Tag Archives: Catholic Church

Bishop Béla Balás’s vision of an Islamic Europe

My first surprise was that there is a Bishop of Kaposvár. My second surprise came when I read what he had to say about the bloody future of Europe as a result of the Islamic “invasion.” So I began learning about the bishopric of Kaposvár and Bishop Béla Balás.

The bishopric was the creation of Pope John Paul II. In 1993 it was carved out of the two historical bishoprics of Veszprém and Pécs, both established in 1009 by St. Stephen. Its first and only bishop so far is Béla Balás, who is now 74 years old. For some reason his nickname is “Father Concrete,” as in reinforced concrete.

Balas BelaHe is known to be an outspoken, sometimes a bit rough around the edges kind of man who has decided that members of clergy should play an active part in politics. Initially, he was involved only in local politics and not necessarily always on the side of Fidesz, but as time went by he got closer and closer to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán, whose picture adorns his study. The friendship goes back to the early years of the 21st century when he organized a meeting with Orbán, during which he and Zoltán Balog as a Hungarian reformed minister kept asking the politician about his faith. Balás most likely was satisfied with Orbán’s answers because he gave him a crosier, perhaps as a symbol of his leadership blessed by the Church.

Tolerance is not exactly Bishop Balás’s strength. His total devotion to Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy is combined with his conviction that “alien elements are trying to force us to our knees.” It is therefore not surprising that Béla Balás belongs to a small group of high clergymen who have voiced their opposition to Pope Francis’s ideas on the issue of the asylum seekers. The first Hungarian bishop to express his disagreement with the Pope was László Kiss-Rigó. He openly accused the Pope of not being familiar with the real situation–unlike Viktor Orbán, who fully understands the dangers of an Islamic invasion of Europe. In addition to Kiss-Rigó, a couple of other lesser known church leaders spoke out in defense of European culture. But the real bombshell came a few days ago from Béla Balás.

Balás disseminated the fruits of his “literary imagination,” which at least one media outlet called the creation of someone who had drunk a little too much wine during mass. Balás gave the following title to his apocalyptic description of the future as a result of the Islamic immigration into the European Union: “Evening News from the European Caliphate at the Time of the First Century after Christendom.” And here’s how it starts. “Yesterday we blew up the Cologne Cathedral. Next week we will start dismantling the Eiffel Tower. Apparently some Taizé monks are hiding in the few remaining Romanian churches…. In Nuremberg the trial of the prime ministers is coming to an end. The execution of the accused will be public and attendance free. We hope the true believers will have a great time! In Leipzig they are collecting sheet music for a campfire at full moon. Bach and Mozart preferred.” And on it goes. In the last sentence the terrorists take off the red shoes of the pope (well, not this pope who doesn’t wear them, so I guess the caliphate will take a while to be established) before they shoot him and throw his body into the Tiber.

444.hu called the piece gonzo journalism, which dictionary.com defines as a piece of writing “filled with bizarre or subjective ideas, commentary.” It can also mean crazy, eccentric. One thing is sure: Balás seems to know little about Muslim countries. He talks about horses, tents, horses, sabers. As László Szily of 444.hu rightly points out, Bishop Balás got stuck in his childhood when he read Géza Gárdonyi’s historical novel about the defense of the Fortress of Eger. (Gárdonyi’s Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, in Hungarian simply The Stars of Eger, is a favorite book of Hungarians. It is read mostly by impressionable teenagers whose understanding of the Turkish times in Hungary is largely shaped by this novel, which naturally is not quite accurate historically.)

I’m just hoping that not too many people read this piece of nonsense by the Bishop of Kaposvár, which appeared only in the print edition of Heti Válasz. Viktor Orbán’s frightening propaganda did enough damage by stirring up Hungarian xenophobia. Speaking of xenophobia, I read somewhere that what Europeans call xenophobia we in North America call racism. This is something to think about. Viktor Orbán doesn’t consider other Europeans a danger to the safety of Hungarians, only people who come from outside of Europe. And Péter Boross, the former prime minister, made openly racist remarks in one of his many unfortunate interviews.

Both Kiss-Rigó and Balás are loyal supporters of Viktor Orbán. In Kiss-Rigó’s case, even at the expense of Pope Francis. Rumor has it that some of his fellow bishops wouldn’t mind at all if the Vatican forced Kiss-Rigó to retire because, in addition to his politics, there are serious questions about his diocese’s finances. As for Balás, apparently his brusque manner and outspokenness don’t sit well with his fellow bishops. Perhaps through attrition Pope Francis will be able to find less reactionary priests to lead the Hungarian Catholic Church.

