Since February 1, couples in Hungary have been able to undergo in vitro fertilisation free of charge. Viktor Orbán’s government has brought six formerly private fertility clinics under state control, declaring procreation a matter of “national strategic importance”. Approximately 4,000 children are born in Hungary by means of IVF each year. Miklós Kásler, Hungary’s minister of human resources, hopes to double that number.
This is the latest move in a wide-ranging campaign to boost Hungary’s fertility rate, which stands at 1.48 births per woman – well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Orbán’s government has enacted generous financial incentives for couples who have children, including an exemption from income tax for mothers of four.
Christians have responded warmly to Orbán’s family-friendly policies. Brian Brown, president of the National Organisation for Marriage, has called Orbán “one of the top pro-family leaders in the world”. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, says that Orbán “has championed biblical values in Hungary”.
Orbán has declared his intention of turning Hungary into a new kind of Christian democracy, one that explicitly rejects liberalism while affirming the family and nation. “Every European country has the right to defend its Christian culture, and the right to reject the ideology of multiculturalism,” he said in 2018. “Every country has the right to defend the traditional family model, and is entitled to assert that every child has the right to a mother and a father.”
State support for IVF will no doubt increase Hungary’s fertility rate, however marginally. But it will also lead to the creation of surplus embryos, which will be either destroyed or frozen in perpetuity. Catholic teaching has consistently rejected this practice. Pope Francis has described IVF as “making children rather than accepting them as a gift … a sin against the Creator”.
Orbán’s support for IVF is a reminder that “family values” do not always align with Christian faith. Yes, Christianity insists that marriage can exist only between a man and a woman. Yes, it celebrates the birth of children. But it does not view marriage and childbearing as the highest goods. St Paul said that it was better for men not to marry, a judgment reflected in the honour the Catholic world gives to nuns and priests.
Identifying the Christian ethic with that of “family values” will never be perfectly accurate. Christianity does not insist that everyone should marry and reproduce. “Family values” more exactly describes the priorities of nationalist natalism, which celebrates family and fertility because the state needs men to fight its wars or fill its labour force.
Orbán’s move also reflects the tension between Christianity and what is often called “Christian identity”. Western writers sometimes present Orbán as an aspiring theocrat. But the form of Christianity he champions is less religious than cultural. “Christian democracy is not about defending religious articles of faith,” he said in 2018, “but the forms of being that have grown from them … human dignity, the family and the nation.” In Orbán’s use of the term, Christianity has more to do with national identity than with the worship of God. As he put it in 2017, “Christianity is a culture and a civilisation … The essence is not how many people go to church, or how many pray with true devotion.”
Orbán’s policy on IVF confirms what he has long been saying but too many Christians have failed to hear. His vision of Christianity has more to do with cultural assertion than submission to the rule of faith. This must be kept in mind when Orbán justifies other policies, including his response to migration, in the name of Christianity.
In educated quarters of the West, Christians are often tempted to identify their faith with a callow anti-nationalism that denies any legitimacy to today’s political communities. Or in the name of a false acceptance, they redefine the family to include any sexual coupling. It is necessary to oppose these errors. But those who do so should beware of falling into an opposite error, in which nation or family is exalted above the universal law of charity.
No less than liberalism, natalism and nationalism can run counter to Christianity. In pursuit of national survival, Hungary subsidises a policy that entails the destruction of its progeny. In the name of family values, it empowers parents to discard their offspring. In defence of Christian identity, it pursues a course counter to Christianity.
Perhaps these contradictions show that though family and nation rightly command man’s loyalty, his first and final loyalty must be to something higher. If that is true, whoever puts family or nation before God will end up betraying all three.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.