Tag Archives: Hungarian Reformed Church

The Hungarian government chips away at the abortion law

Thursday afternoon, during his regular press conference, János Lázár announced the latest government decision. Two hospitals–the Budai Irgalmasrendi Kórház, managed by the Hungarian Catholic Church, and the Bethesda Gyermekkórház, maintained by the Hungarian Reformed Church–will receive a generous grant of 7.8 billion forints so they can offer obstetric services. In return, they will not perform abortions and will refuse to accept gratuities, which, as we all know, are steep. Obstetricians can become quite wealthy from money happy new parents pass to them under the table.

The immediate reaction in the liberal press was negative. Journalists remember only too well earlier attempts to restrict abortions. The sanctity of life issue is at the core of the Christian Democratic People’s Party’s ideology. During the debate on the constitution in 2010 KDNP politicians were adamant about the issue. Eventually the following sentence made its way into the final text of Orbán’s constitution: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. Every human being shall have the right to life and human dignity; the life of the fetus shall be protected from the moment of conception.” Subsequently, KDNP tried several times to convince Viktor Orbán to follow the Polish example, which makes abortion illegal except in cases of rape, when the woman’s life is in jeopardy, or if the fetus is irreparably damaged. The Polish government recently tried to enact a total ban on abortions, but it had to retreat in the face of huge demonstrations. Orbán knows that the introduction of a sweeping abortion law in Hungary would be political suicide.

Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ), the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, objected to the terms of the grants. Judit Zeller, who works on patients’ rights cases, took the position that although individual doctors may refuse to perform surgical interventions in pregnancy cases, institutions as such can’t. If the condition of the government’s financial assistance depends on the hospitals refusing to perform abortions, the arrangement between the hospitals and the government is illegal.

As is often the case in the chaos within the Orbán government, there was a discrepancy between Lázár’s statement and the official government text. In its announcement Magyar Közlöny, the official gazette of government edicts and laws, said not a word about the special understanding between the hospitals and the central government concerning the prohibition of abortions.

The two hospitals will actually share one new obstetric department, which will be housed in Bethesda. People familiar with the medical facilities in Budapest claim there is no need for an additional facility. They suspect that the arrangement is a kind of unholy alliance between the two so-called historic churches, on the one hand, and the Hungarian government, which is eager to have the churches’ full support, on the other.

KDNP, the “political arm of the Catholic Church,” has been unhappy ever since 2010 when it failed to have a total ban on abortions included in the new constitution. The party therefore periodically makes attempts to smuggle in restrictive laws. In 2012 there was a huge debate on the “abortion pill,” in which KDNP successfully led the opposition to its availability in Hungary. The World Health Organization approved the pill in 2005 and the Hungarian “college of gynecologists and obstetricians” also endorsed its use. But KDNP’s “expert” described the horrors that follow the procedure, which in his opinion was even more dangerous than the surgical technique. He also claimed that “WHO suggested the use of the abortion pill for overpopulated countries,” not for countries with a low birthrate like Hungary. As a result of KDNP’s fierce opposition, the pill is not available in Hungary to this day.

A year later, in 2013, KDNP introduced yet another bill to restrict women’s gynecological rights. This time is was Bence Rétvári, undersecretary in the department of justice, who introduced the bill. KDNP wanted to put an end to voluntary sterilization. Prior to 2005 Hungarian laws had restricted voluntary sterilization. The Constitutional Court found them unconstitutional because they violated women’s rights. Therefore, after 2006 such operations could be freely performed at the patient’s expense. It was this liberal law that KDNP wanted to change in such a way that only those women who were over 40 years old and already had three children could be sterilized. This bill was never enacted into law.

Medián took a survey at that time on Hungarian attitudes toward the abortion issue, and it turned out that even supporters of Fidesz-KDNP didn’t back further legal restrictions. The poll showed that 72% of churchgoers thought that in cases of financial stress abortion was an acceptable alternative. The same group of people believed that the abortion pill that KDNP torpedoed a year before was an acceptable, maybe even preferable, method of birth control.

