Secular Hungary

Secular Hungary

Less school, more religion

There’s been a wave of state schools being handed over to churches lately, meaning that many pupils (and their parents) will have to decide whether they are willing to abide by the rules of some church or look for a new school. The reason for this phenomenon has been largely financial, due to the fact that schools maintained by churches receive more direct state funding: In Hungary, schools are maintained by local governments, NGOs or churches. Any school type receives a regular state subsidy, but this covers only about one half of the costs. The other half of the necessary funds has to be provided by the owner of the school (i.e. the local government or the NGO)—with the exception of churches, who get full state funding for their schools, basically due to the concordat with the Vatican signed by socialist prime minister Gyula Horn in 1997 (as all religions have to be treated equally, non-catholic denominations receive equal funding as the Catholic church). The argument used to justify these additional funds is that the local governments’ funds are also state funds, so state schools are funded 100% by the state, and as the Vatican treaty rules that church schools are entitled to the same funding as state schools, this means that their costs should be covered by 100%. However, the churches own funds also come from the state.
This preference of denominational schools means that local governments are all too willing to have the cake and eat it by having a primary school int he village or one preparing for higher education in the town. Until last summer, this was prevented by a regulation that forced local governments to subsidise schools handed over to a denomination for another five years (i.e. savings were generated only after the next local election), but the Fidesz-KDNP government elected last year overturned this rule, so denominational schools receive the additional funds at one from the central budget, and the local government s free to use its money.
While around 10-15% of the population follow the teachings of their denomination, and the Christian Democrat Party, the coalition partner of governing FIDESZ wouldn’t make it into parliament on their own (their support is so low that it can hardly be measured), the prime minister’s deputy (Zsolt Semjén) as well as e.g the state secretary or education (Rózsa Hoffmann) and of social issues (Miklós Szócska) are members of KDNP, a party very much in line with hardline Catholicism.

Of course finances are not the only reason. This system meant that in poor and small villages the only choice was between closing down the school (because the local government had no funds to spare for the school) and having it operated by a church—and idealist teachers trying to operate schools for the poorest and most disadvantaged of children (usually roma) were actually forced to establish a mini church alongside their school to be able to fund it. But these days it’s well-off towns that are giving away schools they could afford to maintain.

And „giving away” here means that well equipped school buildings are handed over to churches free of charge.

While parents in Tata, a small town in Western Hungary have been successfully resisting the mayors attempts to hand over the only secular secondary school that prepares pupils for university studies, things seem to be harder elswhere.

Parents are not amused at the prospect of sending their kids to sectarian schools or driving them somewhere else, while their mayors and church officials try to calm them down. The meeting in Zsombó, a middle class suburb of Szeged, where the mayor decided to hand over the only kindergarden and primary school to the catholic church, went along the follwing lines (as reported by the daily Népszabadság):

– If the majority doesn’t agree, I leave at once, says catholic bishop László Kiss-Rigó, and stays.

– Will we have to have our children baptised?

– It’s not complusory, but that’s what follows from the catholic values.

– Will parents have to attend mass?

– It’s not complusory, but that’s what follows from the catholic values.

The mayor stated that it was not for financial reasons that they were going to hand over the school, but moral ones. Parents were outraged: it is debasing to say that Zsombó is in moral disaster and there’s no reason to prefer those who live according to catholic values. The problem is, of course, that sectarian schools are allowed to expect adherence to their church’s teachings. In practice, that’s enforced to different degrees. There are schools where the day begins with a prayer, but instead of religious education, pupils may attend ethics classes. In other schools, families must be willing to comply with church teachings, and children have to attend mass once a month.
Of Zsombó’s 3233 inhabitants, 2344 were (nominally) catholic, and ca. 140 protestants (Calvinists and Lutherans), while 432 are unaffiliated and 300 persons did not answer the census question in 2001. On Sundays, ca. 150 persons attend mass. Parents who do not wish sectarian education for their children, will have to take them to the next village 6 km away, to a school with a worse reputation.

Complying with church expectations is not only an issue for parents and children, but also—even more so—for teachers. One aspect is their personal life, as in Hungary half of all marriages end in divorce, and cohabitation before or instead of marriage is quite common, while the biggest religion is the catholic one. That’s why the Teachers’ Union (Pedgagógusok Szakszervezete) turned to the supreme court last year already.

Some papers have tried to collect a list of state schools becoming sectarian institutions, but these are not yet final. Children living in cities will be able to find alternatíves, but in rural areas and in suburbs no other school may be available. While the head of the Calvinists, Gusztáv Bölcskei warned against taking over more schools that they are able to manage well, and one Catholic bishops speaker sait they’d accept schools offered to them only provided that there is an alternative availabe, this is not always the case. The state secretary of education Mrs Rózsa Hoffmann (KDNP) has openly stated that she intends to do everything possible to increase the number of faith schools and to improve the situation of religious education in state schools.

Of course attending a church school and being forced to participate in religious activities does not make you a believer. At least not more than being forced to participate in communist memorial sessions produced masses of faithful communists between 1949 and 1989. Ironically, in the long run, this may well result in more and more people despising the religion that was forced down their throat, instead of having the vague ignorant positive feeling towards churches they have now.


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