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Vol 2, No 19
15 May 2000
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The Catholic Church among Croats
A change of paradigm?
Anna Maria Gruenfelder

Due to the victory of the left - middle-left coalition of the Social Democratic and the Social Liberal Party in Croatia on 3 January 2000, the democratization processes in Croatia had increased in speed and dynamic. Indeed, the Croatians had clearly voted for parties who promised opening and international cooperation, instead of "cultivating" isolation, a mentality between aggressive xenophobia and defensive self-pity, irrationally exaggerated sovereignty and "national identity". The Croatians had voted for a historical new experiment, a combination between social democratic and liberal concepts, of opposite and (historically) incompatible social models.

While Europe heaved deep sighs of relief and welcomed Croatia in the family of democratic European states, in Croatia itself not only the political losers of the election were concerned about their future and not at all in the mood to acclaim the result of the elections: although the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, like the other religious denominations in Croatia did not in any way comment the result of the elections, it were particularly Catholic believers urging their Church to take a clear view of the new political situation and to help them to face the new circumstances. The demonstrative silence of the Catholic hierarchy contrasted to the almost panic fear and sorrowful expectations of the Catholics, in which way would their position in the Croatian society change after the parliamentary elections of 3 January 2000.

Regarding the appeals of Catholics to official Catholics representatives to evaluate the result of elections and to offer them orientation and clear options for their behavior towards the new government, it seems as the Catholic Church in Croatia enjoyed unlimited confidence of the believers and high authority in public life. It seems to be common opinion that there exist special relationships between the Croatian people and Catholicism, between the Church and the nation, the Church and the Croats, a conveyance that Croatia is also "God's own country." What is about this "national" myth of the Croatians, be they believers or not?

Religiosity among the Croats

The phenomenon of religiosity in Croatia and the influence of faith and the Catholic Church on public life was analyzed by a working group consisting on the one hand of experts for Moral Theology and for Social Teaching of the Church at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Zagreb and on the other of social scientists from other scientific institutions in Zagreb. The three-months survey that was conducted among representative samples of the Croatian population between November 1997 and February 1998, shows that 89.7 percent of Croats define themselves as "Catholics", 2.9 percent as Orthodox, 1.1 percent as Muslims, while 0.3 percent belong to different other religious denominations. 2.1 percent consider themselves as atheists and agnostics. 75.9 percent of Croatian citizens see themselves as "religious people" and "practical believers", with eight percent considering themselves as "non-believers".

However, not more than 30.3 percent of Croats attend religious services at least once a week - in other words, they practice their religion actively and regularly - as opposed to approximately 60 percent who practice their faith merely to keep with Church law and tradition. Typically, those people are more interested and involved in "alternative religiosity", with remnants of pagan, esoteric and occult practices. This kind of religiosity stems from a certain pragmatic selfishness. The acceptance of such alternative forms of religiosity is surprisingly high (20%), particularly among younger people and more frequently among women than among men, and seem to compensate for the loss of security and psychological stability in a society which has only recently come out of a very cruel war. New religious movements who enjoy a high degree of confidence - as high as state institutions, trust unions, some international organizations dealing with human rights and - the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is, besides the army and the police, at the top of the list of institutions consider highly confident. Thus, it seems not surprising that these results reveal an utmost traditional system of values, within which traditional marriage and family life, obedience and respect between the husbands and the different generations rank above tolerance, partnership, dialogue and discussion.

The result of the 1997-1998 study illustrates that the Croatian society is dominated by a considerably traditional value system, in which the Church is placed next to state institutions, while certain element of unorthodox form of religiosity reveal elements of a "post-Christian" framework. Among those who show more distance towards the learning of the Catholic Church respectively towards dogmatic religiosity in general, the investigators found a relatively high acceptance of unorthodox religiosity, which can be considered as a typically post-Christian framework.

