History of an Institution as a Factor for Predicting Church Institutional Behavior: The Cases of the Catholic Church in Poland, the Orthodox Church in Romania, and the Protestant Churches in East Germany

By Ediger, Ruth M. | East European Quarterly, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

History of an Institution as a Factor for Predicting Church Institutional Behavior: The Cases of the Catholic Church in Poland, the Orthodox Church in Romania, and the Protestant Churches in East Germany


Ediger, Ruth M., East European Quarterly


This article explores the role of history as a predicting factor in the cases of the Polish Catholic Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, and the East Germany Protestant churches. By examining the role of the Christian church in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, this research suggests that the historical role that the Polish Catholic Church and the Romanian Orthodox Church each played foreshadowed the role that each would play under their respective communist regimes and then in the fall of those regimes. The case of the East Germany Protestant churches however seems, on the surface, to offer a contradiction to historical precedent.

The Polish Catholic Church was in opposition to the imposed precommunist governments in Poland, opposed the communists when they were in power, and played a significant role in causing the downfall of the communist regime. The Romanian Orthodox Church submitted to the temporal authorities before World War II, while the communists were in power, and during the downfall of the communist regime. In contrast, the German Protestant churches, with their history of submission to secular regional authorities and submission to an all-German church under the Nazis seemed to alter their historical approach by standing in opposition to the East German communist regime and aiding in its downfall. This research postulates that the apparent divergent case of the East German Protestant churches was consistent with historical precedent: after WWII both the tradition of regionalism and submission to an all-German ecclesiastical authority converged but the communist authorities were outside both traditions, so the East German Protestant churches felt free to stand in opposition to this government.

History as a predicting factor for Church institutional behavior is useful in all three case studies, but the East German case illustrates the complexity that one can encounter when using past behavior to predict future behavior. There may be more than one historical pattern acting on the events of the present. Other possibly divergent factors, such as church organizational structure and influence of individual church leaders, in fact actually served to enhance the influence of historical patterns in all three cases.

It is well documented (see for example Echikson, 1990; Von Der Heydt, 1993; Ramet, 1991) that Christian institutions played a significant role in the East Central European revolutions of 1989. But the global Christian Church is not a monolithic institution and, just as the revolutions of 1989 were different for each of the former communist countries, so the role that the Christian Church played varied from state to state. This can be a substantial help to understanding the complex relations between church and state. Do an institution's historical patterns of behavior necessarily predict how that organization will act in the present and the future? Do organizations rich in historic traditions alter their behavior after decades or even centuries of behaving one way in society? This article will compare the seemingly historically consistent cases of the role of the Polish Roman Catholic (1) Church and the role of the Romanian Orthodox Church with the Protestant churches in Eastern Germany (united first under the Evangelical Church in Germany and then under the Kirchenbund). (2) What this research hopes to illumine is the nature of the East German case and the factors that cause the Protestant churches' behavior toward the state to appear to drastically change over time.

Research on this subject suggests two distinct roles that a church body can play with regard to a secular government. A church can become a collaborator with the regime (Ramet, 1998) or it can become an oppositional force in society (Levine, 1992). Although it can be extrapolated that each of the examined churches fit into both categories at various times, depending on the situation, there is generally one category that stands out for each. …

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History of an Institution as a Factor for Predicting Church Institutional Behavior: The Cases of the Catholic Church in Poland, the Orthodox Church in Romania, and the Protestant Churches in East Germany
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