RELIGION AFTER COMMUNISM: Churches Stumble in Eastern Europe

By Szostkiewicz, Adam | Commonweal, September 24, 1999 | Go to article overview

RELIGION AFTER COMMUNISM: Churches Stumble in Eastern Europe


Szostkiewicz, Adam, Commonweal


Editors' Note: A decade has passed since the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe. The political and economic transformations taking place in these now independent nations are widely reported and closely followed. Less is heard of their religious evolution and the role that churches and other religious institutions are playing in this process. Below, the Polish journalist Adam Szostkiewicz offers his assessment of these matters. His remarks were given at a conference, "Destruction and Renewal: The Role of Religion in Changing Society," convened by the International Council of Christians and Jews in Kiev, July 11-15, 1999. This excerpt is printed with the permission of the author and the ICCJ. The editors are grateful to Judith Banki of the Tanenbaum Center in New York for calling it to our attention.

After World War II, the official policy of the Communist parties taking power in Eastern and Central Europe was to suppress any religious presence by imposing severe restrictions on churches and other religious institutions. The authorities worked to ensure that organized religion would lose its social, political, and moral influence and eventually its grip on the hearts, minds, and imaginations of the people. When religion went, there would be no barriers to building the New Man and the New Society.

In every country, the police and secret service used a mixture of coercion, blackmail, reprisals, and brainwashing. They were helped by the propaganda of the state-run mass education system and the media. For the educated classes and intellectuals, a more refined system of historical and philosophical discussion was employed. Examples from social and political history were used to undermine the credibility and the prestige of the churches. So too with the clergy who were defined as a distinct social group with a well-defined agenda of their own interests, which they protected to the detriment of the poor and ill- educated.

How successful were the Communists? Religion was almost totally eliminated in Soviet Russia and Albania, or should I say, "deactivated." In Czechoslovakia and Hungary, this antireligious, antichurch policy was helped along by the processes of secularization that had begun well before the coming of the Communist system. With the exception of my own country, Poland, churches and religious organizations in Eastern and Central Europe were unable to maintain the positions and the credibility they held before the age of communism.

For particuIar historical reasons, Catholicism in Poland proved to be an effective bulwark against the New Society project. The Catholic church under Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the primate of Poland, not only maintained a remarkable degree of independence from the Communist state, but was also able to serve as a substitute for the independent institutions of a free society. The sheer strength of the Catholic religion within the population was key, but mistakes by the government increased the church's moral authority. A spectacular example was the "arrest" of a copy of the much-revered icon of the Black Madonna from the shrine at Czestochowa. In 1966, the icon was being paraded throughout the country to celebrate Poland's first millennium of Christianity. The celebrations drew huge crowds of believers, dramatically demonstrating the undiminished attraction of religion. When the police took the icon away, Cardinal Wyszynski told the celebrants to continue the parade with an empty frame, which became the symbol of the regime's ruthless violation of basic civil rights. Twenty-three years later the regime was gone, religion was still in place.

In 1989, the generally peaceful and democratic revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe caught the churches by surprise. They had to face a novel and rapid transition from authoritarian rule to multiparty, pluralistic democracy. Only in Poland and Czechoslovakia was the Roman Catholic church ready to voice its open support for fundamental change.

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RELIGION AFTER COMMUNISM: Churches Stumble in Eastern Europe
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