CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

The role of the churches in the construction of the civil society in Hungary

by Zsuzsanna Bögre (Institute of Sociology at the Peter Pazmany Catholic Universitiy Budapest/Piliscsaba)
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

Conceptual frameworks:

The church (in this essay it is mainly the Roman Catholic Church) is considered as a network of communities, a network which might involve communities of the most different types of organisation, from the loose framework of the religious parishes to the smaller communities operating within them, or from the different groups of the leaders of the churches, the priests to the various circles of the believers. The essence of the church in this concept is the social representation of religion, which cannot take place in any other way but by the people come together in a place and mutually reinforcing each other in their religious faith. This means that the religion can only survive in a place where people can meet, talk to each other and can act in the spirit of their worldview, in community frameworks.

The concept of civil society is a grassroot society in which people belonging to different subcultures search for and find the way of their self-expression, without violating anybody else’s interests. The modern society and the modern social theory is just about the fact that in these days the groups with special worldviews and ways of thinking should co-exist, because the single religious worldview characteristics of the former times has ceased to exist.

In this sense there is a close correlation thus between the two concepts in question. To make it more simple we could say that the church builds a civil society during its self-fulfilment, i.e. a part of the civil society is built by the church. Several question arise from this:

1.   How new is the role of the churches in the building of civil societies?

2.   In the socialist times in Hungary, to what extent did the limited space of action of the churches allow the construction of the civil society?

3.   How did the systemic change of 1989 rearrange the social status of the individuals?


1. How new is the role of the churches in the building of civil societies?


To start with I remind of the fact that between 1880 and the 1910s, and in the years after the number of associations and other organisations multiplied all over Europe. The associations and organisations evolved around the churches and the socialist parties, thus along a single ideology, making pillars in the society. The content of the concept “pillar development” is the aggregate of sub-cultural organisations, such as the maintenance of Catholic schools, the establishment of Catholic youth organisations, the publication of Catholic books, the appearance of the Catholic media and other cultural organisations. It means that an individual was able to attend a school, visit a library and marry within his/her own subculture and was also buried there, without having to change his/her opinion about the world.

It is an interesting phenomenon, because the social sciences say that modernisation is usually accompanied by a differentiation process of the social sub-systems, whereas the pillar development is a process in the opposite direction: the connection of the different sub-systems. The phenomenon of pillar development in the church organisation can be explained among other things by the fact that the church tried to protect itself from the effects of secularisation, the turning away from religion.

1.1.        Church organisations and the civil society in Hungary before and after World War II

The process typical in Europe appeared in Hungary in the first decades of the 20th century, too. By the stimulation of the church, associations, communities and religious organisations operating on different religious grounds were established in Hungary. The pillar development, i.e. the birth of a “society within the society”, was a phenomenon in Hungary, too, in the period prior to World War II.

There are exact data about these organisations. Even if we only consider the Roman Catholic Church, the KALOT (Katolikus Agrárifjúsági Legényegyletek Országos Testülete, National Body of Catholic Agricultural Youth Societies) had organisations in 4 500 villages in 1944, with almost half a million participants. This same organisation operated twenty people’s academies. In 1946, the operation of 631 local groups of the KALOT, 576 local organisations of the KALÁSZ (Katolikus Lánykörök Szövetsége, Alliance of Catholic Girls Societies) and 170 other catholic associations were prohibited by Communist influence. According to a catholic almanac of 1948, 7 522 religious organisations worked in Hungary, with a total of 708 000 members.

The social changes starting in 1945 and gaining a momentum in 1948 washed away these organically developing communities of the society, including the ones organised on religious grounds. This transition can be called a devolutionary process. This means that in a society not only development exists, there is regression sometimes during certain political and economic changes. This theory uses the concept of contraction for social phenomena. According to this, contraction takes place when during the transition of a society, certain, formerly more sophisticated and complicated institutions can only survive by adopting simpler structures. In the Hungarian case, the institutional network of the churches was “simplified”, because the operation of their associations, communities, schools and health care network was prohibited. It should be emphasised that not only church organisations but any other community could have the same fate. On the other hand, the only officially existing civil (i.e. non-state) organisations remained the churches, although their civil activity was restricted to the maintenance of religious life. It is well known that in the socialist period people could practice their religion only in the church or around the church.

