Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

New Myths for Old: Proselytism and Transition in Post-Communist Europe

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

New Myths for Old: Proselytism and Transition in Post-Communist Europe

Article excerpt

The collapse of communism made it possible to study the spiritual geography of Eastern and Central Europe systematically for the first time. It also touched off an emotional debate about religious traditions and archetypes. This debate has grown in intensity as "old" and "new" faiths compete, finding expression in claims and counter-claims about proselytism and unfair missionary methods. We will argue here that the proselytism issue derives from myths and stereotypes and is one expression of a deeper conflict over post-communist values and priorities. We will also show that religious disputes mark a necessary stage in the transition from communism to democracy and can be expected to resolve themselves as stable laws and institutions are formed to underpin a democratic, pluralistic society.

First, however, we must establish some necessary parameters. One is that figures traditionally cited for the religious composition of Eastern European societies - typified by the statement that Albanians are seventy percent Muslim, twenty percent Orthodox, and ten percent Catholic - no longer bear any relation to reality. As recently as October, 1997, a senior U.S. Congressional official could still claim to detect a 100 percent religious breakdown for the ex-Soviet populations of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Today, such anachronisms should be decisively abandoned. They are as unreal and fanciful as the statement, published in 1996, that "France is 90% Roman Catholic, 5% Protestant, 3% Muslim and 2% Jewish." [1]

This fact poses important questions about the religious future of post-communist Europe. Did communist policies merely suppress and deflate all religious affiliations downward, or did they also alter the respective strengths of existing religious groups? Is it still possible to speak of a "traditional order" in religious life that deserves to be protected as a common value? Can the terms "old" and "new" be used at all, or are they purely arbitrary?

Attempts to answer these questions encounter problems. The Catholic and Protestant communities of Russia were uprooted and deported en masse to Siberia and Central Asia, creating a new presence in predominantly Orthodox and Muslim areas. Should they be granted full rights as permanent, authentic religious minorities or be seen as artificial, temporary fixtures? Having already lost most of its 3,500,000 Jews in the Holocaust, Poland's borders were shifted westward, leaving the bulk of its pre-War Orthodox and Greek Catholic populations behind the redrawn borders of Soviet Ukraine and Belarus. This left Poland with a population claiming to be at least ninety-five percent Roman Catholic, a communist-engineered fait accompli. However, nostalgia has lingered on for the multiethnic and multifaith society that existed before 1939. Do surviving remnants of that bygone society deserve preferential treatment? Can "intelligentsia anti-clericalism" be seen as a Polish tradition, as much as "popular Catholicism"? Are the country's small surviving religious minorities entitled to some form of positive discrimination, or does the predominant Catholic culture deserve special state protection as a necessary bastion of Polish sovereignty between "Orthodox Russians" and "Protestant Germans"?

In Hungary, history suggests that the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy allied itself to the ruling aristocracy and allowed itself to be used as an arm of state power until the rule of Admiral Miklos Horthy (1868-1957). However, Catholic priests and members of orders also brought Enlightenment ideas to the Hungarians, as well as playing conspicuous parts in the nineteenth-century national reawakening and twentieth-century social reform. Which is the "true faith" of Hungarians - the Catholicism of submissive Transdanubia, or the Calvinism of rebellious Transylvania?

It can be argued that the neighboring Czechs are naturally Protestants, having ostensibly suffered at the hands of Catholic powers since the time of Jan Hus (1369-1415). …

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