Traditional Church above the abyss

What is the Slovak Catholic Church like? Critical view on the Slovak Catholic Church before the visit of Pope Francis.

Compared to other European countries, Slovak society can be described as traditional and conservative.

Slovakia ranks among the most religious countries in Europe. In the 2011 Census, 76% of the Slovak population identified themselves with some kind of Church. 66% of all Slovaks identified themselves as Catholics (Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic Church together).

The faith of ordinary people is also traditional and conservative. Attending the Sunday liturgy is a common part of many people’s lifestyles. Churches are still full on Sunday mornings, not only in the countryside. Before Easter and before Christmas, long queues are formed in front of the confessional booths. Slovak believers especially like Marian pilgrimages. It is common that the main Marian pilgrimages are attended by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year.

 


Marian pilgrimage in Levoča, Slovakia (2018). The biggest annual pilgrimage in Slovakia.   

 

At the moment, no significant shortage of priests is perceivable in Slovakia; it is still not necessary to merge parishes or to invite priests from abroad in larger numbers.

During his visit to Slovakia, Irish Redemptorist Tony Flannery noted that Slovakia is now in a similar situation as Ireland a few decades ago.

However, the situation has significantly changed in recent years. Several sociological surveys show that religion plays an important role only for approximately 25-35% of the Slovak population. Even the unofficial results of this year’s Census, which has not been officially evaluated yet, predict a very significant decrease in the number of people who identified themselves with some kind of Church. It can be said with some exaggeration that former Catholics have become the largest religious group in Slovakia.

The Church does not implement (or does not publish) any systematic statistics on the attendance of Sunday’s masses. It can range from 5% in large cities to 50% in rural areas.

However, it is clear that the Church is losing contact with the young and, in part, the middle generation of believers. Many resigned and stopped considering the Catholic Church to be their spiritual home and relevant to their lives. Some people “emigrated” from the sterile Church environment to very traditional conservative religious-political groups or to various charismatic communities. (It is interesting that even the Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic is a member of the charismatic Catholic community).

The decline in the interest in religion lived in an ecclesiastic society is also visible in the rapidly falling number of seminarians and new priests. In the seminars, the seminarians go through a “filter” that can be passed not by the most capable, but by the most obedient and loyal. 

Position of the Slovak Church

Although the Slovak Republic is officially a secular state, Slovak Churches enjoy several advantages. The Slovak Republic has concluded an intergovernmental treaty with the Holy See, which brings many privileges to the Catholic Church. However, subsequently, all other state-recognised Churches also received similar privileges.

Financing of Churches by state

In Slovakia, all Churches recognised by the state have the right to a financial contribution from the state. This contribution is not very high, but it is an essential part of the funding of every Church. Other sources include voluntary contributions from believers and property income.

Slovak believers have not yet become accustomed to financing their Church directly. Voluntary contributions are collected practically only during the liturgy and alone can cover only a small part of the total costs. However, believers sometimes support their parish priest directly with non-monetary, but also (untaxed) financial donations.

On the other hand, practically all work related to the operation of parishes (cleaning the church and parsonage, function of the beadle, organist, parish administration…) is done by believers on a voluntary basis and is not financially rewarded, or only with very symbolic sums.

The Church lags far behind in accounting transparency. The Church accounting as a whole is not published, partial data in various levels of detail are published by individual parishes. However, there is no complete list of Church property. Even in comparison with the transparency of other organisations in Slovakia, the Church is completely left behind.

Church schools and universities

Religious education or ethics are compulsory at all Slovak primary schools (parents can choose between them). When teaching religious education at all schools, children are automatically prepared to receive the sacraments. Thus, not only the teaching of religion takes place at school, but also catechesis and the transmission of faith. Teachers of religious education are employees of the state and are paid by the state in the same way as teachers of other subjects. However, it is up to the local bishop to decide who can teach religious education. The Church also operates its own network of primary and secondary schools, which are fully funded by the state.

The situation is similar at the university level as well. There are several theological faculties in Slovakia and even an independent Catholic university. Although all theological faculties, including the Catholic University, are financed by the state, in fact only the Church decides about the content of education and individual teachers.

There is no Church-independent institution operating in the Slovak Republic that would educate at the university level in the field of theology or similar.

