András Veres has been widely criticized ever since he delivered a brief but controversial sermon at the official Catholic celebration of August 20, Hungary’s premier national holiday. Veres, the bishop of Győr and the president of the Conference of Hungarian Bishops, is well known for his extreme conservatism. So when I heard that he would deliver the homily, I assumed that he would use the occasion to promote reactionary views of the Hungarian Catholic Church. I was surprised when I read the summary by MTI, the state-owned news agency. The summary was extremely short and devoid of any extremism.
Well, it didn’t take long before it was discovered that MTI had left out all the passages in which Veres was critical of the Orbán government. Magyar Kurír, the official internet site of the Conference of Hungarian Bishops, published the complete text, in which this passage could be found:
Brothers and sisters, we must pay attention to an internal danger. A deviously worded law under the guise of good intentions which ignores Christian values furtively is sneaking into the fabric of a Christian-based society, planting the blight of self-abdication. The last time we saw such a thing was in the provision to increase support for the test-tube baby program.
Another passage that was deemed unimportant by MTI was the one that dealt with relations between church and state. What Veres had to say on the subject, in my opinion, amounts to asserting the supremacy of the church over the state.
We Christians cannot abdicate our duty of shaping society according to the value system of the gospel. On the one hand, because we know that we serve the good of all people and, on the other, because if we renounced that task we would not fulfill our mission of baptism, that is, we wouldn’t be building the kingdom of God.
It took a couple of days before the real meaning of the words on the test-tube baby program sank in, but when it did, the outrage was widespread. Something unusual happened in a country of enormous political divisiveness: it mattered not whether people support the government or are in the opposition, they found Veres’s words unacceptable. When I read an open letter addressed to András Veres by László Szentesi Zöldi, I realized the depth of the rejection of the position of the Catholic Church on the subject. Szentesi Zöldi is a journalist who is usually the first to defend the Catholic Church. And yet in this letter he took it upon himself to teach the prelate about true Christianity.
A long list of well-known personalities expressed their disappointment over Veres’s position. Some commentators couldn’t understand why Veres chose this particular occasion to get involved with such a controversial topic. But there is a fairly simple explanation that got lost in the emotional outcry against the church’s official doctrine. From the snippets of information that we have, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt/KDNP), which considers itself to be the political arm of the Catholic Church seems to be extremely unhappy with the government’s decision to enlarge the test-tube baby program. As of now, the state funds the birth of 6,000 test-tube babies a year, but because of outside pressure as well as the government’s interest in increasing the number of births, it promised enough funds to double that number to 12,000. My suspicion is that behind the scenes Fidesz is encountering opposition from KDNP at the urging of the Catholic Church.
The question of expanding the program has been on the table for far too long. It was during the second Orbán government (2010-2014) that Miklós Szócska, undersecretary of health, commissioned a study that came to the conclusion that the expansion of the program might produce 10,000 new babies every year. His successor, Gábor Zombor (June 2014-September 2015), continued advocating for an expansion, and this time the government actually approved the measure. But its implementation was postponed. This spring his successor, Zoltán Ónodi-Szűcs, brought up the issue once again, but those eager would-be parents who might benefit from the expansion of the program are still waiting.
I fear they can wait for a while, because I’m quite certain that the “discussion” between Fidesz and KDNP hasn’t been settled yet. In fact, if we can trust Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP), former undersecretary of education (2010-2014), the fight over the issue is raging at the moment. According to her, “the test-tube baby program can be continued, but because of the Catholic Church’s objection there will still be a lot of debate on the issue.”
An article published today confirms my suspicion of the raging debate between the government parties. The author of the article calls attention to the fact that there is “total chaos surrounding the test-tube baby program.” For example, two undersecretaries in the ministry of human resources hold diametrically opposed positions on the issue. Katalin Novák (Fidesz), undersecretary in charge of family affairs in the ministry of human resources, distanced herself from Bishop Veres by emphasizing the enormous help the program gives to infertile parents. She reiterated that the expansion of the program will be approved soon. On the other hand, Bence Rétvári (KDNP), political undersecretary in the same ministry, did not stand by the program and was extremely vague on the details. Rétvári, who is a typical member of a party that considers itself to be the arm of the Catholic Church, suspects that the promoters of the program support the idea because it gives extra work and income to those institutions that specialize in this particular medical procedure. Whether the public outcry will tip the scale in favor of doubling the program we don’t know yet.
András Veres subsequently gave interviews explaining the church’s position, and the more he said the worse it got. Since the church believes in birth only through natural means, infertile couples just have to cope with their lot. Or, as a remedy, they could adopt a child, which would relieve their anxiety so they could eventually produce a child of their own. No one seems to be convinced.
As for Veres’s second statement, about the duty of the church to shape society, no has taken notice of it yet, although it might be a much more weighty statement than the church’s views on test-tube babies. After all, 80% of women pay not the slightest attention to the Catholic church’s views on reproduction. The shaping of society according to the value system of the Catholic church is a much more frightening prospect, especially in a country like Hungary where state and church are far too close as it is.