The investigators were themselves surprised by the outcome that Catholic institutions enjoy a certain degree of confidence, just among more those who are not practical believers. Particularly, the catholic mass media are considered to report not only religious news, but also true and objective political contents, and that they do it independently, eagerly to fulfill high professional criteria. In spite of this optimistic view of the researchers, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church asks itself sorrowfully how long it will remain like this, and in which way the Church might count on credibility and in which way will its image change with the newcoming generations. Will the Church be able to take advantage of its authority today and successfully meet new challenges in the future? Did the Church until now really benefit of the freedom granted to her by the political system ruling the country from 1990 up to the end of 1999, the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica/HDZ)?

In his first Christmas-sermon after his ordination (October 1997), the new Archbishop of Zagreb, Josip Bozanić appointed a critical message to the governmental party HDZ: He accused the Croatian legal system and administration as "structures of Sin", because they facilitated abuse of political power and economic freedoms. Due to such laws, said Archbishop Bozanić, a small group of peoples in the surroundings of influent political circles had benefited from paralegal privatization of public enterprises and paralegal money-making, while the great majority of the Croatian population suffered from corruption, economic exploitation and social impoverishment. It was the first time that the highest representative of the Catholic Church in Croatia frankly and without apologizing the government because of the "heavy burden of the communist hereditary" (as it used to do Bozanić's predecessor, Cardinal Dr. Franjo Kuharić) stated that it was the government itself that took part in economic crime and was guilty of the economic and social collapse. Such open words of the highest representative of the Catholic Church towards State authorities had until then been absolutely unusual: The Church as an arbiter judging political, economic, social issues? The controversial discussion about the Archbishop's approach to the state authorities showed that the Croatian society had not learned anything on the "Option for the Poor" and the spirit of the "Theologies of Liberation" all over the Christian world that the Roman Catholic Church had cautiously adopted under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Public discussions on the Archbishop's courageous words revolved around the unique question: Should the Catholic Church, should religious denominations in general be allowed to intervene into public and secular affairs? What about the strict separation between the State and the Catholic Church defined by the Croatian Constitution Law? Who or what authorized the Catholic Church to judge in political, economic and social issues, to criticize the current government and to point out mistakes, not merely errors made "bona fide", but created intentionally as "structures of Sin"? During ten years of more than friendly and cooperative relationships between the Catholic hierarchy and the leading persons of the ruling party (HDZ), the Catholic Church had utmost rarely and regularly "sotto voce" expressed its disapproval, and not even when the government was accused of crimes against humanity, violation of human rights and war crimes exercised during the military actions "Flash" (May 1995 in Western Slavonia) and "Storm" (August 1995 (in the Lika-region, the hinterland of Dalmatia and Central Croatia).

After a period of an open "re-Catholicization" of the Croatian society exercised by the State - authorities, particularly by the education and school-system and by the mass media, namely television, the question is again: How far should be the distance between the Church (churches) and the State, how intensive should be the contacts of state representatives with those of the Church, where the boundary between mutual support and undesirable impact on the one hand by the Church in public moral and political decisions, on the other hand that of state authorities in exclusively ecclesiastical matters, like religious formation, ecclesiastical services should be.

From the official representatives of the Catholic Church, from the Archbishop to the unofficial "spokesman" of the Catholic Church in Croatia, the priest and journalist, former editor in chief of the ecclesiastical newspaper "Glas Koncila" one could hear the unique answer "Consequent separation and a clear distinction between the secular and the ecclesiastical sphere and of their different tasks and functions" are the best way to assure "a free Church in a free state".

But there are also opposite voices: "It is impossible to separate these two spheres, since it is the human being and his/her needs to be in the center of both the Church and the state. There are a lot of areas of work where the competencies overlap and the Church acts parallel to the state", e.g. in issues pertaining to social affairs, education, culture, the protection of cultural monuments. The commitment of the Catholic Church is indispensable for those whose needs have been until now ignored or neglected both by the Communists and the post-Socialist state and society: Above all these values it is the Church to create and promote the moral/ethic value system the secular society benefits from without being able to replace it by their own nor to anchor it and find convincing arguments for it.