In so doing, the Church virtually controls all theological science and theological education and does not allow any deviation from the official Catholic doctrine. However, such factual censorship does not help the quality of theological discussion. The level of theological education in Slovakia is relatively low.

Church in media

The Catholic Church owns a nationwide Catholic television and radio station, a printed Catholic weekly, and its web version. Everything that is published in these media is very strictly controlled and there is no room for a free discussion in the Catholic media. The audience of the Catholic media is largely limited to the hard core, mostly older, Catholic believers.

Public television and radio (owned by the state) also have a relatively strong position in Slovakia. As part of their broadcast, some time is also devoted to religious topics. This broadcast is also under the influence of the Catholic Church.

Clerical and strictly hierarchical

The Slovak Catholic Church is very clerical and strictly hierarchical. Lay people (not to mention women) don’t hold any important Church positions.

Especially in the countryside, and predominantly among Greek Catholic believers, the priest (and even more the bishop) has a very high social status. An ordinary believer does not dare to publicly argue with the views of the priest. The bishop cannot be virtually criticised by Catholic believers in public. He still enjoys a kind of monarchical status in the Church hierarchy.

However, none of this applies to the perception of secular society. No contemporary Slovak Catholic bishop has built an informal moral authority in society as a whole.

Trends in the Slovak Catholic Church

Uniformity of the Church

In recent years, Slovak bishops have decided to promote an ideologically uniform Church. Systematically, they work against the plurality of ideas within the Catholic Church. Discussions and currents of thought that are known from Catholic Churches in Western Europe are actively suppressed in Slovakia.

Every hint of a bolder (not necessarily critical) theological discussion carries the danger of ecclesiastical punishment for priests and monks. In Slovakia, even an ordinary priest cannot express himself publicly in the media without the consent of his ordinary. Practically, all clergy who dared to utter critical words about the Church in public or questioned the Church’s conservative narrative were punished or silenced.

In order to prevent the penetration of more progressive ideas, for several years now, Slovak priests have been sent to postgraduate studies primarily at Polish universities or conservative Roman theological faculties.

The Slovak Church perceives the currents of thought that are quite common in Western Catholic countries as dangerous or threatening the true Catholic faith. In Slovakia, the term “liberal” has the context “non-Catholic”, “non-orthodox”. The term “liberal” refers to enemies of the Catholic Church or Catholics who do not 100% agree with what the Bishop Conference declares.

The absence of discussion on new ideas and the lack of free reflection on the relationship of the Church in contemporary society thus means that the Slovak Church lacks inspiring impulses that would move it forward.

It thus remains locked in its status quo, which robs it of life-giving energy.

Polonisation of the Slovak Church

If something in the Slovak Church has been a trend in recent years, it is a significant “polonisation” of the Slovak Catholic Church. Polish priests work in many Slovak parishes and monasteries. Young Slovak priests are sent by their bishops to postgraduate studies at Polish universities. Polish conservative NGOs are based in Slovakia. Leading Polish bishops are invited to the Slovak (Marian) pilgrimages as the main preachers (but, for example, never Austrian bishops, who are geographically even closer to Slovakia).

Although the current Pope Francis is well-accepted in Slovakia, he would certainly be in second place in the ranking of popularity. The hearts of Slovak believers are reigned by John Paul II, a Polish pope who was born just a few dozens of miles from the Slovak border.

John Paul II visited Slovakia three times during his pontificate. He visited all Slovak dioceses, some repeatedly. Mass outdoor masses were organised during all visits. It can be said with certain exaggeration that every Slovak believer saw John Paul II in person, many of them more than once.

First visit of the pope John Paul II. to Slovakia in 1990 (few moths after fall of the communist regime). 

Loss of credibility of the Church

Cases of sexual abuse

The Slovak Catholic Church, unlike Churches in other countries, has not (yet) experienced any significant wave of sexual abuse scandals associated with clerics or ecclesiastical institutions.

There were only a few cases published. The accusation of the Greek Catholic Bishop Chautur of sexual abuse of an 8-year-old girl attracted the most attention. Although Bishop Chautur denies any guilt and the official investigation is not over, the Vatican authorities have quietly and diplomatically removed the bishop from his office. Paradoxically, Bishop Chautur was in charge of the pastoral care of families and youth within the Slovak Church.

