Church and state in Hungary

The Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) in Hungary has a mission: to change the religious attitudes of Hungarians. Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the party, makes no secret of the party’s very close ties to the Hungarian Catholic Church. At one point he called KDNP the fighting arm of the Church in the political sphere. And it seems that Viktor Orbán gave the green light to the ambitions of the Catholic Church and the party that represents it in the government.

Having been socialized in large part in the United States, I am a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. I found objectionable even the decision of the Antall government to allow religious education to take place in public schools, albeit after the close of the school day. I would prefer the American system of restricting such activities to parish churches.

I wasn’t terribly happy about the designation of August 20 as the chief national holiday either. After all, it is basically a religious holiday, the name day of a saint, even if that saint happened to be the first king of Hungary. It is therefore a Catholic holiday not representing all members of the nation. I find Hungarian politicians taking part in the procession of the Holy Right Hand (Szentjobb) inappropriate in a secular state.

Church and state

Moreover, Hungary has a rather large Protestant minority, whose rights were somewhat diminished by the overpowering presence of the Catholic Church in all spheres of life prior to the war. It was especially oppressive when it came to its role in education. For example, the city of Pécs before World War II had three gymnasiums: all three were in the hands of the Catholic Church. Thus, those youngsters who were not Catholics were at the mercy of the priests and nuns. They were not obliged to take non-Catholics.

Something similar is being contemplated again. Not long ago it was discovered in Brussels that the new Hungarian law on churches has a section that regulates employment by church-owned organizations. Of course, the minister of a Calvinist church must be a Calvinist, but the law goes further than that. It stipulates that a given church, in order to maintain its “specific identity,” can demand a particular religious affiliation from its employees. Thus, a school run by a given church could insist that all its employees belong to that church. If the school were private, in the sense that it received no support from the government, it might get away with this religious “clubbiness.” But in Hungary’s case it is employment discrimination pure and simple, which is not permitted according to the laws of the European Union.

The Hungarian government was caught red handed by nine members of the European Parliament, including the three Hungarian members of the socialist delegation who discovered this particular passage that pointed to potential discrimination hidden in the law. Naturally, the government indignation that followed was considerable. How dare these Hungarians go against their own country? That was the reaction.

But this is a very serious problem because there are more and more schools that are being taken over by the churches, especially the Catholic Church. First of all, the subsidies given per student to church-run schools are higher than those given to schools in the hands of the municipalities. And since the maintenance of these public schools is in many cases an overwhelming financial burden for localities, one city after the other simply offers its schools to the churches. And the churches gladly accept them.

The Christian Democratic Rózsa Hoffmann, in charge of Hungarian education, discovered the blessings of compulsory ethical or religious education in school. It seems that for twelve solid years students will have to take either “morality” (erkölcstan) or “religious education” (hittan, literally study of belief). Since one hears more and more about the general fear of consequences if a person goes against the wishes of the government, I wonder how much pressure there will be to opt for religious education instead of the more neutral ethics classes.

The goal is to change the population’s religiosity. Miklós Réthelyi, Hoffmann’s superior in the ministry, made no secret of the government’s mission. He said in one of his recent speeches that “the aim of religious education in schools is to reprogram our lives with the sanctity of our days.”

All that sounds rather frightening to me. Especially the “reprogramming” part. I’m of the generation who had no choice: we all had to take religion once a week. Although ministers were entrusted with our religious education, the intellectual level of the instruction was pitifully low. Here and there we learned a few Bible stories and sang some hymns. Later we had to memorize passages from the New Testament. One of my worst memories in elementary school was of the instructor, one of the ministers of our church, calling out a little boy, making him pull up his jacket and ordering him to lean over the desk I was sitting at. The good minister pulled out a cane and hit him at least ten times rather hard. I wonder what this boy learned in religion class that was useful to him in later life. Perhaps a hatred of all cruel ministers.

Church attendance is pretty low in Hungary. Some claim that only 12% of the population attend church regularly while others come out with a higher figure of 22%. According to the latest study, “Beliefs about God across Time and Countries” by Tom W. Smith (University of Chicago), only 9.6% of the population has a strong belief in God as opposed to 35% in the United States and 25.8% in Ireland. Hungary is closer to Great Britain, Sweden, and the Czech Republic as far as religious devotion is concerned. At the same time the percentage of atheists is relatively high: 23.1%.

Thus, reprogramming might be a long, arduous process. And it might be very superficial. I somehow don’t think that semi-compulsory religious education is the answer to anything. Especially not teaching morality.