Bishop Béla Balás’s vision of an Islamic Europe

My first surprise was that there is a Bishop of Kaposvár. My second surprise came when I read what he had to say about the bloody future of Europe as a result of the Islamic “invasion.” So I began learning about the bishopric of Kaposvár and Bishop Béla Balás.

The bishopric was the creation of Pope John Paul II. In 1993 it was carved out of the two historical bishoprics of Veszprém and Pécs, both established in 1009 by St. Stephen. Its first and only bishop so far is Béla Balás, who is now 74 years old. For some reason his nickname is “Father Concrete,” as in reinforced concrete.

He is known to be an outspoken, sometimes a bit rough around the edges kind of man who has decided that members of clergy should play an active part in politics. Initially, he was involved only in local politics and not necessarily always on the side of Fidesz, but as time went by he got closer and closer to Fidesz and personally to Viktor Orbán, whose picture adorns his study. The friendship goes back to the early years of the 21st century when he organized a meeting with Orbán, during which he and Zoltán Balog as a Hungarian reformed minister kept asking the politician about his faith. Balás most likely was satisfied with Orbán’s answers because he gave him a crosier, perhaps as a symbol of his leadership blessed by the Church.

Tolerance is not exactly Bishop Balás’s strength. His total devotion to Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy is combined with his conviction that “alien elements are trying to force us to our knees.” It is therefore not surprising that Béla Balás belongs to a small group of high clergymen who have voiced their opposition to Pope Francis’s ideas on the issue of the asylum seekers. The first Hungarian bishop to express his disagreement with the Pope was László Kiss-Rigó. He openly accused the Pope of not being familiar with the real situation–unlike Viktor Orbán, who fully understands the dangers of an Islamic invasion of Europe. In addition to Kiss-Rigó, a couple of other lesser known church leaders spoke out in defense of European culture. But the real bombshell came a few days ago from Béla Balás.

Balás disseminated the fruits of his “literary imagination,” which at least one media outlet called the creation of someone who had drunk a little too much wine during mass. Balás gave the following title to his apocalyptic description of the future as a result of the Islamic immigration into the European Union: “Evening News from the European Caliphate at the Time of the First Century after Christendom.” And here’s how it starts. “Yesterday we blew up the Cologne Cathedral. Next week we will start dismantling the Eiffel Tower. Apparently, some Taizé monks are hiding in the few remaining Romanian churches…. In Nuremberg the trial of the prime ministers is coming to an end. The execution of the accused will be public and attendance free. We hope the true believers will have a great time! In Leipzig they are collecting sheet music for a campfire at full moon. Bach and Mozart preferred.” And on it goes. In the last sentence the terrorists take off the red shoes of the pope (well, not this pope who doesn’t wear them, so I guess the caliphate will take a while to be established) before they shoot him and throw his body into the Tiber.

444.hu called the piece gonzo journalism, which dictionary.com defines as a piece of writing “filled with bizarre or subjective ideas, commentary.” It can also mean crazy, eccentric. One thing is sure: Balás seems to know little about Muslim countries. He talks about horses, tents, horses, sabers. As László Szily of 444.hu rightly points out, Bishop Balás got stuck in his childhood when he read Géza Gárdonyi’s historical novel about the defense of the Fortress of Eger. (Gárdonyi’s Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, in Hungarian simply The Stars of Eger, is a favorite book of Hungarians. It is read mostly by impressionable teenagers whose understanding of the Turkish times in Hungary is largely shaped by this novel, which naturally is not quite accurate historically.)

I’m just hoping that not too many people read this piece of nonsense by the Bishop of Kaposvár, which appeared only in the print edition of Heti Válasz. Viktor Orbán’s frightening propaganda did enough damage by stirring up Hungarian xenophobia. Speaking of xenophobia, I read somewhere that what Europeans call xenophobia we in North America call racism. This is something to think about. Viktor Orbán doesn’t consider other Europeans a danger to the safety of Hungarians, only people who come from outside of Europe. And Péter Boross, the former prime minister, made openly racist remarks in one of his many unfortunate interviews.

Both Kiss-Rigó and Balás are loyal supporters of Viktor Orbán. In Kiss-Rigó’s case, even at the expense of Pope Francis. Rumor has it that some of his fellow bishops wouldn’t mind at all if the Vatican forced Kiss-Rigó to retire because, in addition to his politics, there are serious questions about his diocese’s finances. As for Balás, apparently his brusque manner and outspokenness don’t sit well with his fellow bishops. Perhaps through attrition Pope Francis will be able to find less reactionary priests to lead the Hungarian Catholic Church.

