Looking through the comments to yesterday’s post, I was struck by the general concern about the almost total disengagement of Hungarian churches from the most burning social issues of the country, the extreme conservatism of the Hungarian Catholic Church, and the Church’s antagonism to the refugees.
During religious holidays, the media usually bombards readers with articles with religious themes. Without searching very hard, I found two relevant interviews. One was conducted with Miklós Beer, the bishop of Vác. He is practically the only man in the Conference of Hungarian Catholic Bishops who takes his calling seriously and who approves of and follows the guidance of the pope. The rest, 50 years after, still haven’t even accepted the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council. I like Beer very much; he reminds me of Gábor Iványi. Both men exhibit the kinds of qualities we would hope to find in priests and ministers.
The other interview was given to Pesti Srácok by Pál Bolberitz who, as I learned from this conversation, was the confessor of Prime Minister József Antall (1990-1993). Bolberitz manifests the less compassionate and tolerant side of the Church. We learn that Antall on his deathbed told Bolberitz that “I wanted a Christian Europe, believe me, because only such can have a future.” Yet, according to Bolberitz, the European Union “doesn’t want a Christian Europe.” What follows is a repetition of the official Fidesz view that the troubles of Europe began with the student revolution of 1968 and that “the gangsters of 68 by now are the chief bureaucrats who lead the Union and who want to force their ideas on Europe while they talk about freedom and democracy.” Bolberitz shows his true colors when, in his passionate assault on the EU, he maintains that “democracy is a nice tale; this is what the masses need.” But, he continues, there is something very wrong in Europe where “a distorted concept of freedom takes the place of God.”
I’m afraid Miklós Beer is about the only bishop who thinks that Pope Francis is true to the original and unadulterated teachings of the Church. The others might not openly say what an English cleric told a journalist of The Guardian–that “we can’t wait for him to die,” but they are convinced that the pope, being from Argentina, understands neither Europe nor the reality of the refugee crisis. The Hungarian Catholic clerics’ criticism of the pope was loud enough in the summer of 2016 for me to devote a post to the topic. Since then the relationship between the Hungarian Catholic Church and the Vatican hasn’t improved. The Hungarian government, in conjunction with the Hungarian Catholic Conference of Bishops and the city of Szombathely, devoted the year between November 2015 and November 2016 to the memory of St. Martin of Tours, who was born in Savaria, Pannonia, today called Szombathely. Pope Francis was invited, and the Hungarian Catholic leaders were very much hoping for a papal visit, but the pope sent Cardinal Dominik Duka, archbishop of Prague, as his representative. This was interpreted by Hungarian critics of the Church as a sign that Pope Francis disapproves of the migrant policies of Viktor Orbán and his supportive Catholic hierarchy.
A few months ago Attila Buják, a journalist for 168 Óra, wrote an investigative article reporting on the inner workings of the Hungarian Catholic Church. The information came from sources inside of or close to the Church. We learn from the article that apparently the Vatican already in the late 1980s anticipated a political change and tried to prepare for the day when democracy returns to the country. At that time four relatively young men were appointed to be bishops, but the choices were haphazard. Pope John Paul II didn’t really know the men he appointed. Moreover, being a conservative himself, he wanted people who would diligently follow the Vatican and not men with reformist ideas.
Péter Erdő’s rise in the church hierarchy gave some hope at the beginning. He was young and looked like a strong leader. His consecration as Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest in December 2002 and primate of Hungary was hailed as a step in the right direction. A year later he was made a cardinal. Clearly, Erdő was a special favorite of John Paul II. But Erdő turned out to be a weak leader who lost his position as president of the Hungarian Catholic Conference of Bishops. He lost to the super-conservative András Veres, whose “ever stronger voice was the symbol of change in the atmosphere surrounding the Church.” Veres was the first bishop who was described as “fideszes püspök.” But it would be a mistake to think that Erdő is less rigid in his adherence to dogma; he is just not as outspoken as Veres. In the latest controversy within the Church concerning giving holy communion to divorced and remarried Catholics, Erdő said that he opposes Pope Francis on this contentious issue. In fact, it is a well-known fact in Catholic circles that Hungarian bishops with good connections in Rome are in close alliance with the pope’s adversaries.
Although on the surface it is the migrant question that seems to be the chief point of disagreement, the differences of opinion between the two sides are much more fundamental. There is a visceral hatred of what Pope Francis stands for on ideological grounds. In the Hungarian Catholic media, articles about him give the impression of a “pious, good-natured but somewhat muddle-headed old man.”
At the same time, the Orbán government “is pouring money and influence into the church, giving it schools and institutions which it cannot operate on its own. One cannot escape from the government’s embrace, especially since it declares ‘Christian’ everything that is important to the government.”
Although Catholic clerics have opinions on even the most insignificant domestic issues, they have for the most part avoided making religious judgments when it comes to the refugees, which “is a truly Catholic, universal cause.” Catholic churches west of Hungary, even if not exactly enthusiastically, eventually “stood by the teachings of the gospels.” But not Péter Erdő, who came up with the lame excuse that the Church must obey the laws of the land, which forbid giving shelter to refugees.
The 2011 census was a great disappointment to the Catholic Church. In 10 years the Church lost 1.2 million people. Whether the Church’s far too close relationship with the government has anything to do with the loss of declared Catholics, as some people claim, I don’t know. I do know, however, that despite all appearances to the contrary, Hungarians today are not really religious. The number of people who attend church services regularly is very small. I also have the distinct feeling that the incredible amount of money that is given to churches is distasteful to a lot of people, perhaps even the majority of the population. There seem to be three causes close to the heart of Viktor Orbán: sports, Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries, and the churches. These causes receive huge amounts of money, which, I believe, greatly irritates Hungarians, working hard and getting nowhere.
P.S. Alex Kuli reminded us of an article that appeared in Népszabadság in September 2016 about a sermon given by a Hungarian Reformed Minister. In fact, I wrote about this incident, which I would like to quote here:
A Hungarian Reformed minister, László Károly Bikádi of Hajmáskér, a small town about 14 km from Lake Balaton, delivered a sermon last Sunday, offered to the soldiers and policemen defending Hungary’s borders against the refugees. The text for his sermon was Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan. In his exegesis he said: “You just have to take a look at the story of the Samaritan. Jesus asks who the brethren of this man are. Everybody? Are we all brethren of each other? It is true that we are all children of God. But who are the brethren? Those who are merciful to us.” Then the merciful reverend launched into a muddled story about “us as white men who didn’t treat the colored people, be they Arabs, Negroes, Africans, Asians, as our brethren and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised if they don’t look upon us as their brethren. And they are coming like locusts, coming because we chased them away from their lands. … Allow me to say that they are like ants, like the feral of the wilderness” and because the white men pushed them out from their natural habitat “they come like ants. They move into our houses. What happens with mice, voles, and other creatures of the field? They come and beset us.” He finished his sermon by asserting that although it might be our fault that these people are on the run, “we shouldn’t make the mistake of throwing out our values just because people arrived among us who don’t consider us their brethren.”