religion classes

The growing influence of the Catholic Church in Hungary

A few days ago I wrote about Ágoston Sámuel Mráz’s Nézőpont Intézet which, among other things,  tries to refute foreign newspapers’ descriptions of Hungary under Viktor Orbán. I mentioned that Nézőpont really takes offense if someone accuses the Hungarian government of trying to rehabilitate the Horthy regime. Well, I wonder what will happen if one of these antagonistic foreign journalists finds out what Sándor Lezsák, one of the deputy speakers of the House, had to say in Kenderes on the twentieth anniversary of the reburial of Miklós Horthy. Lezsák expressed his wish that a new research institute be established in Kenderes in which all the documentation relating to the Horthy family would be gathered and where young historians could become acquainted with the true history of the Horthy regime.

The rehabilitation of the Horthy regime goes on in practically all facets of life. For example, what’s going on in the field of education is also reminiscent of the pre-1945-46 period when the overwhelming majority of schools, especially gymnasiums, were in the hands of the churches. There were some Hungarian Reformed and Lutheran schools but not too many for the simple reason that these churches were not as rich as the Hungarian Catholic Church. It could easily happen that even in a larger provincial city children wanting to attend gymnasium had to enroll in the Catholic school because there was no public school in town. It seems that, if it depended on Rózsa Hoffmann, very soon a similar situation will occur in “Christian” Hungary.

Rózsa Hoffmann wasn’t always that devoted to the service of God and the Catholic Church, but sometime after the regime change she saw the light. Nowadays she acts as the instrument of the Hungarian Catholic Church, her goal being “to educate more and  more children in the Christian faith.” Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that the pious undersecretary for public education gave one of her many speeches marking the beginning of the new school year in the Basilica of Eger. I wouldn’t be surprised if soon enough all public school children were herded into one of the nearby Catholic churches for Veni Sancte as I was in grade one. Quite an experience for someone who hadn’t seen the inside of a church, any church, until then.

medieval school

Hoffmann is working assiduously to achieve this goal. She was rapturous over the growing number of parochial schools and expressed her hope that soon enough Christian education will begin in kindergarten. It’s never too early to start, and since all children from here on must attend kindergarten from the age of three we can be sure that if the government decides on universal Christian education it will be done. After all, the school system is totally centralized. In fact, terribly overcentralized. While she was at it, Hoffmann proudly announced that 52% of first graders opted for religion over ethics. It is now compulsory to take one or the other.

Many Hungarians are a great deal less enthusiastic about this transformation of secular public education, especially since Hoffmann’s missionary work is being paid for by the Hungarian taxpayers who are not necessarily Christians, or even believers. Because one cannot emphasize enough that this expansion of the parochial school system is financed exclusively by the central budget. At least in the Horthy regime the Catholic Church and parents footed the bill.  A somewhat radical critique of the Orbán government’s support of the Catholic Church can be found on one of the well known Hungarian blogs, Gépnarancs, whose name is a take-off on Fidesz’s official color, orange, and Lajos Simicska’s Közgép, considered to be the financial lynch pin of the Orbán system.

It is not only the Catholic Church that has been acquiring schools. Just lately I read about three schools that had been taken over by Kolping International, a lay organization whose members allegedly “participate in a socially just transformation of society.” The organization is named after a nineteenth-century German Catholic priest Adolph Kolping. Kolping International has over 400,000 members. One these new Kolping schools is an elementary school in Pócspetri. Another is opening in Szászberek where even the school’s new name gives it away. It is called Szászbereki Kolping Katolikus Általános Iskola.  And naturally Rózsa Hoffmann was on hand in Csurgó where the Kolping Foundation will run a high school for 600 students. I guess it was time to open a Catholic school in Csurgó because there is already a Hungarian Reformed high school in town. Here Hoffmann lectured about the “morality” that had been cast aside. She promised that the new Hungarian school system will make sure that Hungarian children will return to the world of morality because “one must not live without values.” I agree in principle, but what kinds of values is Hoffmann talking about?

After Hoffmann visited several Catholic parochial schools it was time to go to a Hungarian Reformed school, the famous Debreceni Református Kollégium established in 1538. After all, Hoffmann’s boss, Zoltán Balog, is a Hungarian Reformed minister whose son happens to be a student there. Given the government’s political grip on education, it was not amusing to hear Balog ask the teachers not to allow politics to infiltrate the schools. It was also somewhat ironic to hear within the walls of a parochial school that “the government believes in public education.” But I guess if parochial schools are being funded by the public, they by default become public schools.

Rózsa Hoffmann spent most of her time defending the complete reorganization of the Hungarian school system. I was astonished to hear that this school year is the 1018th in the history of the nation. It seems that Ms. Hoffmann believes that the first “school” in Hungary was established in 995. A brave assumption. What I know is that it was in this year that Saint Adalbert of Prague arrived in Hungary to begin his missionary work. Otherwise, Hoffmann praised her own accomplishments, including personally appointing all new school principals. Such an arrangement “symbolizes greater respect for the principals than before.” Hoffmann also announced that it is “wise love (okos szeretet) [that] distinguishes [the Orbán government’s] pedagogical philosophy from others in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” “Wise love” will be taught in religion and ethics classes.