It is symptomatic of the Slovak Church that very little attention is paid to the whole issue of sexual abuse by clergy in the Catholic media. In the Church-favoured media the narrative prevails that similar accusations are made primarily in order to discredit the Catholic Church. Rather, further victimisation of victims is usual. Among ordinary Slovak believers, there is a tendency to trust the accused clergy more than the victims who come with their testimonies.

The attitude of the Slovak Church to the whole issue is two-faced. Officially, victim-friendliness and zero tolerance to perpetrators are unambiguously communicated. In reality, however, a culture of denial and concealment prevails.   

Credibility of the Church is declining

More than sexual scandals, credibility of the Slovak Church among the faithful was undermined by the unprecedented recall of the popular Archbishop Bezák.

Archbishop Bezák was in office for only three years, but he gained great support among the faithful for his open communication, charisma and humanity. With his attitudes, Bezák contrasted greatly with other bishops who could not communicate openly and in civil language with the public without using the ecclesiastical and religious phrases.

Archbishop Bezák soon became the most trusted spokesman for the Catholic community in secular society (including the media). At the same time, the archbishop was not theologically liberal, he held common mainstream theological views typical of Catholic bishops.

In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI surprisingly removed him from office. The removal was subsequently unanimously accepted by the entire Slovak Bishop Conference. None of his episcopal confreres publicly supported Bezák.

At the age of 52, Bezák became Bishop Emeritus and was even banned from serving masses in public. The removal was not substantiated in any way and the reason why Bezák had to leave is still not publicly known. Unofficially, it is rumoured that the archbishop, after his appointment, disrupted the long-term financial flows that had been flowing from abroad through Slovakia and were supposed to end up in the Vatican accounts.

The decision to remove the popular archbishop provoked spontaneous opposition from the faithful, who organised mass rallies to support him. The clergy who stood up for Bezák were punished by their superiors.

The affair immediately got beyond the Church. Many personalities of Slovak cultural and social life also expressed their support to the archbishop. 

The removal of Archbishop Bezák brought about a significant division of the Church, which has not completely healed to this day.

The President of the Slovak Republic Kiska and his successor in office, President Čaputová, have already discussed his case with the new Pope Francis on several occasions. After these interventions, Pope Francis expressed sympathy for Archbishop Bezák with several unofficial gestures, and even met him several times. However, no official rehabilitation of Bezák has taken place yet.

The upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Slovakia might bring a turning point in the whole case. Pope Francis is generally expected to meet again with Archbishop Emeritus Bezák during his stay in Slovakia. Pope Francis has a reputation as a man who can surprise, so the expectations of many believers are set high.

 

Removal of widely popular Archbishop Robert Bezak  from the office in 2012 caused great division within the Slovak Catholic Church

 

Helplessness during the pandemic

The COVID pandemic revealed emptiness of the Church, lack of creativity of official structures and misunderstanding of contemporary society.

The state authorities in Slovakia have introduced a relatively strict lock-down. For several months, all public gatherings above 6 people were banned, including masses. Thus, during two Easter and one Christmas, though the masses in Slovakia were public, they were celebrated without a physical attendance of believers.

By expelling a lot of more creative clergy from crucial places and replacing them with the “loyal” ones, the Slovak Catholic Church reduced the spiritual life to television broadcasts of masses and video streams from individual parishes during the pandemic. However, the video transmissions of the liturgy generally did not take into account the specifics of the online space, thus leading believers to passive watching. Many believers lacked any interaction and gradually stopped watching mass broadcasts.    

The Catholic Church initially accepted the state anti-pandemic regulations as “painful, but necessary”. Over time, however, the willingness to accept measures declined, and the Bishop´s Conference began to increase pressure on state authorities to grant exemptions to Churches, so that believers could attend the masses. Paradoxically, the call and request of the Bishops’ Conference for an exemption from the anti-pandemic rules for masses came at a time when Slovakia was at the very top of the global ranking of COVID victims per million inhabitants.

Many priests tried to circumvent the prohibitions of gathering and served secret masses, some with the (false) message that it is again necessary to protect their faith and hide from the state power underground.