The tasks of the new Croatian government are first and foremost to stop the threatening collapse of the financial, economic and production system, to reestablish financial discipline and to assure minimal standards of social welfare. Only naive persons could expect ability of self-regulation and self-management seriously disturbed during the former regime and its protection from criminal privatization. While the ruling coalition government, consisting of Social Democrats (SDP, the former Communist party) and Social Liberals (HSLS), promotes a slightly neo-Liberal economic system, the coalition is forced to practice an etatistic system and to abandon its principles of "social sensibility" in favor of rigid austerity-politic and to refuse demands of groups who have, without any doubt, until now been obviously underprivileged: pensioners, unemployed persons, families….

The parlamentiary elections in Croatia seem to have opened a new chapter in contemporary Croatian history: The victory of the coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals seemed to have assured a volte-face, in spite of the heavy burden left them from the former ruling party HDZ. Economic and social reforms promised during the pre-election battles had probably been decisive for the election results; but to exercise them, international financial support will be indispensable. Inner democratization imposed by international organizations (the Council of Europe, the European Union) as precondition for substantial support, had started: However, it is on the field of democratization where the new government faced serious obstacles: Necessary replacement of leading functionariers has been disqualified as "revanchism" and provoked massive fears, particularly among those who consider themselves as active or "good Catholics", practically committed laypersons and priests.

Circles of practical believers, who are not only identified with a nationally or culturally defined faith, attacked the Church, mainly the Archbishop of Zagreb, because of his "half-hearted" support of parties with Christian programs; due to this lack of clear recommendations for the voters, that the Church had indirectly supported those whose program could not be anything else than the revival of Communism. Thus, the Catholic hierarchy had become responsible for the "return of the Reds", one could hear from "good Catholics" after the embarrassing election result for the former ruling party, HDZ. It was mainly a group of priests from the hinterland of Dalmatia who immediately after having been published the results of the elections, published an "Open letter to the Archbishop of Zagreb" that contained massive objections and protests. The Archbishop and "left-orientated forces within the Church" led the Catholic Church back to the years after 1945", that is "back to a confrontation with the 'Reds' and their militant atheism and anticlericalism", these priests wrote in this "Open letter" (published in all daily newspapers). The authors remembered Archbishop Bozanić of the "brilliant example of the Church of Alozije Stepinać" (the Archbishop of Zagreb from 1936 until his death in 1960, who was accused by the communist regime of "collaboration with the fascist enemy" and condemned to 16 years of prison, which, after 8 years, was commuted to life-long house-arrest, during which he died in his home-parish in Krasic, consecrated by Pope John Paul II, in 1998). "It had become time to return to the "Spirit of Archbishop Stepinać", to a more militant and decisive attitude of the Church towards the State, they pointed out in this letter. Referring to the one thousand three hundred years of faithfulness to the Roman pope, and Archbishop Stepinac's heroic example of resistance in face of the atheistic communist regime, the Catholics should be prepared to fight and- if necessary - to bear again prison, public discrimination and physical torture, they emphasized. The quoted "Open letter" was, of course, but one of a number of comments and appeals of believers throughout the print media.

Such letters could be considered and "achievied" and as ridicule example of an unenlightened, mentality, an ecclesiastically neurotic and narrow-minded view, but nevertheless it must be taken serious as "main stream thinking" of the Catholic population in Croatia, i.e. of at least 75 percent Catholics during the post-electoral period. It seems that such fears weigh upon the core members of the Catholic Church, such as the elder people, women, people politically conservative and, particularly, oriented to the right. However, all of them need an answer, and it should have been the Catholic Church to calm the worries and to convince the believers concerned of the future of faith and their own lives that panic reactions were nor necessary nor justified. One can hardly not state that the Catholic Church itself seemed embarrassed by the overwhelming victory of the Social Democratic Party. It was after more than two months that first Prime Minister Ivica Racan, then the President of the Republic of Croatia, Stjepan Mesić, and last Zlatko Tomcić, President of the Lower House of Croatian Parliament, paid official visits to the Archbishop in his residence. Any way, it was the representatives of the state who initiated contact with the Church. In the public eye, this gesture was considered as offering the state's readiness to establish constructive relationships with the Church. The official statements of these meetings were less than bare - in spite of the fact that it was the very first meeting between representatives of the Catholic Church in Croatia and Social democrats: What a chance for the Church to demonstrate openness and to enter a dialogue with the modern World in the spirit of Vatican council - it could have been a chance for the Croatian social democracy to demonstrate tolerance and readiness for a constructive relationship towards the Catholic Church and to win sympathies among Catholics. In fact, this meeting had entered a process of historic reconciliation between the Catholic Church, the attorney of the human person and her metaphysically constituted dignity, and social democracy, a modern and efficient workers' party. Regarding the predominant problems of Croatian society - the economic and social situations - social democracy could be a secular pendant to the Catholic Church. Their common base is exactly their approaches to social problems: Both social democracy and the Catholic Social doctrine consider the human being to be the center and heart of their commitment. "The human being is the way of the Church" - it was Pope John Paul II who pointed out this principle of the Catholic social doctrine repeatedly in his social encyclical "Laborem exercens" and "Solicitudo rerum socialium".