A year ago Index got hold of a study by a hobby demographer whose remedy for the low birthrate in Hungary is to forbid all abortions on childless women between the ages of 35 and 45. This hobby demographer has close ties to KDNP. In fact, his study was at least partially financed by KDNP’s Barankovics Foundation.

In brief, KDNP has been relentlessly trying to overturn the current law on abortion. Yet the top politicians of the party now claim that they had absolutely nothing to do with the deal between the two hospitals and the government. I doubt that this is the case. I can hardly imagine that Miklós Soltész (KDNP), the secretary for churches, minorities and civil affairs, had nothing to do with the 7.8 billion forints given to the two church-run hospitals.

This first step toward “abortion free hospitals” might seem innocuous. It simply reduces the number of hospitals where women can have abortions. Perhaps this way KDNP’s drive for a ban on abortions might be less noticeable, especially if the process takes several years. Népszava’s headline to its article on the subject read: “Did the future begin?” A lot of people think so.

February 10, 2017

European solidarity and Orbán’s Hungary

It would be far juicier to write about György Matolcsy’s fascination with Buddhist ten-million multiplier days, which seem to direct the work of the Hungarian National Bank, and his new girlfriend’s fabulous pay of 1.7 million forints a month that she receives from four different foundations of the bank and as a researcher of Indian culture and philosophy. But I think I should return, even if briefly, to the affairs of the European Union, especially since Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his State of the Union Message to the European Parliament today.

Juncker’s speech was almost an hour long, and its primary aim was to pour oil on troubled waters, caused mostly by Viktor Orbán’s assiduous efforts to turn the countries of the Visegrád 4 against the European Union. In fact, Orbán spent the day in Bulgaria, working hard to convince Prime Minister Boyko Borissov to support his cause. I would be surprised if Borissov would oblige since he has been working closely with the European Commission on the defense of the Bulgarian-Turkish border, as we learned from Juncker’s speech.

juncker

In comparison to some of Juncker’s past speeches, this one was beseeching rather than strident. He tried to convince those countries that throw seeds of discord into the soil of the Union to be more constructive. He appealed to them, saying: “Europe can only work if speeches supporting our common project are not only delivered in this honorable House, but also in the parliaments of all our member states.” In plain language, don’t foment ill feelings against the common cause at home, as European politicians often do.

Juncker pretty much admitted that the European Union is broken at the moment. As he put it, “I believe the next twelve months are decisive if we want to reunite our Union. If we want to overcome the tragic divisions between east and west which have opened up in recent months.” He went on to say that he has never seen “so little common ground between our member states…. Never before have I heard so many leaders speak only of their domestic problems, with Europe mentioned only in passing, if at all…. Never before have I seen national governments so weakened by the forces of populism and paralyzed by the risk of defeat in the next elections. Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our Union.”

Juncker also announced that since Great Britain is on its way out of the European Union, a common European army can finally be established, as he had proposed at least a year ago. This announcement should please Viktor Orbán who, to everybody’s surprise, announced his desire to set up a common army in his speech at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad, Romania, on July 23. It was strange to hear Orbán’s insistence on an EU army when he is so keen on national sovereignty. I suspect that this announcement was designed to give Orbán a way out of the corner into which he painted himself with his constant opposition to everything coming from Brussels–with the exception of EU funds. He knew full well about the plan for a common army and decided to throw his weight behind it, acting as if it was his own idea. That way, when Juncker announces the decision to go ahead with the plan, he can proclaim victory, which his domestic supporters will believe and applaud. After all, “Brussels” had to accept his demand for a strong border defense. This way, after the Bratislava meeting he can justify his adherence to other common decisions by pointing out that, after all, his main demand, a common army and border defense, was satisfied. Very cagey fellow. As for the future, let’s not be at all optimistic about Orbán’s behavior. No matter how European politicians emphasize the need for cooperation, he will continue his fight against Brussels, the West, and liberal democracy.