October 11, 2015

A compulsory course on the Holocaust at the Hungarian Catholic University

While the world is preoccupied with Greece and Viktor Orbán’s preparations to erect a fence along the Hungarian border with Serbia, I decided to focus today on the debate over Péter Pázmány Catholic University’s decision to introduce a compulsory course on the Holocaust. Until now there was only one compulsory course, “Introduction to the Catholic Faith,” which I understand, to put it mildly, is not taken seriously by the students. According to someone who is most likely a student at PPKE, as the university is known, “it is a joke,” a course in which everybody cheats.

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

President Szabolcs Szuromi and Ilan Mor at the press conference

On May 26 Szabolcs Szuromi, the president of PPKE, in the presence of Ilan Mor, Israeli ambassador to Hungary, held a press conference, which was disrupted by two “journalists” from Alfahír and Kurucinfo. The former is the semi-official internet site of Jobbik. Kurucinfo, the virulent anti-Semitic media outlet, needs no introduction. Both men fired all sorts of provocative questions at the president and the ambassador.

The reaction of the far right didn’t surprise anyone. They especially objected to the presence and role of Ambassador Mor and to the fact that two Israeli historians, Dina Porat and Raphael Vago, had been asked to prepare the syllabus for the course. Jobbegyenes (Straight Right) accused the Hungarian government of taking orders from the Israeli ambassador when it agreed to the removal of a sign referring to “the victims of Gaza” behind the Hungarian entrant at the Eurovision competition. Moreover, according to the author, it is not PPKE’s job to teach students about the Holocaust. They should have learned that in high school.

Zsolt Bayer’s reaction was also expected. In his opinion, there is just too much talk about the Holocaust. Practically every day there is a new book, a movie, or a theater performance. A few years ago he “thought that one couldn’t sink lower” when he read in Népszabadság that grandchildren of German war criminals, with the financial help of the European Union, had arrived in Budapest asking for forgiveness from elderly survivors. In Bayer’s opinion it was a perverse idea. The souls of these youngsters are “infected with guilt.” What is going on at PPKE is also a perversion. In fact, Bayer thinks PPKE’s decision was even worse than the grandchildren’s apology.

But there were critical remarks on the left as well. The most serious criticism came from Sándor Révész. He objected to the compulsory nature of the course and predicted that “within seconds” someone will suggest “a compulsory course on Trianon, on the communist dictatorship, on religious persecution,” and so on and so forth. In fact, Gábor Vona and Dóra Duró of Jobbik already sent a letter to the president of PPKE asking for the introduction of a course on the tragedy of Trianon.

Révész also found PPKE’s decision to introduce such a course problematic because it is a well-known fact that the Catholic Church still venerates Ottokár Prohászka (1858-1927), bishop of Székesfehérvár, who was a rabid anti-Semite and the ideological precursor of Hungarism, the Hungarian version of Nazism. Révész called attention to the fact that the Hungarian Catholic Church published a collection of Prohászka’s most savage anti-Semitic writings titled My anti-Semitism in 1942. “Is PPKE ready to reevaluate the opus of Ottokár Prohászka in connection with the Holocaust?” asked Révész.

There is criticism coming from historians as well. László Karsai, a historian who has written extensively on the Holocaust, finds it strange that two Israeli scholars were invited to prepare the syllabus when there are many Hungarians qualified to do the job. Moreover, Karsai finds the syllabus as well as the readings wanting. Some books on the reading list are of inferior quality. If he had children at PPKE, he wouldn’t advise them to take the course–not that they would have a choice. He added, however, that “it is an interesting experiment that might generate some lively discussions.”

Péter György, professor at ELTE, just announced that they themselves have been thinking about creating three one-semester courses that all students of the Faculty of Arts would have to take: the cultural history of racism, social theory, and the philosophy of science.  In the course on the cultural history of racism students would also study about the Holocaust. The members of the faculty realize, I think, that something went very wrong at the university since a large portion of the Jobbik leadership graduated from ELTE with a degree in history. Although they don’t want to meddle in the worldview of students, they believe that they should be able to fend off blind prejudice and racism. György admitted that “radicalism” is a very serious problem at ELTE and “the university has no other antidote than arming the students with the necessary knowledge.” He was very pleased when he heard about PPKE’s decision and he, unlike Révész, trusts the faculty of the university to face the past honestly.