The communist systems considered as its biggest enemies these communities and the possible co-operation of these grassroot forces – to put it another way, the civil society. We should add that the oppression of the civil sector was not only done by politics directly, but also by the social mobility of incredible scale and speed, emerging after the forced industrialisation and the elimination of the independent peasants’ farms. A famous Hungarian sociologist adds that the social mobility of incredible scale in 1948–1965 also had a “demobilisation” effect on the Hungarian society. Mobilisation smashed all former social relations, it practically paralysed the population. People were unable to approach each other in a way that they could form communities.

1.2. Characteristic features of the church-organised associations and communities before the War

The present renaissance of the church-organised civil organisations can only be adequately assessed if we do not neglect the social character of the church organisations existing before World War II.

To start with, the Hungarian society before 1945 was a half-feudal society, in which the modernisation processes stopped. Urbanisation and industrialisation were at a low level, the society was basically an agricultural and village society. A concomitant of this was the strong affection towards traditions and the lack of alternative actions and values. In this traditional world, the collective existence determining the individual existence had a dominant role. The identity programme of the individual was prescribed by the traditions, the broader community. Of course each individual had their identity in this era, too, but the experience of collective existence resulted in a basically collective identity.

Coming from this, when talking about religious associations and organisations, we have to bear in mind that these communities could only survive if they mediated the accepted social norms to their members. It was not an issue whether the members of the groups actually accepted these norms or not, because these communities were the representatives of a world in which the majority of the society had no alternative life.

2. The limited space of action of the churches, and the civil society in Hungary in the socialist times

During the communist period – keeping mind the above thoughts – the churches could be taken as legal places for alternative thinking from worldview–political–cultural aspect in Hungary. In the case of the Roman Catholic Church, at institutional level this meant the parishes. However, because the political power carried out a “contraction”, i.e. the prohibition of the communities belonging to the former civil sector, also in the sphere of the religious communities, the only activities that could remain were the ones in connection with the maintenance of religious life. Such an activity was the regular attendance of masses, where religious people gathered because of their need of self-expression, also the church festival organised as a tribute to the patron saints of the churches, which in many places became the feasts of the local society. The only official activity of the religious communities was the maintenance of religious life, however, in reality the church became the “universal” servant of the civil interests of the believers. What is this “universality”? It means that the priest and a few of his assistants could organise the support of the poor members of the local community: i.e. charitable work; the dissemination of religious literature, library work; the assistance of the religious life of the elderly people. The circle of the former activities contracted to a large extent, only as much was possible as the state – and their energy – allowed.

What the civil activity of the churches meant in the socialist period was confined by at least two factors:

1.    the continuous supervision of the state and

2.    the social composition of the believers.

The majority of the parishes during the communist period were composed of elderly women living in villages and having a lower level of education. It was mainly the stratum with a traditional way of thinking and more passive in their social actions who belonged in large numbers to the church. The civil actions organised around the churches were managed by the priests, because of the continuous state control, their actions were done secretly, or at least with the avoidance of the broader publicity. This mean that in those times, the church played in important role mainly in the lives of the stratum far from the social modernisation, the church provided this layer with a modest civil forum of a special content.

This tendency, however, slightly changed, according to surveys carried out in the 1980s. The interests in religion grew among the youth, those with higher level of education, intellectuals and urban citizens. This growing interest was mainly due to the small groups, the basic communities and the appearance of spiritual movements in Hungary. Two things should be remarked in this respect: in absolute numbers and proportions, the growing interest in religion meant a moderate majority. In Budapest e.g. it concerned 9% of those with higher education degree, whereas the same figure for the sample was only 4%.