Of course, I have no idea what “wise love” is. I trust it is not “tough love.” What these kids will learn in religion or ethics classes I have no idea. I just hope more than we learned during compulsory religion classes before the communist takeover. Then it was tough love all right. The minister who taught us didn’t spare the rod; boys who misbehaved were caned.

Introducing religion as part of the curriculum in Hungarian public schools

A few days ago I noticed a new attempt by the Christian Democratic People’s party (KDNP) to shove religious education down the throats of a basically secular Hungarian society. As things stand now, the law on public education stipulates that all schools must offer both religion and ethics classes. KDNP suggests that “under certain circumstances” schools belonging to the state but run by the churches can offer only religion.

Zsolt Semjén, the chairman of KDNP, makes no secret of the fact that his party is the political arm of the Catholic Church. Since the number of practicing Catholics is diminishing, the Church is trying to find new recruits among the young. I found a Catholic website dealing with the subject of  teaching religion in schools where they state that religion classes in state and municipal schools are part of the church’s “missionary activities.” The same website also stresses that the Catholic Church finds the teaching of religion especially important in kindergarten because “at this age the children are very impressionable.”

Religion class / Népszava Archív

An energetic priest, bored students / Religion class –Népszava Archív

Personally, I’m dead set against teaching religion in schools. I’m also against maintaining “parochial schools” at the taxpayers’ expense. If any religious organization–Catholic, Protestant or Jewish–wants to get involved in the education of children, they should do so from their own resources and from tuition fees. I’d wager to say that the current enthusiasm for parochial schools in Hungary would wane if parents had to pay for the privilege of sending their children there. I am also a great believer in secular education. If parents want to bring up their children according to the precepts of one of the organized religions they can do so in the parish to which they belong.

Unfortunately, during the right-of-center government of József Antall the parliamentary majority made a “compromise” arrangement. Religion classes were held after official school hours but in the school building. It was an arrangement I didn’t like then and still don’t like. But now even this arrangement is not enough for the zealots who are running the country. The government insists that everybody should take either ethics or religion as part of the regular public school curriculum.

Let me tell you my experiences with “religion” when it was taught in Hungarian schools. I took religion for eight solid years and don’t remember a single thing that was useful or enlightening. Instead, we were taught to hate the Catholics, who worship idols. Impressionable as I was early on, I used to tease my younger cousin who was Catholic about her idols.

As for the separation of church and state, I spent my first four years in a state school. Great was my surprise when on the first day of school the whole student body was herded into the closest Catholic Church for mass. They never asked the religion of the children. Since I had never been in a church before, I had not the foggiest idea what was going on.

Then came the other surprise. The religion class. I knew that I was supposed to identify myself as a Calvinist. Since there were very few of us, our class was held after hours. While in ordinary classes the girls and boys were separated, in religion the class was mixed: both boys and girls attended. There were maybe five or six of us. One of my vivid memories from those days was that the first “kind” minister who taught us religion regularly caned the boys. From grade five on a nicer minister taught us but the quality of religious education didn’t improve. By grade seven a revolutionary change occurred: we had a woman teacher. Aside from her sex the same old practice continued.

I was even confirmed. Our preparation for confirmation consisted of memorizing passages from the Bible. The grand finale was a public examination. Each of us was called on to recite a long passage from the New Testament. To the horror of the family who gathered for the occasion I got stuck in the middle of the story of John the Baptist. No prodding helped.

That was my last encounter with the Hungarian Reformed Church. In grade eight I announced that there was no way I would ever cross the threshold of a church again. I guess my parents weren’t exactly heartbroken. It seems that in fact I liberated them. As far as I know neither of them ever attended church again. So, the Hungarian Reformed Church’s missionary work certainly wasn’t successful in my case.

My feeling is that the quality of  the new religious classes will be just as poor, if not poorer than those of my childhood. After all, in those days religion was a compulsory subject in every school and the churches had extensive experience teaching the subject. In addition, the number of schools was relatively small in comparison to the situation today. There were also more priests and ministers. Now there are more children, more schools, and fewer priests and ministers.

Aside from the quality of the teaching there are more substantive worries about the introduction of religion as a regular part of the curriculum. Critics of the law point out that, depending on the school administration’s ideological views, parents who opt for their children to take ethics instead of religion might find that their children are discriminated against in school. Moreover, the new constitution specifies that an individual has the right to keep his religious beliefs private. Requiring parents to choose encroaches upon this right. Moreover, the schools will send a list of children to be enrolled in religion classes to the churches. Admittedly, the churches ought to know how many children they will have to deal with. But the law says nothing about how long these lists can be kept and what they can be used for besides keeping tab on the number of students requiring religious education.

Knowing something about the Bible and world religions is important. “Hittan,” by contrast, as the Hungarians call it, is useless. “Hit” in Hungarian means “faith.” “Tan” “subject, class.” One cannot learn faith! It is impossible.