But let’s return briefly to the part of Juncker’s speech that addressed the refugee crisis. He asked for more solidarity, “but I also know that solidarity must be given voluntarily. It must come from the heart. It cannot be forced.” Well, let’s peek into some Hungarian hearts.

Orbán sent out all Fidesz politicians, from the highest to the lowest, on a three-week campaign for the referendum. One Fidesz MP who was campaigning with László Kövér, president of the Hungarian parliament, cracked a joke about refugees at a town meeting in Jászberény. The “joke” went something like this. Three beggars are hard at work in Budapest. After the day is over they compare notes. The first one says that he got 2,000 forints because he wrote on a piece of paper that he was hungry. The second announced that he got 3,000 forints because he wrote on a poster that he had three hungry children. Finally, the third told them he did very well. He got 10,000 forints because he told the people that he needs the money to go home. Apparently they thought “the joke” was hilarious.

Kövér was no better. He accused the bureaucrats in Brussels of wanting to change the cultural, religious, and ethnic composition of Europe. The migrants are only the instruments of their evil plans. “This is a war in which they don’t use weapons.” The mayor of the town urged the Gypsies who were present to vote “no” in the referendum because otherwise they might lose their government assistance since the Hungarian state’s resources are finite. Kövér also accused the refugees of being rich. In his opinion, ten people in the audience don’t have as much money in the bank together as these “migrants” have alone. And it went on and on for two and a half hours.

But I left the “best” to last. 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.”

As far as I know, the Hungarian Reformed Church has issued no statement, despite the appearance of at least two articles on the disgraceful performance of one of their own.

On a positive note, I should report that two Catholic parish priests recently stood up against the Hungarian Catholic Church’s indifference toward the refugees. Alas, their leaders, the bishops, are either quiet or outright antagonistic. One of the worst is Gyula Márfi, archbishop of Veszprém, who believes that what Europeans are facing is “the yoke of Mohamed.” Today, in an interview, he went so far as to claim that what “we consider sin [the Muslims] consider virtue.” Even Miklós Beér, bishop of Vác, who occasionally says a few nice words about the downtrodden, announced the other day that he will vote “no” at the government-inspired referendum. As he put it at a recent international conference on “Reconquering Europe” held in Vác, every time Europe has abandoned its Judaeo-Christian moral heritage, Europeans were led astray. Thus, any dilution of that Christian heritage is dangerous and must be avoided.

September 14, 2016

Religion is not a private matter according to the Hungarian government

A month ago Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and an ordained Hungarian Reformed minister, ruffled the feathers of those who take the separation of church and state seriously. The occasion was a speech he delivered in Szombathely at a thanksgiving service upon the completion of a steeple for the local Hungarian Reformed church and the installation of three new bells.

Balog was present because his ministry gave a 43.3 million forint grant for the steeple and five million for the bells. When all was said and done, the 29-meter steeple cost 73 million and the price tag of the bells, which were cast in Poland, turned out to be 10 million forints. From the Népszabadság article it is not clear who paid for the cost overrun.

Balog in his speech announced that “religion is not a private matter. The confession of faith is the most personal public issue.” It is for that reason that the government considers it important to support the construction of churches. Népszabadság’s reaction to the news was “Back to the Middle Ages? According to Balog, religion is not a private matter.”

Balog’s pronouncement shouldn’t surprise anyone because the Hungarian right’s belief in a close relationship between church and state has been of long standing. The first reference I found to this “personal public” concept was Lóránt Hegedűs’s assertion in 1998 that “religion is not a private affair but the most personal public matter.” The same language Balog used. Hegedűs, the openly anti-Semitic Hungarian Reformed minister, is, after all, Balog’s colleague.