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The weather is awful at this moment here NoVA (Norther Virginia). We just got hit by a storm. Wind, heavy rain and thunder the whole shebang. I think thunder is, at least on planet Hungary, when God is banging his head into the wall after looking down at the KDNP zealots. I believe these guys will be in for a big surprise at the pearly gates. Pete probably already got a memo that specifically instructs him to call God when Semjen & Co. shows up. She probably wants to explain them personally (yes, she’s a black Roma girl) why compulsory religious education actually deters people from the Church. It’s the same thing when we were taking Russian classes for 10 years from elementary school to college, then at the end we couldn’t ask for a glass a water in Russian. The primary responsibility is on the parents regarding religious views. The Church should provide programs, youth ministry, sunday schools to attract young people. This is how it works. We are again at the dreaded “M” word, that is munka (work). The clergy is LAZY and incompetent. They want the state to do the job – collect taxes for them, educate… Read more »
The Hungarian Atheist
The Hungarian Atheist

The issue is that if you can get people to believe instead of rationally evaluation, these people can be used by the Fidesz to start a holy crusade against Europe.
As long as they believe Orbans rhetorics, he has them right where he wants his voters to be.
On another note, if they are going to experiment with reprogramming, they should do several tests on the Deuce Bigalow of religion himself, Pálffy István, KDNP.


Mutt, I really had to laugh at your remark:
“… when we were taking Russian classes for 10 years from elementary school to college, then at the end we couldn’t ask for a glass a water in Russian.”
I had a similar experience with the French language, because I grew up in the “Französisch Besetzte Zone” …
On my first (very proud!) holiday in France I went to a restaurant and couldn’t understand the menue …
Back to religion:
My wife tells me that even before the communists came her parents were not active church goers and she doesn’t even know the typical Biblical figures like Abraham etc …
And when we drive to the city on Sunday morning for shopping we don’t see many people in the direction of the village church …
But I heard that KDNP wants supermarkets to be closed on Sundays like in old fashioned Germany, well we’ll see what the reaction of the people will be …


“I wonder what this boy learned in religion class that was useful to him in later life. Perhaps a hatred of all cruel ministers.” — Surely of value!
To know the Bible as literature — the legends of the saints — has a certain crossword-puzzle attraction. A stained-glass window or a square metre or two of art-gallery wall: “See the tower? That’s Saint Barbara.”
Children lap up the horrors of martyrdom or the terrors of the Old Testament. I still vividly recall the fainting and dying Israelites, mingled with snakes, seeking help from the brazen serpent on the pole — and the frightened faces of the children fleeing from the bear that the prophet Elisha in pique sent to eat them. Somehow my kepes gyermek biblia always fell open at the illustrations of those tales.
But when I came home from religion classes with ideas…my parents said, That’s all very well in school, but you know that here things are different.
With the right approach, religion classes can be profitable from the standpoint of acculturation — and they need do no lasting harm.


The history of religion is a fine study, and it can calm down our imagination.
Explanation is a cure for our scientific and curious mind.
Very few Catholic priests will read the works of Geza Vermes, a historian in Oxford, and the editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls translations.
He has influenced the Vatican’s theological views. He rearranged the history of Christianity, and the live Jesus.
I have read some of his books, and can understand Christianity now better than before knowing his research.
The Protestants are different. More ready for coexistence with the non-religious fellow citizens.
Catholic politicians are at an advantage, they can empathize with the victims of the Communist era, while this is hampered by some dogmatic thinking, and the complicity of the Church with Communist rulers.
Not a healthy or enlightened practice, but an effective demagogue tactics.
Social order is a delicate fabrics. We should thread very carefully.


@Stevve…”..the complicity of the Church with Communist rulers..”
Of course, the true awfulness of the Church reveals itself when we remember the complicity of the Church with Nazis, too; specifically, in helping them escape post-war. No doubt, the Church has also had a hand in helping to hide Nazi fortunes as well.
Talk about working both sides of the street…

