I have been watching with growing alarm the spread of parochial, largely Catholic, schools. The Hungarian state even before 1918 pretty well left education in the hands of the churches. There was a network of state schools, but they were primarily elementary schools in villages. High school education (gymnasiums) was for the most part the domain of the Catholic Church. There were even larger cities where there was not one secular high school in town. Either for boys or for girls.
That was the situation in my hometown, Pécs. Once a student reached the age of ten and was ready to attend gymnasium, no matter what the child's religion was he or she had to go to a Catholic school. Interestingly, before 1918 there was one state-run Realgymnasium in Pécs, which my father attended, where they taught German and French but no Latin. Not surprisingly the students were mostly Jewish and Protestant kids. But between the two world wars it closed its doors. From there on there was no choice.
Even the state-run elementary schools were not quite free of Catholic influence. For example, my very first day in school (grade one) began with a Catholic mass in a nearby church. No one asked us whether we were Catholics or not.
Well, something very similar is happening in Kecel, a town of 9,000 inhabitants. The upkeep of public schools is shared by the central government and the local community. While in the United States about 80% of local property taxes go for the maintenance of schools, in most Hungarian towns there is no property tax or, if there is, the amount collected is minuscule. The local governments are very shaky financially, and the upkeep of a school places a considerable financial burden on them. Thus, especially in the past year when the Orbán government eased the transfer of schools from the towns to the churches, the spread of parochial schools has been rapid. Even in places where there is only one school, like Kecel.
The mayor of the town thinks that getting rid of the school (grades 1 to 8) serving 700 students was an excellent move. When the mayor and the members of the city council were reminded that after all there is only one school in town and not everybody wants to send their children to a Catholic school, the answer was that 90% of Kecel's population is Catholic. In the first place, it is hard to know how the good mayor knows the percentage of Catholics in town, but even if 90% of the population were baptized as Catholics it means little. Nationwide only 13% of professed Catholics attend church. Hungary is not Poland–at least not yet.
But what is really troublesome is that the new Catholic administration appears to be very aggressive. Initially, the newly appointed principal announced that all children must attend mass and receive Catholic religious instruction. An early announcement indicated that those who don't want to attend mass or receive religious instruction will be bussed to a town about 20 kilometers away. The new principal called in the teachers and made it clear that unless they attend mass they will not be hired.
The new principal also made sure that not too many people would complain about the Catholic takeover of the school. A parent who didn't want to send his child to a Catholic school had to give reasons for his decision in writing.
Eventually there was some retreat from the original position. The principal softened his demand about attending mass. Only three times a year will it be compulsory to be present at mass. He eventually even stated that those who don't want to participate in the proceedings don't have to cross themselves, sing, or kneel at the appropriate times. They can sit quietly, but they have to be there. Not the end of the world, he said. When teachers' attendance was mentioned, he told the reporter who was inquiring about the situation that, after all, this wouldn't be the first time teachers had to do something they didn't feel like doing. When asked to give an example, he said that in the socialist period they had to go out to demonstrate on May 1. So, red flags then, church attendance now. Or as one teacher said in another town in a similar situation: "We used to be pioneers, now we will be Catholics."
The principal also eventually changed his dictum on religious instruction. He promised that the local ministers will be able to instruct non-Catholic children on the teachings of their own religion and, if a parent doesn't want to have his child attend religion classes at all, the child can attend "moral philosophy classes." Religious instruction will be part and parcel of the school curriculum. The children will be graded in religion but, the principal said generously, no child will fail the subject. (Want to bet? Perhaps the wayward ones will simply be shipped off to the neighboring public school.) As for "moral philosophy," it will be taught by the principal himself. I can well imagine the curriculum.
A very close connection between the state and the Catholic Church is being forged under the Orbán government, especially because of the pressure exerted by Christian Democratic Party. It is hard to say what Viktor Orbán's personal views are on the subject, but on the surface he acts as if he were supporting this alliance between church and state wholeheartedly. The Catholic Church is putting its full weight behind the Orbán government just as in the past decade or so it promoted the cause of Fidesz. Priests in churches gave political speeches instead of sermons and children in parochial schools were used to campaign on behalf of the party. But this support comes at a high price; the Hungarian Catholic Church is demanding more and more funding from the government. For the time being it seems that Orbán thinks that this financial burden is worth it because it is bringing positive political results. However, too many controversial cases like the one in Kecel might be counterproductive. Perhaps a basically a-religious people will get tired of little tyrants like the new principal of the Catholic school in Kecel.