The Catholic Church in Eastern Europe after Communism

By Sabbat-Swidlicka, Anna | The Catholic World, January-February 1994 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Church in Eastern Europe after Communism


Sabbat-Swidlicka, Anna, The Catholic World


Forty-five years of totalitarian communist rule, dedicated to eradicating all religious beliefs and practices, inhibited normal religious life in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe but was unable to destroy it entirely. Before the communist takeover the Roman Catholic faith was firmly established as the majority religion in Poland, the Czech Lands, Slovakia, Hungary, and Lithuania, and the institutional church occupied a significant position in the public life of these countries. Roman Catholicism was also respected as a well-established minority religion in the remaining Baltic States: Latvia and Estonia, as well as in Romania and Bulgaria.

The Communists deprived the church of legal status, confiscated its assets, prevented it from conducting services, administering sacraments and performing works of charity. Priests and believers were persecuted or risked infiltration by the secret police. Nonetheless, the church's fortunes in each of the countries differed according to specific local conditions and traditions: in some areas it went underground; in others it managed to continue open, though restricted activities. It served as, a symbol of resistance to evil and injustice and, in some countries, as a rally point for those, believers or not, who rejected the communist vision of human destiny. The early policy of militant atheization gradually gave way to grudging tolerance of what remained of the church in the different countries, as the ideological premises on which the regimes were based became no more than a thin disguise for the struggle to hold on to power for its own sake. The election of a Polish pope in October 1978 and, in its wake, the universal church's new focus on the relationship between politics, economics, and human rights in the East and in the Third World, forced some of the communist regimes to recognize the role the church could play as a force for social peace and stability at a period of increasing public dissatisfaction with communist rule throughout the Soviet empire.

Thus, the church emerged from the ruins of communism as its moral victor, respected as a public authority by believers and non-believers, by the rulers and the ruled. Its star soon began to fade, however, as the difficulties of the transition from totalitarianism to democracy raised issues that caused tensions to emerge in relations between the church, the state and the people.

Legal Status

The Catholic Church, like all other religious institutions, lost almost all of its former rights and assets throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Its first steps, after democratic forces gradually took over government, were directed to gaining legal guarantees of its autonomous status within each state, and to recovering rights and assets necessary to perform its temporal mission. The Holy See moved fairly quickly to ensure that each local church had the necessary administrative structure to perform its tasks in the new conditions. The new divisions took account of developments in the universal church, in particular the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which had placed new emphasis on the local community and the bond between the shepherd and his flock. Diocesan and metropolitan borders, which had been frozen since before World War II, were also redrawn to reflect changes in the area's political geography.

While the new state authorities were, in principle, favorably disposed to granting the churches legal status and enabling them freely to perform their ministry, the restitution of property soon proved to be a first stumbling block to harmonious coexistence. Catholic Church authorities claimed the legal title to such property and requested that at least those properties that are necessary to its spiritual, educational or charitable mission be restored. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have already passed legislation enabling churches to submit claims for restitution or, where this is not possible on technical grounds, for substitute property or appropriate compensation. …

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