Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I heard it, but to my total astonishment and dismay I learned that 550 schools in Hungary have been taken over by the Catholic Church and 250 by the Hungarian Reformed Church. Of course, I knew that over the years, especially after 2010 with the active assistance of the Orbán government, the number of parochial schools had been growing, but the figures I heard yesterday simply took my breath away. I was especially alarmed since I also read that the government is working hard to convince the churches to take over even more schools since the Orbán government’s efforts to run a centralized school system have failed.
Here are a few statistics. In the 2009/10 school year there were 2,133 kindergartens, 2,019 elementary schools (grades 1 to 8), 442 trade schools, and 1,316 high schools of various types. In that year churches were in charge of 139 kindergartens, 194 elementary schools, and 168 high schools. By the 2014/15 school year the Catholic Church ran 497 institutions, the Hungarian Reformed Church 221, and the Lutheran Church 74. This is a 58% increase, assuming that the number of schools remained the same.
Many of the school takeovers had actually been initiated by the municipalities before the nationalization of schools following Viktor Orbán’s electoral success in 2010. Communities, especially the poorer ones, found the maintenance of schools without support from the central government a burden they could no longer bear. Parochial schools received more money per pupil from the government than secular schools did, so municipalities figured that the schools could be placed on a more secure footing. After the nationalization of schools, principals and teachers themselves championed for a takeover by the churches because this way they could escape the fate of being subordinated to KLIK, the mammoth “owner” of all Hungarian non-parochial and non-private schools.
Many parents believe that because of their more generous financing parochial schools are better than secular state-run schools. A list of the 100 best Hungarian high schools belies this belief. And what parents don’t think about when sending their children to parochial schools is that they will have to take the bad with the good. It is one thing that parochial schools are financially better off than state schools and that they don’t have to wage battle with KLIK for every piece of chalk. The downside, at least for parents with no religious affiliation, is that their children will be subjected to religious indoctrination and will be taught the conservative worldview one expects from the Hungarian Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches.
I looked up the rules and regulations of Pannonia Sacra Catholic Elementary School. Reading them, I was transported back to the two most miserable years of my life when I, as a non-Catholic child of 10, had to attend a Catholic school. There was no choice. It was the only girls’ gymnasium in the city of Pécs.
Just to give you an idea of how micromanaged the children’s lives are at Pannonia Sacra, the school’s rules are 34 printed pages long. Among the many useless rules the students’ duties and rights are carefully noted, but one gets mighty suspicious about the extent of these rights when one reads that one of the students’ rights is “to practice their religion at the time prescribed by the school.” In case someone thinks my translation is faulty, here is the original: “Vallását az iskola által meghatározott időben és keretek között gyakorolja.”
In school all teachers must be greeted with “Dicsértessék a Jézus Krisztus” (Praise be Jesus Christ), a Catholic custom. Designated children have to check the so-called “report books” (ellenőrző) every morning. If a child doesn’t have it with him, the officially designated student will have to report him to the teacher. There are children designated “shepherds” whose duties last a whole week. They arrive at school early and “assist the work of the teachers and keep order.” They take the report books of those who arrive late and naturally inform the teacher of this terrible sin. Then there are the “pipers” who lead their classes to morning prayer. Unless I’m mistaken, no student is allowed to bring a smart phone or tablet to school because they are too expensive and considered to be ostentatious. Anyone who thinks that this is the way to bring up and teach children in the twenty-first century should send their children to Pannonia Sacra and similar Hungarian parochial schools. They’ll be well prepared for nineteenth-century life.
Horror stories rarely become public, but one such story surfaced only a few days ago about a Catholic elementary school in Sajólád, a village close to Miskolc. Even the Fidesz-KDNP mayor wants the Catholic Church out of the village’s only school two years after its takeover. The story involves discrimination against non-Catholic students. Thirty sets of parents decided to take their children out of this Catholic school and send them to Kistokaj, seven kilometers away. Some of these children were Hungarian Reformed. Others belonged to the eighty-member Jehovah Witnesses community. The parents discovered that their children had to repeat Catholic prayers, had to cross themselves, and in general were forced to participate in Catholic rituals. In addition, there were complaints of sexual molestation of younger children by older ones. If the contract with the Catholic Church cannot be abrogated, Sajólád has to put up with the present situation for twenty-five years. Right now the decision is in the hands of the Archbishop of Eger.
I should also add that Catholic parochial schools facilitate the segregation of Roma children, as Miklós Beer, bishop of Vác, admitted recently.
It seems to me that the Hungarian Catholic Church has learned nothing in the last 70 years because, the rule book of Pannonia Sacra and the stories from Sajólád (well, not the reports of sexual molestation) differ mighty little from what I experienced at the Saint Elizabeth Gymnasium run by the Notre Dame nuns. The same miserable attitude, discrimination, public humiliation, lack of charity, and total subjugation. For me the nationalization of schools two years later meant liberation.
Abandoning the idea of secular education and willingly handing education over to the churches is about the worst thing a liberal democratic society could do. Critics of the Orbán regime and opposition parties should think very hard about what to do with these parochial schools once Viktor Orbán is gone.