It was Elek Tokfalvi, one of my favorite publicists, who was truly enthusiastic about the course. In his opinion, what happened in Hungary was unique in the history of the Holocaust because the Hungarian Jewish community’s destruction began after all the others’ had already ended. Therefore, studying the Hungarian Holocaust is warranted. Tokfalvi looks upon PPKE’s decision to introduce a course on the Holocaust as a “moral redemption” after decades of the undisturbed spread of anti-liberalism, anti-capitalism, ethnic superiority. “Therefore, it deserves praise.” In his opinion, other universities should follow PPKE’s example.” Perhaps it would also be beneficial to teach basic values that would “counterbalance the anti-Semitism of university graduates.” The same idea that Péter György is advocating.

One thing is certain. It s not enough to introduce a course on the Holocaust. As long as people like the economist Katalin Botos give lectures like the one available in part on YouTube, no change in attitudes can be expected.

It might also be a good idea if György Fodor, dean of the Divinity School, and others would take a more critical look at Ottokár Prohászka and the Catholic Church’s attitudes past and present concerning anti-Semitism and racism because, for the most part, the church leaders did very little, or nothing.

Psychological and sexual pressure at the Benedictine gymnasium in Pannonhalma

Over the last two days the Hungarian media has widely reported a story, more than ten years old, about a monk-poet-teacher at the famous Benedictine Gymnasium, a boarding school for boys, in picturesque Pannonhalma. Although little has become public, the monk in question is no longer a member of the Benedictine order. An internal investigative committee, after a seven-month probe, came to the conclusion that the learned father had behaved in an inappropriate manner with the boys under his care.

Is this case even worth mentioning here? After all, in the last couple of decades we had one report after another about priests who were involved in illicit sexual relations with their young students. There were numerous instances in the United States, Canada, Belgium, Austria, Norway, Ireland, even Poland. But not in Hungary. This case is a first, hence the great public interest.

Of course, it is highly unlikely that the sexual proclivities of Hungarian priests is radically different from those in other countries. The suspicion is that the Hungarian Catholic Church made it its business to cover up all stories that surfaced about sexual abuse of children at the hands of priests or monks. László Szily, the blogger of cink.hu, related a story that happened in his own school, the famous Budapest Piarist High School, where his priest math teacher during a school outing joined one of his students in bed and began patting him. The boy had the good sense to report the incident to his parents, who complained. The good father was removed from the Budapest school only to show up a year or so later in Kecskemét.

I suspect that the only reason the Pannonhalma case wasn’t covered up is the special status of the Benedictine Pannonhalma Arch-Abbey, which is not subordinate to the Hungarian Catholic Church but functions under the jurisdiction of the Vatican itself. This is, by the way, true of all the abbeys that belong to the Benedictine Federation of Congregations under the leadership of an abbot primate. The Hungarian arch-abbot, Asztrik Várszegi, has the reputation of being a liberal churchman. Practically the only one in Hungary.

Each class in Pannonhalma, just like in other Hungarian schools, has a homeroom teacher. In addition, there is another monk called “the prefect” who is in charge of members of the class outside of school. At the time in question, however, there were not enough monks in residence, and therefore some of the children had our man as both their homeroom teacher and their prefect.

Most of his former students complained less about sexual molestation than about the psychological pressure he exerted. Some of them called it psychological terror. He divided his class into those whom he liked and cared about and those who were not his favorites, whom he ignored. He gathered around himself a small group of students, a kind of elite guard, from whom he demanded total devotion. For example, he explained to them that if they don’t love him, later in life they will be incapable of loving any other human being.

Since he was an excellent, demanding teacher, his students did exceedingly well academically and therefore, according to some former students, complaints about him were ignored.

It is hard to believe, as some of the students claimed, that the teacher’s “touching of the students didn’t have any sexual content.” Well, I don’t know how else to explain the following story told by one of the students. “After turning off the light at bedtime, he used to sit down on the beds of his favorites. He embraced them and occasionally he reached into their pajamas.”

Pannonhalma Benedictine Arch-Abbey. A gorgeous place but perhaps not the best place to send your child

Pannonhalma Benedictine Arch-Abbey

A former student recounted the following, which reveals a lot about the naiveté of the victims and the psyche of the teacher:

I remember that in grade twelve I went to the father and asked him to tell me whether I said anything that offended him because he always behaved strangely toward me…. He called me into his room to talk the matter over and he brought up an old story from two years before when I called him gay in the common bedroom. I hardly remembered the story but it seems that it must have gotten back to him. I didn’t seriously think that he was gay, it was just a kind of childish stupidity. However, what remained with me was how damaged this man must be to carry with him for two solid years the silly jest of a sixteen-year-old.

