The Catholic Church is struggling to hold together a diverse coalition, with increasingly different interpretations of what it means to be a Roman Catholic. Right now, for instance, Pope Francis is in Canada, asking indigenous residential school survivors for forgiveness. The Pontiff expressed “sorrow, indignation and shame”, and called the schools system a “disastrous error”. On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – in a speech in Romania – attacked what he called the “mixing” of Europeans and non-Europeans, stating that countries where Europeans and non-Europeans mingle were “no longer nations”.
This perhaps would be easily dismissed except for the fact that countries like Hungary and Poland, and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, are the only parts of Europe where the Catholic Church is actually growing, a region where the Catholic Church – and St. Pope John Paul II – was seen as instrumental in bringing about an end to communism. In central and eastern Europe, the Church and Christian faith is heavily connected to traditionalism and nationalism, to some extent catalysing opposition to Muslim immigration. How does the Church square that way of thinking with a Pope who has said walls and barbed wire are not the answer to the migrant crisis?
Orbán’s comments did provoke some backlash, including from Katalin Cseh, an MEP from the opposition Momentum party, who said she was appalled by the speech. Romanian MEP Alin Mituța also responded angrily to Orbán’s comments, while Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu called Orbán’s statement “unacceptable.” Former Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány went on to call Orbán a “tragedy”. However, the reality is that the response from across the region was largely muted, indicating a general agreement with what the Hungarian leader had to say.
Orbán went on to claim “the West is split in two”, with half compromised of countries where Europeans and non-Europeans intermingle, and that such countries “continue to fight central Europe to change us to be like them”. The Hungarian Prime Minister added that “in a spiritual sense, the West has moved to central Europe”. It is, of course, no secret that Europe and the EU is now very much split between a more homogenous, re-Christianised, and traditionalist east, and a more diverse, secular, and progressive west. But where exactly does that leave the Church, caught between these worldviews?
Of course, there may be no inherent contradiction between upholding arch-conservative values in Europe while apologising for past crimes in the name of social justice, but it does feel as if the Church is being interpreted differently by different Catholics, and is being pulled in contradictory directions. For instance, the German Synodal Path threatens a schism with the Vatican over its progressive stance. Yet, at the same time, the German Catholic Church has seen hundreds of thousands of members officially resign their membership. According to the German bishops’ conference, at least 359,000 Catholics left the church in 2021, a jump from the 221,390 who left in 2020.
This would seem to justify the Vatican’s tough stance with the Synodal Path but then does the Holy See throw its weight behind the more conservative central and eastern European countries where the Catholic Church is actually buoyant? The risk is that the Vatican then becomes associated with the politics of that region, even though politicians there see themselves as defending Christian civilisation. Orbán, for instance, has overseen a constitution with references to God and Christianity; funded Christian schools, and banned content deemed to promote LGBT issues to minors, none of which endeared him to Brussels, but which proved extremely popular within Hungary, as well as the wider central and eastern European region.
Over in Poland, meanwhile, are some of the strictest abortion laws in the developed world, as well as “LGBT free” zones where LGBT issues cannot be promoted. Around a third of Poland has passed resolutions declaring themselves free of “LGBT ideology”. Again, popular in central and eastern Europe, wildly unpopular in western Europe, and with the Church caught in the middle of a culture war. Even in the Czech Republic – where same-sex marriage could soon be legalised – attitudes on national identity still very much align with the nationalism and traditionalism of Hungary and Poland.
For the Church, this is increasingly a tightrope to walk: can the Vatican really alienate the only part of Europe where the faith is growing, when it faces empty pews across the rest of the Western world? On the other hand, does the Church want to be associated with hard-line policies on migration and nationalism, especially at a time of outreach to communities such as indigenous peoples in Canada? This may explain the delicate position taken on the abortion debate in the United States. And, how would all this change if Pope Francis is succeeded by somebody from central and eastern Europe? The reaction to the Synodal Path suggests conservative thinking remains dominant even if the Vatican is unsure how much it wants to draw towards Europe’s nationalist bad-boys. How then to solve a problem like Viktor Orbán?
(Photo of Mr Orbán with Pope Francis courtesy of Vatican Media)
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