But there was one decisive obstacle for Catholics to adopt the idea that can excite sincere cooperation between Social Democracy and other left political options on one hand, and faith or membership of the Catholic Church on the other hand: It was the person of Prime Minister himself to impose doubts about the sincerity of his social democratic party and its real coming on with its history. "How can the president of a declared atheistic political party convincibly guarantee freedom of faith and conscience and assure Catholics that in Croatia should never be any form of discrimination, but respect towards the historic rule of the Catholic Church in Croatia?" Generations of Croatian people, those who very well remembered the taking over of the power by the Yugoslav Communists in 1945, the Stalinistic show-trials of Archbishop Stepinać and a greater number of priests, expropriation of Church property and the various forms of discrimination they had to bear as believers in public live, schools and enterprises, have been traumatized. One could hardly expect them to accept the victory of the "reformed Communists" as a new quality or an evolution, instead as the source of new tensions between the State and the Church.

The dominant subject to be discussed at the meetings of Archbishop Bozanić with the representatives of the State was, as we can learn from the short statements of both sides, the relationships of the new Croatian leadership towards the treaties between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia signed in December 1996 (three treaties), and in October 1998 (the forth treaty concerning the economic position of the Catholic Church in the State and the State's duty to give financial supports to the activities of the Catholic Church). These treaties elaborated by a Joint Commission under the leadership of the former ruling party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), can be considered as the very first treaty between the Holy Seed and a post-Socialistic state: The treaties as a whole were not named "concordat", because they do not regulate the complete issues of relationships between a state system and the Catholic Church. Three agreements regulate the position of the Catholic Church within the secular society, insofar as it overlaps with the competencies of the state: Their subjects are the equivalency of: church marriage and civil wedding, introduction of obligatory confessional religious instruction in the state school-system and of pastoral care in police and in the Croatian Army. The forth treaty concerns, besides the mentioned financial support of ecclesiastical activities by the state, the execution of the Law on the Restitution", i. e. restitution of property nationalized or confiscated by the Communists in 1945 and 1946 to the former owners.

On the basis of these treaties with the Holy See, the former government of the HDZ introduced religious instruction in elementary, middle and high schools as faculty subject, but obligatory for those who would choose it voluntarily (!). Ecclesiastical schools received equal position with secular institutes. The introduction itself provoked hot public controversies; the main-stream thinking was strictly against the obligatory character of confessional education in public schools, defending the ideological neutral nature of the school and the fact, that the other religious denominations - orthodox Christians, Protestants, Muslims and Jews - could not compete with the Catholic Church, as they had not even got the chance to regulate their position along with the Catholic Church. The restitution of buildings which started immediately after the treaty with the Holy See had been signed, was probably the most sensible problem: "Ordinary" citizens - victims of the Communist expropriation like the Catholic Church herself, have not succeed from the beginning of 1997 until now, in achieving any satisfaction. Thus, the constitutional principles of equality of all citizens and all religious denominations were hurt by the unilateral privileges given to the Catholic Church, while the principle of equality of all citizens was violated because of the dualism of exercise of power between the State and the Church on dominantly secular fields. It does not surprise that the treaty on financial support for the activities of the Catholic Church, criticized because of its lack of transparency , although signed, could not be implemented because of the financial and economic crisis of the State. Nevertheless, the Holy See insisted on it, as well as on the implementation of the agreed restitution of ecclesiastical property: The treaties as a whole were judged as strikingly privileging of the Catholic Church by the State and therefore, as in contradiction with the Croatian Constitution and its principle of strict separation between Church and State, contradictory also to the self-definition of the Croatian society as a lay state and a liberal democracy. The treaties had been signed without the obligatory parliament debates, in a way that was neither transparent nor democratic. As a result of the harsh critics in the Croatian public life against the obvious privileges granted to the Catholic Church, the treaties passed the Parliament merely because of the pressure of the leading Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) on its representative body and its majority in the Parliament. Summarizing the position of the Catholic Church during the period of the HDZ-dominance in the political life in Croatia, it could be characterized as "re-Catholicization", not much different from the historical model of the Hapsburg Counter-Reformation during the 16th and the first half of the 17th century: The State lent its arms to the Church, in order to assure her material privileges, and the Church accepted it agreeing with the State to treat citizens like serviles. Citizens who, during the communist system, had experienced and practiced "Socialist self-government" and how deficiently it might have functioned in practice, could not consider themselves deprived of this and all other rights of mature political subjects.

