the legislators how to behave. According to him the "church does not ask but gives, and our job is to create the necessary conditions for its activities." He continued: "No country can survive without the guidance of the churches. We must have spiritual leaders who call the good good and the evil evil." (Or, to decode, who can differentiate between the pious head of Fidesz and the lying prime minister.)
I am a staunch believer in the separation of church and state. To put things in stark relief: most people are uncomfortable with the theocratic states of the Muslim world. Why should we try to imitate them in a very secular Europe?