Census records a 30% drop in Hungary's Catholic population
A recent official census of religious identity in Hungary offered bad news for those concerned with the future of Christianity in Central Europe.
For the first time, a majority of Hungarians (56.6%) failed to declare membership in a faith tradition, with 16.5% declaring "no religion" and a further 40.1% choosing not to answer the question at all.
While all the country's main denominations were hit badly, results for the Roman Catholic Church, historically the nation's majority tradition, were worst of all — a drop of 1.1 million (nearly 30%), compared to 2011. The numbers went from an estimated 3.69 million people identifying as Catholics in 2011 to 2.6 million today.
Combined with a smaller loss between 2001 and 2011, Hungary's Catholic population has shrunk an astounding 50% this century, to just 27.5% of the population.
Like all Hungarian citizens, I was essentially forced to participate in the national census mentioned above on pain of severe financial penalty, and I was among those who chose not to answer the membership of a faith tradition question. I provided no answers to any optional questions and provided “potentially misleading” answers to quite a few of the mandatory, non-religious questions.
So, why did nearly half of all Hungarian citizens choose not to answer the question at all?
However, the dramatic rise in non-response (more than non-belief) to the survey has caused some commentators to wonder if immediate problems in Hungary's faith communities may have contributed.
I humbly suggest that said commentators stop wondering and start reflecting on things like the 2020 church closures, inessential religious services, and Orban’s annual drone cross spectacle.
"Sociologists of religion aren't at all surprised by these [census] results. Our surveys have been indicating this outcome for some time. Unfortunately, our warnings weren't heeded by either state authorities or the leadership of the various churches," retired university professor István Kamarás told NCR.
"It seems quite likely that some of the non-respondents expressed their criticism of the government and the church leaderships by skipping the religion question — though we'd need separate research to be sure," said Kamarás, retired chair of the Department of Anthropology and Ethics at Veszprém University.
I’ll save the time and effort the research would require by saying, yes, some of the respondents certainly expressed their criticism of the government and church leadership by skipping the religious question.
Moreover, I would hope some of the respondents took the non-response even further and began focusing on something beyond freedom from church and government corruption, convergence, and coercion and perhaps, just perhaps, began focusing on some freedom for aspects of being a Christian.
The academic is wary of asserting that anger with the government has driven church decline but observes: "What we can say with confidence is that in Hungary, high levels of government material and symbolic support for religion in the name of political Christianity has been spectacularly ineffective."
Aw, come on, now. Rod Dreher loved the drone cross!
"I believe this is a conscious protest by believers," she told NCR. "After all, 40% of the population didn't respond to the question on religious affiliation. Among them, there must be many faithful Catholics who've completely turned away from their church, but not their faith, in the last decade."
If there is any truth to this, I welcome it because I believe the future of Christianity lies outwith organized, institutional Christianity, regardless of the flavor or the tradition.
Where do I stand on all of this personally? Well, I haven't completely turned away from the church in my small village, but that decision has nothing to do with being on board with the Church or any other form of insitutional Christianity. In that sense, I suppose I qualify as the sort of Christian who has turned away from their church but not their faith, and I welcome the idea that there may a few others like me in this country.
Anyway, Catholic theologian Rita Perentfavi continues:
This, Perentfavi said, is "because they're in a serious identity crisis … they cannot identify with a church that has completely turned away from Gospel values by working so closely with [Orbán]."
Working with Orbán is a problem, but it is the least of the Catholic Church’s worries at the moment. I mean, the headline story on National Catholic Reporter today describes the Pope’s recent positive meeting with a nun who is also a passionate Qwerty-people advocate.
Perentfavi, a Hungarian who is a researcher in Old Testament studies at Graz University in Austria, lays particular blame on the example of Hungarian Cardinal Péter Erdő, who has led the Archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest since 2003 and is sometimes seen by supporters abroad as a possible conservative successor to Francis.
As a brief aside, I found this paragraph interesting for non-religious reasons. Like any Hungarian with brains, Perentfavi works in Austria or somewhere else in Western Europe to escape the ridiculously low wages here in Hungary. Good on her. I did the same for five years – at least part-time – until the Austrians canned me for refusing the peck. I hope Perentfavi refused the peck and didn’t buckle under Austria’s ruthless yet short-lived “ve haf vays of getting you pecked” mandatory peck campaign, but somehow, I doubt it.
"This kind of institutional failure, the loss of about 30% of Catholic believers in a decade, has inevitably to be seen in significant part as the responsibility of that institution's number one leader," she said. "In our case that's Péter Erdő."
Church leadership is certainly to blame, but I believe there is more going on. Serious Christians are choosing to take personal responsibility for their faith, salvation, and theosis rather than leave it all in the hands of bureaucrats. I believe this decline would be apparent even if churches had stellar leadership or clergy.
A radical rethinking of the church's approach to either the government or its pastoral strategy seems unlikely based on the hierarchy's initial response to the census results.
Well, of course, it’s unlikely! It all comes down to honesty and motivation, doesn’t it? Maybe some Catholics have figured out that they don’t need to obey or submit to corrupt churches and governments to be Christians. Nay, more to the point to say that some Catholics understand that disobeying and not submitting to corrupt churches and governments is the only way to remain truly Christian.
An official statement from Hungary's Catholic bishops commenting on the census expressed pleasure in noting that "more than two-thirds of our fellow citizens who stated religious affiliation declared themselves to belong to the Catholic Church" but noted that regrettably “international trends can also be observed in the census data, and our country is no exception.”
I have to tip my hat to the Catholic bishops’ epic positive spin here. If only three Hungarian citizens in the entire country had stated religious affiliation, the bishops would still be pleased to know that at least two declared themselves to be Catholic!
Perentfalvi is pessimistic about the chances for longer-term change. "Unfortunately, I fear this shocking result won't sober the leaders of the Catholic Church … the church's entire financing is in the hands of the government, it is in a straitjacketed, completely dependent position," she said.
Makes one wonder in whose hands the entire financing of the government is, doesn’t it? Ah, but we already know the answer to that one.
There was a time when I found articles like this demoralizing and depressing, but they now have the opposite effect on me because they energize my hopes about the continued emergence of a more authentic form of Christianity – the sort of Christianity that Berdyaev describes in the following manner:
We are entering an epoch of a new spirituality, that will correspond to the new form of mysticism. It will no longer be possible to argue against a heightened spiritual and mystical life that human nature is sinful and that sin must first be overcome.
A heightened spiritual and mystical life is the road to the victory over sin. And the world is entering a catastrophic period of choice and division, when these will be required of all Christians, an uplifting and intensification of their inner lives.
The external, everyday, moderate Christianity is breaking up. But eternal, inward, mystical Christianity is becoming stronger and better established.
And within mysticism itself, a 'paraclete' type is beginning to predominate.
The epoch of new spirituality in Christianity can only be an epoch of a great and hitherto unheard-of manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
I refer to this sort of Christianity as Romantic Christianity, but the name is unimportant.
What is important is that eternal, inward, mystical Christianity becomes stronger and better established.