In 2006, during the heat of the election campaign, Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), attacked Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had announced earlier that “religion is a private matter.” Semjén at this point turned to Cardinal József Mindszenty, who in 1946 had claimed that “where religion is a private matter there is corruption, sin, and cruelty.” He added that Hitler also thought that religion is a private matter and “soon enough came the Gestapo, Auschwitz, and jail.” Because of the machinations of SZDSZ politicians, an “amok-runner” was let loose on the country, who is now destroying the heritage of St. Stephen. A huge outcry followed Semjén’s accusations.

A couple of years ago members of Catholic Radio met with church leaders. During this meeting Bishop László Rigó-Kiss, one of the most reactionary Catholic bishops, expressed the church’s demand that church news should be spread widely in the media because “religion is the most personal public matter.” The same notion was expressed by Fidesz Mayor Attila Ughy of Budapest’s District XVIII, who added that for this reason the District financially supports, to the tune of 25 million forints, both Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches.

The debate over the private versus public nature of religion has a long history. Perhaps the best known expression of the belief that religion is a private matter comes from Thomas Jefferson, who in his letter to the Danbury Baptists wrote: “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.”

Jefferson

What led me to this topic today was a recent opinion piece by Gábor Czakó, a Catholic writer who established a separate association of Catholic journalists. The article appeared in Magyar Idők. We learn from Czakó that the Kádár regime “transformed religion, the greatest public matter, into a private affair.” It was “inspired by a liberal idea.” The Kádár regime was so successful at implanting this erroneous idea into the heads of people that even right-wing “thinkers” believe that “the Christian faith is a private matter while Islam is a way of life.” But this is not so as long as there is a “templum,” which is a community gathering place. Liberals and socialists, however, first harassed Christians and Christian churches and finally declared the Christian religion to be a private matter.

Here are a couple of historical examples of real religiosity that Czakó cites. “Who remembers nowadays that during the kings of the House of Árpád there were more than one hundred holy days when work was forbidden and even later people devoted a third of the year to God? It was the Freemason Joseph, the hatted one, that suppressed them.” Czakó is talking about Joseph II (1741-1790), who declined to be crowned king of Hungary because he refused to swear to Hungary’s feudal constitution. Therefore people called him “kalapos király,” the hatted king. According to Czakó, the “snake of liberalism” is seemingly on the winning side against God and man, but slowly people are returning to God and away from liberalism.

Nowadays talk about Christianity in Hungary often ends by asserting its superiority over Islam. Czakó points to Jesus’s teaching “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” which he claims is unique among world religions. Czakó finds clear examples of such Christian charity among Hungarian kings. His first example is St. Stephen, who successfully repelled Emperor Konrad II, whose army in 1030 got as far as Győr but had to retreat. The Hungarians even occupied Vienna. So far the story is true, but I found nothing about Hungary’s saintly king feeding Konrad’s starving troops, as Czakó claims. His second example is another incursion into Hungary, this time in 1051 by the troops of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. In Czakó’s story András I fed the starving German soldiers. Again, I found nothing about this great act of generosity.

Hungarian churchmen and devoted members of the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches categorically reject the notion of religion being at heart a private matter. This goes against mainstream thinking on the subject in western thought. Today, the overwhelming majority of people consider their relationship to God or to organized religion to be private. With the rejection of liberalism, this important tenet is being attacked in Hungary, not only by the churches but also by the government.

May 22, 2016

The Hungarian Catholic church and education

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.”

These horrid white stocking seems to be a favorite at Catholic schools

These horrid white stockings seem to be a favorite at Catholic schools

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.

April 1, 2016

How did Calvinism survive in Hungary?

Foreigners are always surprised when I tell them that I am not a Catholic. People who are only superficially acquainted with Hungary assume that, just like in Poland, every Hungarian is a Catholic. These same people would be surprised to learn that in the second half of the sixteenth century about 80% of the country’s population was Protestant–mostly Calvinists and to a lesser extent Lutherans. The situation was the same in Poland, where 90% of the nobles who were members of the sejm, the Polish parliament, were Protestants. But then came the counter-reformation, which in Poland’s case was so successful that, according to the latest statistics, 87.5% of the population declare themselves to be Catholic. The rest either refuse to answer or claim to be non-believers.