The other remark might be even more important for our topic. The communities operating underground even in the 1980s had better chances of survival in the towns than in the villages. It was almost impossible to operate in secrecy and to meet in private houses in places where everybody knew everybody. The communist system prohibited all the time the organisation of communities, a significant staff of the Secret Agency was responsible for the detection of the organisers of such groups, so the underground movement required anonymity. This was easier to achieve in the towns than in the villages, so the religious life was more active in the organisation of the civil society in the towns. This is a strange paradox: the impersonal large cities promoted the birth of small religious communities that were built on personal relations.

Following the systemic change, when religious freedom was secured again in Hungary and a growing interest in religion was experienced, this interest did not grow as much as it would have been possible. Those parishes communities were able to recover first where there had been underground religious communities operating before the 1980s, or where priests of outstanding personal quality worked. In such places the activity of the secular believers was achieved, by which the strength of the priests multiplied. The extra work e.g. was taken over from the vicar by the secular believers raised in the community. In these parishes, the solution of the emerging problems was not the responsibility of the priests alone, but also of the believers at least as much. The task of the priests was the co-ordination of the activities and their original profession, the practice of religious life.

The involvement of the seculars is necessary, because today in Hungary 49.6% of the Roman Catholic priests are over sixty years of age. There is a priest who is 95 years old, and it is known that priests retire very rarely. Those who retire do so because they are ill. Among the active priests, the number of the 70–74 year old age group is especially big. Given such circumstances, the transformation of the church communities into real communities might be more urgent than ever.

3. Individualisation and the civil society in Hungary after the social change of 1989

After the social changes, not only the political effects or the consequences of the extremely large-scale mobility of the society had to be handled, but also the concomitant individualisation. Parallel to the communist modernisation, the individualisation of the Hungarian society occurred, too. From value sociologist researches we know that the members of the Hungarian society have more individualistic values than their Western European counterparts in many respects (this is definitely true e.g. for the religiousness of the young generation).

Following the disintegration of the state party system, the appreciation of the individual self-expression and self-fulfilment, i.e. the increase in the importance of the SELF became evident. Meanwhile the individual was appreciated, the society became more versatile, alternative civil wills appeared, the freedom but also the responsibility of the individual choices increased.

These days, in addition to the mythical concept of the SELF, another myth is palpable in Hungary: the myth of the role and importance of the community, the faith in the necessity of the civil society. This notion counterbalances to some extent the negative consequences of the individualisation processes and the atomisation of the society.

R. Szennett, when talking about the “loss of the man of public life”, misses the responsible public life. In his concerns he depicts a very negative image of the individualisation, but also of the communities of the self-s who have found “themselves”.

In his view, the modern man is narcissistic, and one of the features of this man is the fact that his/her desires are not fulfilled. In such a state the individual does not deal with the society but with oneself, does not pay attention to the fellow men but to his/herself. In Szennet’s view, the myth of the SELF is so much accepted in the contemporary world that if somebody says s/he is engaged with “searching for his/her identity”, this effort is even respected by the society.

The opinion of the author about the communities of introverted persons is not very good, he says that narcissism is prevalent also in the communities. The author sees the problem in the fact that that communities made by narcissistic persons pay an attention greater than ever to each other’s emotions and withdraw more than ever from the institutions of the society and the issues concerning the whole of the society. During the community formation, they are engaged with the definition of the internal identity of their group, the construction of solidarity or the fight for dominance within the group. This means that by the time it comes to real issues of the power or turning to higher power structures, the communities have already become closed and exhausted. They become deaf and blind to the world outside, the broader society.

The author considers the intimacy of the modern communities as dangerous, because in his opinion psychological processes are pushed into the foreground during the continuous self-expression, which makes the communities unstable and unpredictable, they will be incapable of solving bigger social issues.

So far I have talked in my essay about two well separable community creations that contradict each other. One of them I mentioned in connection with the past, when I defined communities and civil organisations by the dominance of the collective identity. In the other case, I emphasised the dominance of the individual identities. These two factors are originally far from each other in historical time. In the case of Hungary, the first factor characterised the religious organisations before World War II, while the second appeared after the democratic turn in 1989.