One probably ought not be surprised by such stories. Pannonhalma is a community tucked away on a hill, separated from the rest of civilization. There are 300 boys between the ages of 12 and 18, supervised by monks. The boys are sent by parents who believe in the superiority of the school and who perhaps think that if their son lives away from home in a strict environment the experience will mold his character in a beneficial way. Especially in the first couple of years they most likely miss their family, but eventually they form a kind of family of their own within the walls of the monastery. They live in a hothouse atmosphere, which might not be the healthiest. It is exactly the kind of place which breeds relationships such as the one this man developed with his students.

Of course, it’s not just religious schools, nor schools that are geographically isolated, that are guilty in this regard. Just witness the continuing uproar over the sexual abuse that went on for years at Horace Mann, an elite private school in New York. Victims are often either too naive or too cowed by their abuser to report offenses and, when they do report, authorities are usually reluctant to act on the information. They have too great a stake in defending their institution.

At least the administration at Pannonhalma acted decisively, however belatedly. The Hungarian Catholic Church never has. And we all know it’s not because it has never had cause to act.

What is behind the Sunday closing of Hungarian retail stores?

Since this coming Sunday will be the first time most larger retail stores will be closed by law, let’s return to one of the most politically foolish and economically harmful decisions of the Orbán government.

I already wrote two posts on the subject, both in late 2014 when the Christian Democratic Party (KDNP) once again floated the idea. Once again, because this was not the first time that KDNP pressured the Orbán government to curtail the liberal retail store hours that have existed in Hungary for the last twenty years. In 2011, when the idea was first proposed, Viktor Orbán wisely rejected it, saying that the Hungarian economy couldn’t afford the luxury.

But in early November 2014 the KDNP leadership returned to its favorite hobby-horse. This time, learning from the 2011 fiasco, they decided to turn in their bill in the form of a proposal by an individual member of parliament. In 2011 it was the government that vetoed the suggestion for economic reasons, citing the results of an unpublished impact analysis. When an individual member of parliament submits a bill, however, no impact study is necessary.

The initial reaction of government members, Fidesz leaders, and Fidesz MPs to the KDNP proposal was negative. Mihály Varga publicly voiced his opinion that “‘the move wouldn’t be wise.” Lajos Kósa, another heavyweight in the party, was also against the bill. So was Miklós Seszták, minister of national development. Initially, even Viktor Orbán was unenthusiastic about the idea. In one of his radio interviews he admitted that he himself shops on Sundays and added that he “is not planning to influence the behavior of the people, who can decide for themselves what to do on Sundays.” So, by mid-November most commentators believed that the KDNP proposal was dead in the water. If the government vetoed the KDNP proposal in 2011, how could Fidesz possibly agree to it “in such sensitive times, after the internet tax affair when there are demonstrators against [the government],” a member of the governing board of Fidesz asked.

Great was the surprise when less than two weeks later, on December 1, 2014, Népszabadság learned that the full Fidesz caucus and naturally the prime minister now enthusiastically endorsed the zany plan of KDNP. Viktor Orbán’s abrupt change of mind was especially strange because initially he wanted to see an impact study and no analysis was produced in the interim. Orbán within two weeks became such an enthusiastic supporter of the measure that he paid a visit to the Fidesz parliamentary delegation and twisted the arms of his troops in parliament. By early December the government parties gave their unanimous blessing to the measure. Since then they have been tinkering with it with scores of amendments which at times loosen, at other times tighten its grip on retail stores.

Fidesz brain / Closed on Sundays too

Fidesz brain / Closed on Sundays too

Although it was always pretty clear that the majority of Hungarians were against the Sunday closings, since March 13th we know how strongly people feel about KDNP’s idea. Ipsos conducted a poll which showed that 64% of the population want stores to be open and only 32% are for store closings. Ipsos broke down the data on the basis of sex, cities and towns versus villages, young versus old, and interestingly enough the differences were not substantial. In fact, there were some unexpected results. For example, people living in villages opted for keeping stores open on Sunday in higher numbers (70%) than people in Budapest (62%). Clearly, the measure is not popular. Just how unpopular it is we don’t yet know, despite the appearance of the poll, because last Sunday was a national holiday and the stores would have been closed anyway. But this coming Sunday, the people who missed the news will be greatly surprised when they travel to their closest supermarket and find it locked up. The song that is spreading like wildfire on YouTube expresses people’s sentiments about the Sunday closings. It was written to the tune of the internationally known song “Gloomy Sunday,” from the 1930s.