In Hungary the situation is different, due mostly to the semi-independent Transylvanian Principality (1570-1711) and the Ottoman occupation of the central parts of the Kingdom of Hungary (1541-1699). In the principality, the elected princes were either converts to Calvinism, as in the case of János Zsigmond, the first prince of Transylvania (1565-1571), or were already born as Calvinists and were therefore promoters of freedom of religion. In the case of the Ottoman-held territories, Catholic aristocratic families fled north or west into so-called Royal Hungary, and therefore their former serfs could follow their own religious inclinations. Just to give you an idea of how widespread the Calvinist and Lutheran denominations were, the great Hungarian churchman Péter Pázmány (1570-1637), the towering figure of the Hungarian counter-reformation, was born into a Calvinist family in 1570. He converted to Catholicism while attending a Catholic school in Kolozsvár/Cluj.

Martin Luther’s teachings reached Hungary very early. Luther’s famous Ninety-Five Theses were published in 1517, and two or three years later his teaching spread to those Hungarian towns that were inhabited largely by German-speaking people.

From 1540 on, however, the teachings of John Calvin became much more popular, especially in the villages. The changes in religious affiliation came about in an ad hoc fashion. In the early days individual parish priests attracted to the reform movement began to change the liturgy, slightly or more substantially. They began conducting services in Hungarian. Depictions of saints were painted over in white, in keeping with the puritanism of Calvinists. And when there was no priest ready to change his religion, wandering preachers went from village to village to spread the teachings of the new Protestant churches. Initially these people were ordinary tradesmen without much education, but soon enough highly educated men who had returned from western universities began working as missionaries. One of the early foreign-educated preachers was Mihály Sztárai (d. 1575?), who was active on both sides of the Dráva River. He established 120 Protestant congregations in Baranya County and in Slavonia (the northern part of Croatia) between 1544 and 1551. It was most likely under his influence that my ancestors became first (perhaps) Lutherans and later Calvinists. At the time the dividing line wasn’t that clear.

During the seventeenth century the Catholic Habsburgs used drastic measures against Calvinist and Lutheran ministers, and pressure was exerted on aristocratic families to convert to Catholicism. Once that was accomplished, the Crown used the principle of “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose land it is decides the religion), which was an alien concept in Hungarian constitutional law. Thus masses of common folk were returned to the fold. Until the majority of the inhabitants became Catholic again.

Because of the ardent Catholicism of the House of Habsburg, Calvinism became a “Hungarian religion.” With it came an anti-establishment attitude. Hungarian Calvinists believed that they were second-class citizens, a persecuted minority, which they certainly were until Joseph II’s Toleration Act of 1781. This edict put an end to more than 100 years of religious persecution of non-Catholics. But even it imposed restrictions on Protestants. For example, their churches couldn’t have a steeple, and no gate of a Protestant church could open onto the street.

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of the cross

Hungarian Reformed Church with the typical Star of Calvin instead of a cross

The number of Calvinists in Hungary today is difficult to ascertain because at census time the declaration of religion is voluntary. According to the 2011 census, 39% of Hungarians declared themselves to be Catholics, 11.6% Calvinists, 2.2% Lutherans, 16.7% non-religious, and 2.5% atheists. The number of Jews is practically impossible to determine because they are leery about declaring their Jewishness. They most likely can be found in the non-religious category.

This 11.6% translates into 1,622,000 people. In addition, there is a large number of Calvinists (almost all Hungarians) living in Transylvania. Of the 1,227,623 people who claim Hungarian ethnicity there are 600,000 Calvinists. In 2009 they became part of a single Hungarian Reformed Church.