Odin's Lost eye
Professor you report in your piece that the churches were allowed to discriminate against fellow believers. This is illegal even under Hungarian law. What you ask and why? Before Hungary could even apply to join the E.U. it had to sign up for the European Charter of Human Rights and adopt the charter into its own law. Such a discrimination is forbidden under Section 1 Article 14 of the charter which reads (in the English Version I have to hand) “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.” The remedy is described under Section 1 Article 13 of that same charter. We know that the present government ignores this charter and wonders why it is in trouble with the rest of the E.U. The concept of an ‘Establish Church’ is not new. The one in England dates back to the Reformation and was done by Henry 8 partially because he had paid the Church of Rome a large sum of money for a… Read more »
Eva Balogh
Kim Scheppele didn’t manage to post this comment this morning. She asked me to put it up for her. So, here it is: “The Law on the Status of Churches that took effect on 1 January “deregistered” more than 300 religious organizations, as all readers of Eva’s blog know. But one of the side-effects of that law was the consolidation of the Catholic Church in Hungary. “The list of separately established religious organizations before 1 January included not only the Catholic Church, but also a number of separate orders and organizations that are also Catholic. For example — the Archdiocese of Esztergom, the Archdiocese of Kalocsa-Kecskemet, the Archdiocese of Veszprem, the Diocese of Gyor, the Diocese of Kaposvar, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, the Benedictines, the Marists, the Sisters of Mary (from multiple orders), the Catholic Institution for Preservation of Duty, the Catholic Order of Brothers of the Christian Schools, the Hungarian Catholic Bishops Conference, the Society of the Sacred Heart, Opus Dei, and Peter Pazmany Catholic University. They were all listed before 1 January as SEPARATE “churches” over and above the Catholic Church itself. And there are other Catholic schools, missionary orders, nursing orders and more – all separately listed… Read more »

@Prof Scheppele, Prof Balogh: Maybe not a bad thing.
Would you rather cut off the head of one serpent or the nine – the ever-sprouting nine more, and again nine more, and again nine more for every head severed – of a hydra?


“Could this consolidation of the Catholic Church be the primary reason behind the draconian churches law”
No. Very unlikely the Catholic Church needs the help of these bozos to consolidate power over their own organizations, especially not over the dioceses. Their hierarchy still works pretty well. I’m not sure, but the reason for these separate entities was perhaps administrative, related to tax issues. I don’t think the church received more money this way.
The reason for the church law was partly a missionary zeal – the great defenders of Christianity in Europe myth, partly money, that is less organizations with tax breaks. Now it would look very bad if from the 30 something Churches the half would be Catholic so they got one slot.

London Calling! What’s been going on while I’ve been away? (Yes three weeks in Gyor with no internet!) I can almost feel the oppression. But I suppose we’ve had too much freedom in Hungary for some time now. And the next thing will be to ban Richard Dawkins publications. (Odin’s reference to ‘In God’s Name’ will be banned too so read it while you can (and keep the insulin away from your enemies!)) More Corruption- Kickbacks – Religious Intolerance? I would find it surprising if Hungary can sink much lower – as the population awaits for its savour. Which won’t happen and Orban knows he is there for the next ten years. Even the soldiers guarding the President’s Palace had given up on the day he resigned (I was there!) and were lounging around looking bored – I did a bit of DIY guarding which I might put up on YouTube but I might get arrested due to it not appearing to taking the task seriously. True, I didn’t manage to get the ‘Rifle-Swap’ manoeuvres exactly right but I gave the high arm-swing and goose-step a jolly good bash. And WoW! Talk about precision guarding! – I met up with… Read more »
Eva Balogh

We missed you, Charlie


Sorry to spoil the party, but:
“Thus, a school run by a given church could insist that all its employees belong to that church. If the school were private, in the sense that it received no support from the government, it might get away with this religious “clubbiness.” But in Hungary’s case it is employment discrimination pure and simple, which is not permitted according to the laws of the European Union.”
This is not correct. Such discrimination would not be contrary to EU law if the religious belief could be shown to be an occupational requirement for the job. It is highly likely that a religious school could claim that in order to maintain its ethos it is an occupational requirement that all members of the teaching staff should be members of its religion. Beyond teaching staff it is also likely to be possible to impose such requirements: the school librarian cannot be allowed to promote the teachings of another faith, the school nurse cannot be allowed to promote contraception, etc. etc.
The text of the main EU law is here:
Especially Article 4(2).


This would be OK as long as the school is funded by the members of that Church but running the school on public money and imposing faith requirements is kinda funky.
Oh, well. It’s Planet Hungary.


Here is starts….
“Hungary’s nation policy focuses on assisting a network of institutions, including schools and nurseries, Repas said, adding that concrete programmes linked to Hungary’s nation policy strategy are now being implemented.
“The borders of the Hungarian nation stretch as far as their institutional network can reach,” she said.”
All schools, state run or not are required to teach one of the registered religions. We were just about to pull the kids out of state run schools in favor of private with the added side effect of avoiding this cr@p.

Solomon Fierce

“We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity… in fact our movement is Christian.”
~Adolf Hitler, in a speech in Passau, 27 October 1928.