Opinions about why KDNP was so eager to change the law vary. Some people believe that since it is a religious party (and here and there even call the leaders bigots) it wants Hungarians to go to church instead of to the mall. Others interpret the move as an attack on multinationals in favor of the one large Hungarian chain that is made up of family-owned franchises, most of them small enough not to be affected by the new law. The latter theory might explain why Viktor Orbán eventually decided to support the KDNP proposal. After all, he wouldn’t at all mind if the foreign supermarkets and large chains simply abandoned their businesses in Hungary. Such an outcome would benefit his favorite oligarchs, who could purchase their stores on the cheap. These hypotheses may reflect KDNP reasoning, but I don’t think either fully explains why the prime minister changed his mind and decided to endorse the KDNP bill.

A few days ago another theory emerged, presented by a “senior researcher” of the political think tank Policy Agenda, which I found utterly unconvincing. There is nothing “sinister” or “complicated” behind this decision, he explained. After all, KDNP is a coalition partner. They have had many demands that were not satisfied by their larger partner. So, it was time to throw them a bone. First of all, it is not true that KDNP’s demands have been ignored in the past. Just think of the increased subsidies for parochial schools, the incredible number of gymnasiums that were passed into the hands of the Catholic Church, and the decision to make religious education part of the regular school curriculum. Second, this is not how political decisions are reached. Would Viktor Orbán for such a trifling reason assume substantial political risk? Unlikely.

My own theory is that the Christian Democrats, realizing Fidesz’s rapid loss of support and the decline in Viktor Orbán’s popularity, decided to put pressure on the prime minister, most likely accompanied by a threat. KDNP has 23 votes in parliament, which can be withheld at any time. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the KDNP heavies told Viktor Orbán that it is either Sunday closings or no parliamentary support from the Christian Democrats on certain key issues.

As of this morning we know what was in the impact studies of 2011, which were leaked to Népszabadság. Pretty much the same negative results that trade unions and trade associations have predicted since the bill resurfaced last November. There will be a loss of 10,000 to 15,000 jobs. This can be translated into a 2.3 to 3.4 billion forint expenditure for the government in the form of unemployment insurance. About 26 to 27 billion forints would be lost annually in income taxes and social security payments. Expected lost sales for the companies would be 20.4 billion forints. VAT collections would drop by about 7.6 billion forints. All told, the Sunday closings would cost the Hungarian government 43.9-49 billion forints. That’s a steep price for Fidesz to pay to accommodate KDNP and a heavy burden for the Hungarian taxpayers to bear to keep the Fidesz-KDNP government in power.

Viktor Orbán and Christian democracy

It was yesterday that leaders of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt/KDNP) celebrated the establishment of their party seventy years ago. Well, not exactly because three of the founding fathers remembered three different dates and none of them was September 27, 1944. In any case, sometime between October 8 and November 30 a few conservative legitimist politicians with strong ties to the Catholic Church got together to establish a “Christian party.” Before the party’s founding the blessing of the Hungarian Catholic Church was sought and received.

This original party never managed to get permission from the authorities, either before or after the occupation of Hungary by the Russians, to be officially recognized. Under the leadership of Count József Pálffy, the group was considered to be reactionary and undemocratic. In the fall of 1944, however, the leaders decided to ask a newspaperman turned politician, István Barankovics, to join them in the hope that his name would make acceptance of the party easier. Barankovics’s political ideas were more in line with modern Christian democracy of the kind that came into being in Germany after World War II.

The ideological differences between Pálffy and Barankovics led to the breakup of the party. In May of 1945 Barankovics was chosen to be leader of the newly constituted party. Instead of following a conservative-legitimist line, the party chose a a more secular (even though officially still Christian–Protestant as well as Catholic) socialist ideology as its guiding principle. I might add here that Barankovics’s ideas were condemned by the head of the Catholic Church, József Mindszenty, who tried to keep his finger on the pulse of the party through Pálffy. In May of 1945 even the old name, Christian Democratic People’s Party, was abandoned. The new party was known simply as the Democratic People’s Party (Demokratikus Néppárt/DNP).

When, in 1989, the party was revived, the new leaders chose the old name, KDNP,  instead of DNP even though DNP was the only officially recognized Christian Democratic Party in Hungary between 1945 and 1949. I believe that the choice of name is significant. Today KDNP is really a party of the Catholic Church, something its current leader, Zsolt Semjén, does not hide. A few years back, in fact, he called his own party “the political arm of the Catholic Church.”