Reading the official history of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I was struck by the pent-up resentment against the authorities who through the ages looked upon the church and its followers as second-class citizens. The Catholic church and the state lived in a symbiotic relationship which the Calvinist hierarchy couldn’t share, even during the interwar period when Miklós Horthy, the governor, was a Calvinist. They hoped to find some “redress of past injuries and great losses” which, they feel even today, they didn’t receive.

As for the present state of the Hungarian Reformed Church, I would say that they are still “trying to climb into the position of being a second-tier state religion,” as the official history claims about the interwar period. But they are on the losing side when the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which was described by Zsolt Semjén, its chairman, as “the political arm of the Catholic Church,” is in coalition with Fidesz. The centuries-old symbiosis between the secular power of the state and the Catholic Church is far too strong.

Here is one example. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, is a Calvinist minister. Prior to his appointment, the undersecretary in charge of church affairs was also a Calvinist. When Balog took over the ministry, Semjén insisted on the resignation of the Protestant undersecretary. Having two Calvinists in this ministry was unacceptable to the Catholic Church.

I don’t follow the affairs of the Hungarian Reformed Church very closely, but my impression is that its leaders are inclined to sympathize with the far right, or at least they tolerate the presence of such ministers as Lóránt Hegedűs, Jr. This anti-Semitic minister, whose wife is a member of Jobbik, has been delivering the most horrendous sermons, but the official church has been unable to muster enough courage to throw him out of the church. Or they may in fact sympathize with his ideas. It was only in October of this year that he was “disciplined” for such offenses as having no biblical message whatsoever in his objectionable sermon and for being “unprepared.”

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.

Viktor Orbán just announced his government’s motto: Glory to God alone

We all know about Viktor Orbán’s infatuation with the spiritual in the last few years. Maybe I just don’t remember properly, but I can’t recall much piety in his speeches during his first premiership between 1998 and 2002. Today, by contrast, his speeches are teeming with Biblical quotations and Latin religious phrases. And his generosity toward the “established” churches, especially the Catholic and Hungarian Reformed churches, is substantial.

At the time of the formation of the Orbán government in June 2010 Gusztáv Bölcskei, the Calvinist bishop of Hungary, told a conference that the Hungarian Reformed Church “is looking forward with great expectation to the work of the new government.” He added that the Catholic, Hungarian Reformed, and Lutheran churches will join forces to “rethink the question of the churches’ educational and social activities in addition to their finances and their compensation.”

These churches haven’t been disappointed. The famed Hungarian Reformed College, actually a gymnasium, received 10 billion forints for its renovation. The generous gift was announced by Viktor Orbán at a church service in the famous Great Church (Nagytemplom) of Debrecen where the prime minister said: “The communist dictatorship stole the collection box in which Hungarians for centuries had contributed their pennies” for the churches. I happen to have a different recollection, at least of the Hungarian Catholic Church’s accumulation of wealth: it didn’t come from collection boxes. In any case, Orbán promised that the government will return “the stolen wealth to the churches and the Hungarian people.” An interesting equation of the churches with the Hungarian people.

Yesterday Viktor Orbán again had an opportunity to deliver a speech in a Hungarian Reformed church. This time in Rimavská Sobota (Rimaszombat), a town of 25,000 in south-eastern Slovakia. The majority of the inhabitants of the town are Slovaks, almost 60%, but there is a significant Hungarian minority, about 36% of the population. Rimavská Sobota doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious place. Approximately 25% of the population claimed no religious affiliation at the last census. Only 10% purport to be Calvinist.

The church service was meant to express the locals’ gratitude for all the gifts that made the renovation of the church possible. The renovation, by the way, cost 270,000 euros. We don’t know how much the Hungarian government contributed, but it had to be substantial. After all, besides Viktor Orbán, several other government officials were present: Zoltán Balog, minister of Human Resources and himself a Hungarian Reformed minister; Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry; Zsuzsa Répás, assistant undersecretary in charge of policies connected to national issues (nemzetpolitika); Csaba Balogh, Hungarian ambassador to Slovakia; Éva Molnár, née Czimbalmos, Hungarian consul-general in Košice;  and Pál Csáky, one of the leading politicians of Magyar Közösség Pártja (MKP), the favored Hungarian party in Slovakia.