The Catholic Church, surprised and almost embarrassed by the public criticism of these arrangements between the State and the Holy See, did not succeed in defending its position by strong and convincible arguments. "The Catholic Church does not enjoy privileges; all we have gained is, in fact, merely a satisfaction for the injustice we had suffered under the communists". We need a solid material base to fulfill our mission in the Croatian society". "We did not demand more than we need to practice pastoral care". These arguments were in fact the only official statements of the Catholic Church regarding the problem how to meet public critics and a crisis of credibility.

Catholic Church - Society: A Disturbed Relationship

The Church in contemporary society does not really enjoy great influence on behavior and value systems. Although the Roman Catholic Church has inherited rich historical, cultural and spiritual traditions, this seems not to help her effectively to meet new challenges and demands. Anniversaries celebrated with all the pomp of yesterday might delude into the image of a vital and young Church. However, responsible and conscious representatives of the Church in Croatia are award of the fact, that under this surface are hidden many contradictories: "Our Church is politically divided", stated a sociologist well known in the ecclesiastical surroundings : "Politically divided" into a strong conservative, nationalist wing and a fairly weaker progressive, communicative part. How deep and politically decisive this polarization is, might show the fact that upon the issue "to forgive our former enemies and to ask them to forgive ourselves", the main stream in the Catholic Church is that the Church must not at all demand forgiving and that she should under no circumstances confess any guilt or coo-responsibility for the fact that on the soil of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH, established on 10 April 1941 by the Ustascha-authorities) Jews, Serbs, Romas and many antifascists were murdered because of their ethnicity. The question "Jasenovac" and the behavior of Archbishop Stepinać towards the ustasha-regime and its racism, within the Catholic Church is treated as an issue which exclusively concerns the State, but under no conditions the Church. Such defensive strategies come from clergymen who act as (unofficial) spokesmen of the Catholic Church in Croatia in the secular media, with the claim to speak in the name and with the voice of "the Church": Only not authorized laypersons, acting on their own responsibility - as they do not enjoy support of the hierarchy - point out that the Church as the community of guilty human-beings, should accept coo-responsibility for the history and the sins of its members, in order to give the world an example of volunteer, deputizing repentance. Since the Communists had denounced the Catholic Church because of its tolerant attitude towards fascism, the Catholic Church in Croatia had been occupied defending itself against accusations. The more the Communists have insisted on their demand that the Catholic Church in Croatia had to fall on its knees in front of the monument of all victims of the fascist concentration camp of Jasenovac, to confess its sins of cooperation with the fascist NDH-regime and its coo-responsibility for the many-hundred thousand murdered victims, the more the Catholic Church in Croatia refused to do exactly this. She has repeatedly pointed out that it was the Catholic hierarchy to have first recognized the criminal nature of the ustascha regime and to have saved a great number of potential victims, so that it was the Catholic Church herself to be considered as one of the innocent victims. Therefore, in the name of her authority and her innocence she refused to acknowledge each shadow of guilt. Now, after the historical act of Pope John Paul II, his plea for forgiveness, the hardcore stand of the Croatian Catholic Church looks like the image of a preconciliar Church: this is only one issue but a very characteristic one - its shows us that the leading people of the Catholic hierarchy think and speak as if the Vatican council had not even taken place. Many issues arise now, which are in fact themes of the preconciliar Church: how to assure authority and obedience, how far reaches the authority in the Church within the secular society? How and in which way should the Church be present in the World - if she should be present at all? Where is the place of laypersons in the Church? The confrontation of laypersons and clergymen in the Church is one of the permanently present issues. While throughout Europe laypersons are active in various branches of the life of the Church, in Croatia discussions about the functions of laypersons are similar to a "course of swimming on the dry dock". It is the clergy himself to discuss it, treating laymen like examples of a rare zoological being. Although Archbishop Josip Bozanić is the representative of the Croatian Bishops' Conference for the laypersons, although there had been two great conferences about the rule of the layperson in the Catholic Church (in autumn 1992, marking the beginning of a supposed new period of the Catholic Church in former Yugoslavia immediately after the war operations in Croatia and in spring 1995, one can scarcely point out one relevant step of progress of the laypersons' position in comparison with those of the clergy. In Croatia there exist organizations of laypersons, mainly professional ones (Catholic teachers, doctors and nurses, workers, entrepreneurs); however what is lacking, is their cooperation and liaisons between each other, as well as awareness of the tasks they could fulfill, and the capacity of representing themselves in public life. It seems that the members of these organizations had been educated for past times, for a preconciliar Church with her bias of authority and obedient listeners, unable to speak for themselves and to define their task on their own hands.

