On Sunday, Pope Francis will arrive in Budapest to celebrate the final Mass of the Fifty-Second International Eucharistic Congress. Although religious practice remains low in Hungarian society, the country’s government, in power since 2010, is (along with that of Poland) Europe’s most unapologetically Christian, conservative, and pro-family.
The legacy of Communism
According to the nation’s 2019 census, 73.4 percent of Hungarians are Christians, including 51.9 percent Roman Catholics, 2.6 percent Greek Catholics, 15.9 percent Calvinists, and 3 percent Lutherans. More than a quarter of Hungarians did not state their religion, while 16.7 percent identified as “nones.” As elsewhere, however, actual rates of religious observance are lower. According to one study, just 12 percent of Hungarian Catholics are weekly Mass-goers.
Péter Heltai of the communications team of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium of Budapest, explains that this is the result of the Communist legacy. “During the ‘goulash Communism’ period of the 1960s and 1970s, the Hungarians were given somewhat greater prosperity and civic freedoms compared to other Communist countries,” he explains. “However, there was a lot of repression for religious practice, so as a result the Hungarians became less religious.”
Heltai is echoed by Jozsef, a Greek Catholic from Budapest who asked that his last name be omitted from this publication. “According to all statistics, religious practice hasn’t changed since 1989,” he says. “In the big cities, it has become very weak.”
Following the collapse of Communist rule in Hungary in 1989, Heltai says, there was a brief religious revival, as many religious orders saw an increased number of new applicants. Since then, however, religious practice has declined to the status quo ante.
Hungary’s Christians as a creative minority?
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was fond of quoting the English historian Arnold Toynbee’s notion of a “creative minority” that can change history. Benedict realized that it was unlikely for Christianity’s social relevance in the West to return to its status during the Middle Ages or even during the immediate post-World War II era. He believed, however, that if Christians in the West are dynamic and well-organized, they can have an impact on their world.
Perhaps that is what is happening with Hungary’s Christians, both Catholics and Protestants. “Catholics and Protestants are allies in the culture wars, although the unity of Catholics on key issues makes them more effective in the long run,” Heltai says. “For a long time, certain groups which happened to be Catholics were also seen as tied to Vienna’s rule and the Habsburgs, so this made it easier for Protestant communities to identify themselves as a whole with the ‘freedom fighter’ resistance.”
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a devout Calvinist and father of five. His colleague from the conservative Fidesz party, the nation’s President János Áder, meanwhile, is a Catholic. Heltai says that Áder publicly professed his faith at an address during the International Eucharistic Congress.
In the United States, we are all too familiar with politicians who claim to be Catholic but, for example, promote abortion and the LGBT and gender ideologies. Hungary’s Fidesz party, however, is not afraid of genuine social conservatism. Hungary’s 2011 Constitution, adopted a year after Fidesz’s ascension to power, defines marriage as between a man and a woman and explicitly acknowledges the nation’s Christian legacy. The document opens with a line from Hungary’s national anthem: “God bless the Hungarians!”
For decades, American liberals have opposed school vouchers for underprivileged families, arguing that primarily religious schools would benefit, which would be a violation of the separation of Church and state. Since 2010, the Hungarian government has generously supported schools run by both the Catholic and Protestant Churches. In the article “Christianity as Predestination” from the Autumn 2021 issue of the European Conservative, Katalin Novák, Hungary’s Minister for the Family, claims that the number of Hungarian children attending religious schools has doubled over the past decade. Meanwhile, Fidesz has reinstated mandatory religion or ethics courses for Hungarian pupils in public schools.
For Hungary’s government, demographics Is destiny
Across the world, especially among developed countries, the birth rate has plummeted, spelling economic disaster as the number of working-age persons per each pensioner declines rapidly. In an industrialized nation, a woman must have an average number of 2.1 children in her lifetime for the population to be naturally replaced. Most wealthy countries are far below that level; in South Korea, the world’s lowest fertility rate is a mere 0.84.
Strangely enough, many leftists have celebrated this trend. Fewer people on earth, they argue, will decrease humanity’s carbon footprint. In 2017, a headline in Britain’s Guardian, for instance, proclaimed: “Want to Fight Climate Change? Have Fewer Children.”
Not only has Hungary’s government resisted such nonsense; it has actively worked to improve the nation’s fertility rate. The nation’s numerous pro-family and pro-natalist policies, coordinated by Minister Novak, include: complete exemptions from the personal income tax for mothers with four or more children, early retirement for the mothers of large families, building growing numbers of nurseries and preschools, and preferential housing for large families. Large Hungarian families are even eligible for subsidies for cars seating seven or more passengers.
This has led to an increase in Hungary’s fertility rate from a historic low of 1.23 in 2011 to 1.56 last year. This is still well short of the replacement level, but Budapest was not built in a day. Last year’s fertility rate is the highest in Hungary in a quarter-century. Furthermore, the number of marriages has been booming in the country, and today Hungary is tied with Latvia for the third-highest marriage rate among the European Union’s twenty-seven members (8.9 compared to an average of 5.2 marriages per 1,000 people).
No political force, perhaps especially in a democracy, is in power forever. Péter Heltai believes, however, that even if Fidesz loses power in next year’s parliamentary elections (although he is optimistic) or some other time in the future, whatever political force takes over will not dare to get rid of these pro-family policies. “I have many friends, especially in Budapest, who don’t support Fidesz, but they personally benefit from these policies and would strongly oppose getting rid of them,” he explains.
The example of Hungary has many implications for the rest of Western civilization. To varying degrees, Christianity has been weakening across the West for many decades. Hungary demonstrates that even the collapse of totalitarian Communist rule is not enough to foster a religious revival. However, Christians can have a major impact on politics and society, as in Hungary, where they have positively influenced what perhaps the West needs most today: marriage, the traditional family, and new human life.
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