The Hungarian Reformed Church in Rimavská Sobota/Rimaszombat

The Hungarian Reformed Church in Rimavská Sobota/Rimaszombat

From the speech it is not entirely clear whether the faithful in Rimavská Sobota had already received money during the first Orbán government, but it is likely. Orbán referred to the eight-year hiatus in the renovation effort. What was clear from his speech is that between 2011 and 2013 the Hungarian government financially assisted in the renovation of 119 churches and church buildings beyond Hungary’s borders. Twenty-three of them in the Uplands (Felvidék), i.e. Slovakia. To the chagrin of Slovaks, Hungarians still cling to the old designation for the Slovak territories.

We also found out, and I must say this was entirely new to me and I suspect to everyone else in Hungary, that “the publicly declared motto of today’s government which is civic, national, and Christian, is “soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) as opposed to the other political camp which declares that ‘glory is to man alone.’ I don’t think that I have to say more about the conditions at home,” Viktor Orbán added.

“Soli Deo gloria” is associated with Protestantism and was the name of the Hungarian Reformed Church’s student association between the two world wars. The five “solae,” one of which is soli deo gloria, encapsulate the basic theological beliefs of Protestantism: sola scriptura (by scripture alone), sola fide (by faith alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). Perhaps Reverend Balog neglected to mention the origin of Orbán’s new motto because, at least historically speaking, the association is too close to the Protestant churches whose followers are in the minority in Hungary.

The editor-in-chief of Galamus, Zsófia Mihancsik, gathered some information about the sums the government spent on the renovation of churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Subsidies from the European Union cannot be used  for anything directly connected to religious activities, but some of these projects were and still are being financed from subsidies set aside for projects promoting tourism as well as educational and social services. Thus, for example the Hungarian Reformed Church in the Northern Plains, in the vicinity of Debrecen, will receive 4 billion forints in the next six years from the European Union. Similar but less spectacular projects are under way in a very poor area of Baranya county called Ormánság, and in Tolna county twenty village churches will be renovated with the help of the European Union.

One possible reason that the Hungarian Reformed Church is doing so well under the Orbán government is that at its General Convent in 2010 it declared itself to be one and indivisible in the territories of the Carpathian Basin. In other words, in the former territories of Greater Hungary. There was only one bishop, László Fazekas, the representative of the Slovak Hungarian Reformed Church, who announced that for the time being his church would not join the “convent.” He added that his congregation is bilingual and they therefore have reservations about the merger. By May 2011, Fazekas changed his mind. The Slovak Hungarian Reformed Church joined the one and indivisible Hungarian Reformed Church but promised to pay special attention to defending the  minority rights of its Slovak brethren.

One of the two ministers who delivered homilies in Rimavská Sobota was Bishop László Farkas. The other was retired Bishop Géza Erdélyi whom Viktor Orbán described as a man who has for many years been his family’s spiritual guide. I guess it was a long distance affair. The special mention of Erdélyi was most likely intended as a sign of Orbán’s recognition of his political work in MKP, the party Fidesz recognizes as the only Hungarian party in Slovakia. Most-Híd, a Slovak-Hungarian party, doesn’t exist as far as Fidesz and the Orbán government are concerned. In fact, Fidesz as well as the Romanian-Hungarian RMDSZ voted against Most-Híd’s application for membership in the European People’s Party. They were admitted against the wishes of their brotherly co-nationals. By the way, MKP did remarkably well in the first round of local (county) elections a week or so ago. I’m sure that it’s not only the churches that get a lot of money from Budapest. MKP is also a major beneficiary of the printing press in Hungary.

I should add that it was announced today that the Government Debt Management Agency (ÁKK) mandated four banks to manage a 10-year USD bond issuance to the tune of 2 billion U.S. dollars.