There was a nice effort of several dozen young priests who volunteered in hospitals in the covid wards to fight the pandemic.

On the other hand, the Internet was flooded with images and videos of priests and (even a bishop) who, with monstrance or relics in cars and planes, blessed the country, thus “protecting” it from the COVID pandemic.

What ideas are topical in the Slovak Church

The Slovak Church is systematically trying to combat the ideas and trends that are common in the Catholic Churches of Western Europe.

In Slovakia, there is practically no reflection on sexual abuse scandals within the Church. There is no open or honest discussion about the administration of the sacraments to divorced people.

On the contrary, LGBTI topics have become central, however from the position of the “orthodox Catholics” fighting against sinful behaviour and misguided LGBTI ideology. There is practically no discussion about the position of women in the Church or about making celibacy optional. When a pair of priests decided to open a public debate by publishing a book on celibacy in 2018, they were released from the priestly ministry.

The Catholic Church has staked in support of a conservative ideology and even in the outbreak of a cultural war in society. In 2015, through non-governmental organizations under its influence, it initiated a nationwide referendum aimed at the LGBTI community with the aim to tighten already strict state laws. It also organised several mass marches “For Life” with a pro-life agenda, which were attended by tens of thousands of people.

The Slovak Catholic Church looks like a traditionalist parish with a pre-conciliar liturgy with the difference that the parish has the dimensions of the whole country and the fact what liturgy is celebrated is of no importance.

The bishops managed to almost completely eliminate liberal or more open currents of thought. The few clergy and laity who sought to formulate them in public were silenced, punished, or expelled from the Church.

Paradoxically, the “right-wing opposition” was formed in the Catholic Church. Fawning over the hard conservative core got back to the Church by awakening the extremist scene, which under the guise of the “true Catholic faith” criticises not only Slovak bishops, but also Pope Francis. Political parties and candidates who profess the Catholic faith, proclaim radical pro-life attitudes and at the same time sympathise with extremist and fascist ideas succeeded on the political scene in the national elections.

However, harsh conservatism and traditionalism are no stranger to the Slovak bishops as such.

In 2019, the Archbishop of Trnava, Orosch, invited the ideological opponent of Pope Francis, Cardinal Burke, to visit his archdiocese. Archbishop Orosch even wrote a preface to the Slovak edition of the book by the historian de Mattei, who directly accuses Pope Francis of heresy.

 

Archbishop of Trnava Jan Orosch invited cardinal Burke to visit his archdiocese in 2019 and celebrated Tridentine Mess together.

For more than two decades, the Slovak Church has been trying to begin the process of beatification of Bishop Vojtaššák, who on the one hand was a real martyr of the totalitarian communist regime, but a few years before he was an influential political figure of the fascist regime during World War II, actively taking part in the process of dispossession of the Jews, by which, under the laws of the fascist regime, the Jewish property was transferred into the hands of Christians, usually Catholics and loyal nationalists.

Church without vision

Hardly anything would better characterize the Slovak Catholic Church than that it is Church without a vision.

It is as if it were puzzled before all changes that are obviously already taking place and that will continue more and more intensely. Although the Slovak Church is still mass, the trend of secularisation of society has already begun and has a significant impact on it.

People of the older and partly also of the middle generation have become accustomed to the “inflexible” Church and live a kind of double life – they go to church on Sundays and live their lives “during the week”. However, the Church is rapidly losing younger people and people from cities.

Its impact on society is visibly diminishing too.

The Church’s answer is to close its eyes to change, to return to the “good old past,” when everything was clear. Much of the Church can see the future in conservative ideology and in the emphasis of liturgical rituals, preferably of a mass nature.

In a certain part of the Slovak Church, there is even a belief that the Slovak Church will rescue the “de-Catholicised” Western Church by preserving the true Catholic faith in our country.

This narrative is also supported by the mythologisation of the Slovak present and past. According to this romantic idea, God has great plans for Slovakia and the Catholic Church in it. This theory has been dusted off in Slovakia for more than 30 years since the fall of the communist regime until today.

 

Rastislav Kocan, Bratislava, Slovakia
Vice-chairman of ok21 – Open Christianity for 21st Century
e-mail: kocan (AT) ok21.sk