Structure Meant Survival, Study Finds

By Allen, John L. JR. | National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999 | Go to article overview

Structure Meant Survival, Study Finds

Allen, John L. JR., National Catholic Reporter

Catholicism outlasted liberal Protestantism in Iron Curtain countries

For all the flaws communism exposed in the Catholic church behind the Iron Curtain, all the human and structural damage it caused, there is a provocative conclusion to that era, according to a pair of researchers here: Catholicism endured while Protestantism largely crumbled.

That conclusion is among the more remarkable findings of the first comprehensive study of religion in post-communist societies, conducted by Professors Paul Zulehner of Vienna and Miklos Tomka of Budapest. Their book, Gott Nach Dem Kommunismus ("God after Communism"), appeared earlier this year.

Zulehner spoke to NCR Sept. 28 from his home on the outskirts of Vienna, which also serves as headquarters for his Pastoral Forum, a center for research on pastoral activity.

The question now, according to Zulehner, is whether the strength that allowed Catholicism to survive -- its strong institutional identity -- will be an agent of change or an obstacle to it.

Zulehner and Tomka found that two societies in the heart of Christian Europe now have overwhelming atheist majorities: The former East Germany and the Czech Republic. In 1999, self-described atheists are more than 60 percent of the population in both places.

"In Central Europe, we have the tradition of what is called the Volkskirche, or `popular church,' "Zulehner said. "For example, in Bavaria, if you are Bavarian, you are Catholic.

"In these two places, atheism is now the Volkskirche. It is what parents teach their children, it represents the social consensus."

It is no accident, Zulehner believes, that prior to the communist era in the Czech Republic and East Germany, liberal Protestantism was the dominant religious tradition.

"Communists wanted to privatize religion, to deprive it of its connection to an institution that could act as a counterweight to the state," Zulehner said. "Protestantism was more congenial to this aim because it has a much more individualistic approach, and liberal Protestantism especially -- it stresses the Protestant Geist, or `spirit,' the cultural phenomenon of Protestantism, not attachment to a church.

"In these two societies the theological currents and the communist approach came together to radically privatize faith, and, for the most part, it did not survive," Zulehner said.

Zulehner pointed out that while in the former West Germany it remains common to have religious instruction in the public schools, in East Germany public schools offer philosophy and ethics, not religion.

The statistical data is supported by the anecdotal experience of a former activist in the underground Catholic church in the Czech Republic, who spoke to NCR on the condition of anonymity. She fears harassment today not from the state, but from church officials, who take a dim view of some of the innovations that went on underground in the church during the communist era.

After the fall of communism, she took a job teaching religion at a local high school. At first, there were enough children to fill three classes, as parents, energized by the victory over communism, sent their children back to church. That enthusiasm has largely expired: When there were no more students at the high school taking religion, she moved to a primary school -- where the numbers are dwindling so quickly she fears she will soon be out of work.

"For most people, religion is just not a part of life here," she said.

On the other end of the spectrum, religious affiliation is high in Poland, Croatia and Romania, according to Zulehner and Tomka's study -- countries where the established churches (Catholicism and Orthodoxy) have strong institutional structures closely tied to national identity. Believers remain a majority in the other Catholic nations of the region, such as Slovenia and Slovakia.

Support systems formed by attachment to an institution are critically important to keeping the faith alive, Zulehner says, whether the social context is Marxism or Western liberalism. …

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