KDNP today is no more than a club of individuals who consider themselves devout Catholics. The last time KDNP was on the ballot (2002) it received 2.59% of the votes. Even the communists (Munkáspárt) had a larger following (4.08%). Today its support is immeasurable. It exists only in name–and in parliament, with a delegation of sixteen members. These people are in effect assigned to KDNP by Fidesz so that KDNP can have a separate caucus with all the privileges that this entails.

Yesterday there was a gathering to celebrate the great day in October-November 1944. About 150 people were invited, but many did not show up. In fact, according to Origo, it almost seemed that there were more members of the press corps than of the private club. After long speeches and a documentary film came the man everybody in the room was waiting for: Viktor Orbán. His speech was short but, as vastagbor.hu noted, “he said a few funny things.” He announced, for instance, that “KDNP is a large, significant, and influential party” which “stands on the shoulders of giants.” There is a doctored short clip on YouTube in which canned laughter was injected every time Orbán said something untrue or ridiculous.

The speech lasted only 13 minutes, and most of what the prime minister said we have heard before. What was new was his lecture on Christian democracy, which he juxtaposed with liberal democracy. In his view liberal democrats are exclusionary when they claim that only liberal democracy is democracy. With that they exclude great Christian democratic statesmen like Konrad Adenauer or Robert Schuman. As far as Konrad Adenauer is concerned, it is a well known fact that his ideal was a “market-based liberal democracy.” As for Robert Schuman, Orbán likes to quote him as saying that “Europe would either be Christian or not at all,” but I could not find that exact quotation except in an article about the betrayal of Europe’s Christian roots, where the author, Gianfranco Morra, wrote the following: “Konrad Adenuaer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman … drew from religious faith, professed and lived, and from their political commitment to a common conviction: that only Christianity could be the cement for the European Union. Europe and Christianity are an inseparable pairing. With the same understanding as Leo XIII, they affirmed that Europe and Democracy would either be Christian or not at all. Schumann wrote: ‘All the countries of Europe are imbued with Christian civilization. This is the soul of Europe, it must be reborn’.” It seems that the words the prime minister quoted are Morra’s, not Schuman’s.

Orban KDNP

After Orbán’s catastrophic speech about “illiberal democracy” he has been trying to explain his words away. Both he and some of his followers initially claimed that he was just talking about economic neo-liberalism, but this explanation, given the context, was untenable. George Schöpflin, the academic who usually comes to the regime’s rescue, offered another interpretation in the course of answering questions posed to him by HVG:

Liberal democracy is a particular variant of democracy, albeit in the most recent period it has sought to establish a hegemony. Other possible forms of democracy – Christian Democracy, Social Democracy, Conservatism – have been increasingly marginalized. This further means that what we call “Liberal democracy” these days, or indeed calls itself, has moved away qualitatively from the concept of liberalism defined by the founding fathers.

Finally, Orbán stated that “we are a government based on Christian democratic foundations. We govern in Christian democratic spirit in the interest of all Hungarians.” There is nothing shameful, he said, about what’s going on in Hungary. Indeed, it is not a liberal democracy but a very respectable Christian democracy. There are two problems with this claim. One is that Christian democracy, although conservative on social issues, is no enemy of liberal ideals like autonomy of the individual, civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority. Second, everybody knows that Orbán’s system has nothing to do with Christian democracy. In fact, very soon it will have nothing to do with democracy in any shape or form.

The Hungarian Reformed Church and the extreme right

I don’t want to bore readers with a history of Protestantism in Hungary, but I often find that at least in the United States people are surprised to learn that there is a sizable Protestant minority in Hungary. They are convinced that all of East-Central Europe is Catholic.

We have only estimates on religious affiliation of the current Hungarian population, but these estimates indicate that about 20% of Hungarians were at least baptized in a Protestant church. About 17% are Calvinists (Magyar Református Egyház) and 3% are Lutherans (Magyar Evangélikus Egyház).

I’m sure that people will also be surprised to hear that at the end of the sixteenth century 80-90% of the inhabitants of historic Hungary were Protestant. And Hungary was not alone in the region: Poland, now the most Catholic country in the area, was solidly Protestant. Ninety percent of the members of the Polish parliament, the szejm, were Protestants. Such a rapid spread of the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1564) and John Calvin (1509-1564) in this particular part of Europe was indicative of serious societal and political upheavals and general dissatisfaction with the status quo. The new faith was spread by itinerant preachers, both Calvinists and Lutherans. At the time the two branches of early Protestantism were not separated. It was only in 1567 that the Calvinist and the Lutheran churches went their separate ways.

