As Western Europe is rejecting its Christian heritage, the opposite is occurring in much of Eastern and Central Europe. Among the post-communist countries experiencing a rediscovery of traditional values is Hungary, which is becoming a leader in recognising Europe’s Judaeo-Christian roots, promoting the marriage and family, and standing up for persecuted Christians.
Hungary’s first king, St Stephen I, adopted Christianity and brought his people into European Christendom. While it was a major regional power in the Middle Ages, Hungary was victimised by its more powerful neighbours in later centuries. Nonetheless, the Hungarians clung to their religious heritage.
In the 20th century, the nation’s primate, Cardinal József Mindszenty, courageously fought against the communist government. In 1974 Pope Paul VI, as part of his myopic Ostpolitik, declared Mindszenty’s archbishopric vacant. “The communist leadership in Moscow and Budapest was rejoicing,” says Gergely Ternovszky, a history teacher from Budapest. Afterwards, the Vatican appointed communist sycophant bishops and many Hungarians lost their trust in the Church.
But Ternovszky says that, while communism and Ostpolitik had destructive effects, it failed in eradicating Hungarians’ religious roots. He notes that in the first census taken after the fall of communism, 74.5 per cent of Hungarians declared their membership of a church. Most were Catholics, but there was also a sizeable Calvinist minority. But church attendance in Hungary remains low: according to a European Values Study survey in 2008, just one in 10 Hungarians attend weekly.
Yet there are signs that the country is rediscovering its religious roots. The constitution of 2011 begins with the words: “God bless the Hungarians”. Christian symbolism is becoming increasingly public. Around the same time that secularists in France tried to dismantle a statue of St John Paul II, a statue of Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, a pro-Solidarity priest murdered by Poland’s communist police, was unveiled in Budapest. That speaks volumes.
Meanwhile, Cardinal Mindszenty is increasingly seen as a national hero. Since 1993, an annual pilgrimage has been organised to his tomb in Esztergom, outside Budapest, attracting thousands. In recent years, the Hungarian government has transferred many public schools to religious institutions, which has proved popular, and Hungarian schools are reintroducing religious hymns and prayers at the start of classes.
While Hungary’s government is frequently criticised for being hesitant to accept mass Muslim migration, it has given refuge and scholarships to Christians from the Middle East fleeing genocide. It has also established a department dedicated to helping Christians facing persecution worldwide, giving imperilled Christian communities millions of euros of aid each year.
Across the West, living together has replaced marriage and marriage rates are at historic lows. In Hungary, the rate is actually rising. According to Hungary’s minister of state for the family, since 2010 the number of marriages has increased by an impressive 150 per cent, while Hungarians under 30 are more open to having children than previous generations. Last year the number of divorces fell by 18 per cent on the previous year.
After the collapse of communism, Hungary’s birth rate plummeted, largely because of increasingly difficult living standards. Hungary’s Calvinist prime minister Viktor Orbán is a father of five – in stark contrast with Western Europe’s childless leaders. He has made boosting Hungary’s birth rate a priority, introducing generous tax breaks for families (a family with three children pays virtually no income tax). He has also increased state support for poor families.
At 1.49 births per woman, Hungary’s fertility rate is still below the replacement level of 2.1. But it has climbed by 20 per cent since 2011 and is at a 20-year high. One of Orban’s policy priorities has been to reach the 2.1 threshold by 2030 through ambitious proposed reforms, including debt forgiveness for women with three or more children, increasing the number of crèches and boosting subsidies for children.
The abortion issue is less straightforward. A Hungarian Catholic activist told me that, as a result of half a century of communist propaganda, most Hungarians do not see anything wrong with abortion. He says that while Hungary’s constitution speaks of the human rights of the unborn, Orban has not made abortion illegal, fearing a social backlash.
Still, there are reasons for optimism. Between 2010, the year Orban took power, and 2015, the number of abortions declined by a quarter. In 2011, the government used EU funds to subsidise pro-life posters at bus stops across the country. And unborn children count towards tax benefits.
Partly as a result of the decline of marriage, family and traditional values, many European and Asian countries face disturbingly low birth rates, which spells economic disaster and an implosion of the pensions system. In this regard, Hungary – where marriage and the family are making a major comeback – should be an example.
Filip Mazurczak is a translator and journalist. He is assistant editor of the European Conservative