With such ecclesiastical structures, the Church was faced with the victory of a party that in the past strictly demanded from its members' distance to every form of contact with the Church. After ten years of pre-dimensioned presence in politics and in public life, in the mass media and in education, the Church's performance will now certainly be reduced to a more discreet appearance. We can register that the Catholic Church in Croatia exists both as an open and a hermetically closed, monolithic society: The Archbishop himself certainly represents a more open one, while the Military Bishop, a former Croatian emigrant who many years lived among the Croatian diaspora in Canada, Juraj Jezerinać, can be considered as a Croatian national-chauvinist. While Bozanić does not cease to demand openness and communication, warning of isolationism, the Military Bishop agitates against international institutions (particularly against the International Tribunal for War Crime in former Yugoslavia /ICTY; the founding of which had Croatia itself urgently demanded in autumn 1991, when the Yugoslav Army was in the midst of bombing Croatian villages and cities). The fact that it was Croatia that initiated the establishment of a supranational tribunal to sentence war crimes and its protagonists seems not to be known to a great number of Croatian politicians, neither to the population.

Archbishop Bozanić is convinced that the contemporary Church has to represent a community in contrast to secular society and to offer her spiritual gifts, but had to listen to the public society, benevolently acknowledge its needs and accept that secular societies have their own values. It is a particular social commitment for all those who suffer from the "structures of Sin," which the archbishop had pointed out as the crucial evils of the Croatian society in his yet mentioned Christmas sermon in 1997. Without any doubt, one can state that it would be a commitment to reestablish the deeply violated principle of equal chances for all citizens (which they had inherited as a value by itself, from the Communist regime) and to decide about the persuasiveness of the Catholic Church in the near future.

Thus, the Archbishop is open and ready for dialogue and cooperation with civil institutions. He showed that he would not hesitate to draw attention to the politicians to problems. He is sure that society is not against a partnership with religious communities and appeals that friendship with the World should count more than the "confirmation that it is me to be right". If the Archbishop himself and his surroundings could understand and accept that a vital Church demands cooperation of as many as possible of its members, we could state that the Catholic Church in Croatia had met the challenge of new political circumstances, and shown readiness to accept them as chances. Then we could admit that the Church had actively changed the Paradigm regarding her position in the Croatian society.

Anna Maria Gruenfelder, 10 May 2000

Anna Maria Gruenfelder is historian, theologian and columnist in several weekly newspapers.

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