One could ask how it was possible that while the Counter-Reformation managed to completely eradicate Protestantism in Poland, in Hungary the Catholics were less successful. Despite the efforts of the Catholic Habsburg dynasty, large pockets of Protestantism remained. In fact, the answer is quite simple: during the sixteenth century historic Hungary was divided into three separate entities. A smaller part in the north, an area called Royal Hungary, remained in Habsburg hands while Transylvania became nominally independent, only paying tribute to the Ottoman Empire. The rest, a large chunk of today’s Hungary, was occupied by the Turks who had no interest in converting the population to Islam. It didn’t matter to them whether the infidel was a Catholic or a Protestant.

magyar reformatus egyhazAfter the expulsion of the Turks Vienna tried to reconvert Protestants, and they often used rather brutal methods to make Protestant worship impossible. The Protestant communities were beleaguered and persecuted; Calvinists in particular came to represent the true Hungarian spirit against Catholic dominance in the Habsburg Empire. And that differentiation of Calvinist and Catholic Hungarians didn’t end with the Compromise of 1867. Voters in Calvinist areas were more apt to vote for the Party of Independence. Given this history, one shouldn’t be terribly surprised that today’s Hungarian Reformed Church is even more nationalistic than the Catholic Church.

While I’m not surprised by the Church’s nationalism, I am surprised about their right-wing rhetoric. I gained the impression from my readings and also from personal experience that Protestantism at one time was more enlightened than the official line of the Catholic Church. Less bigoted, more open-minded. What I see now is a shift of Hungarian Calvinist leaders toward the extreme right while the Catholic leaders are just deeply conservative and wholehearted supporters of the current government party.

Perhaps my views are influenced by the prominent political roles played by church leaders as László Tőkés, who gained worldwide fame as a key player in the events that eventually led to the Romanian “revolution” and the removal and execution of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Nominally he is considered to be a Fidesz man, but in fact his ideology puts him to the very right edge of the Fidesz spectrum where the differences between Fidesz and Jobbik are blurred. The other person who is much more obviously a man of the extreme right, in fact an outright neo-Nazi, is Lóránt Hegedűs. He has been in the limelight for at least fifteen years and his views should be unacceptable to the church by any standards. His own wife is a member of the Jobbik parliamentary delegation. Yet the Reformed Church refuses to expel him from the church. There were attempts but no final resolution.

In 2007 Gusztáv Bölcskei, the clerical president of the Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church and the bishop of Debrecen, tried to remove him but failed in an internal legal procedure. Then came the erection of a Horthy statue, but Bölcskei himself was guilty of having too tender feelings toward Hungary’s governor between 1920 and 1944. Bölcskei unveiled a plaque of Horthy in Debrecen. It seems that the Church either can’t or doesn’t want to act.

The latest upheaval in Hegedűs’s church in the heart of Budapest again prompted calls to do something with Hegedűs. It was in early November that Horthy’s bust was unveiled and placed close to the entrance to be seen by all passers-by. This time the church leaders promised real action. A serious investigation of the case was going to take place, they promised. Attila Jakab, who often writes on church affairs, predicted more than a month ago that most likely nothing will happen because if Hegedűs is considered to be guilty of political activities Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, will also have to be investigated. After all, Balog is also in politics. On paper he suspended his religious activities and can’t use his title “minister” (lelkész), a status that allows him to conduct religious services only occasionally and only by special request. But, in fact, Balog regularly holds services in his old church.

Jakab turned out to be right. Nothing will happen to Hegedűs but not because of Balog’s services in his old church but because the Hungarian Calvinist Church doesn’t really want to pursue the case. A few days ago Index reported that György Horváth, who is the legal counsel to the Hungarian Reformed Church, resigned his position in disgust because the diocesan court refused to take up the case, claiming a conflict of interest.

Horváth suggested expelling Hegedűs from the Hungarian Reformed Church. This was not the first time that Horváth recommended such an action, but each time the members of this particular diocesan court refused to hear the case. After his third attempt, Horváth had had enough. He announced that he “will not assist in this opportunistic practice.” He claimed that the church leadership is afraid of Jobbik and that members of the court are worried that their names might appear on kuruc.info, the virulently anti-Semitic neo-Nazi internet site.

This is not the end of the story. The case will be transferred to another diocesan court. But don’t hold your breath. The same thing happened in the earlier investigations as well. Clearly, the Hungarian Reformed Church refuses to deal with the problem and in my opinion not only because they are afraid of Jobbik. Rather, because they sympathize with this clearly neo-Nazi party. This is a sorry end to a church with a glorious past of fighting for freedom of religion and suffering persecution over the centuries. It is a real shame.