The temporal separation, however, is only partly valid in the case of Hungary, where during the communist times the civil society waited in a deep-frozen state for the sun to shine again. After 1989, when the civil sector of the society was liberated, the thought of the restoration of the religious civil organisations existing before the War emerged, also, the religious persons finding their identity started to establish new organisational forms. After the political turn in 1989, a part (if not the majority!) of the civil society in Hungary is organised around the churches, or consist of association that originate from the churches.

One of the poles of the organisation of the community, of the civil sector is the concept that wishes to organise a community without taking seriously the individualisation that has become strong in the Hungarian society. This ethos wants to protect the individuals and the society from the dangers of atomisation. This kind of organisation bears the danger that during the organisation of the civil society, the interests of the collective are over-represented, almost irrespective of the personal wills of the individuals. These organisations are seemingly open, anybody can join them, provided that they approve of their objectives and methods. (It would be interesting to consider how the revived boy scouts movement, or the KALOT movement before reorganisation can be actualised in the present Hungarian society. We have to ask along what ethos a pre-war structure can be viable in the present days.)

The other poles in my opinion are those civil groups in which the individual identity is the dominant, and the ethos of the organisation is the respect for the SELF and the sovereignty of the individuals. In such associations it might happen that the community life becomes closed because of the excessive self-expression and because of the acknowledgement of deeper and deeper strata of another person. In this case the closed character is not the consequence of discipline, or a strong leadership style and the respect to collective identity but of the fact that the energy of the members is absorbed by the introduction of their own emotions and the maintenance of intimate relations, because of which the community becomes closed again.

Both structures represent opposite poles, which in themselves do not favour the ideal of the civil society.[1] It comes then from the above-said that in a modern democratic society an ethos over-emphasising the collective identity cannot be relevant, just as an ethos respecting and protecting the personal identity too much cannot be, either. Instead, the model in between the two poles, in other words, a balancing model can create in a democratic society the relevant structure of the civil sector.

What is characteristic of the civil society in a democracy?[2]For J. Alexander the “Civil society is a sphere of solidarity in which abstract universalism and particularistic versions of community are tendency intertwined. He characterises the civil society with democratic codes.

1.                    Democratic code of social motives: activism, autonomy, rationality, reasonableness, calm, self-control, realistic, sane.

2.                    Democratic code of social relationship: open, trusting, critical, honorable, conscience, truthful, straightforward, deliberate, friend.

3.                    Democratic code of social institution: rule regulated, law, equality, inclusive, impersonal, contractual, social group, office

How we can reach this pure element of the democratic codes in Hungarian civil society? What is characteristic of the religious group in the democracy, which can coexist the collective identity and personal identity? Let me give you some cases for the coexisting.

1. “Maybe I am one of the first converts. In that year, in the summer of 1989 my backbone was operated on. I was anything but a believer at that time. My little son only wanted to attend religious classes influenced by my father. M worldview and value system were completely different at that time. Probably I would not live with my husband now if I had not been admitted to the community. I do not know what would have happened, where I would be now, but I am absolutely sure that my daughter would not have been born. The first spiritual exercise in December had an influence so big on me that my life took a 180-degree turn. Unfortunately, many of the mistakes from my previous life are still present and it is very difficult sometimes to keep the good direction. I struggle a lot and I face many difficulties. Meanwhile I got ill, a psychiatric patient. One usually is ashamed of this before others, the world does not understand and condemn such patients. Still I am sure that I am on the right track and I am very thankful for this community. Here they try to accept me, to understand me and they listen to my difficulties. I have many good “real” human relations, which means very much to me. Ten years ago I could not have even imagined that such a thing existed. I am especially thankful for the fact that the church was built here right in my neighbourhood, with a psychiatric service within that, where my soul is regularly treated and I also receive much assistance in my illness. Maybe I will never be cured, but it is not such a big problem, the point is that I am in a good place here.” (A middle-aged woman struggling with psychiatric illness.)

2. Because of my parents and especially my grandmother, I attended religious classes since I was very small. This went on when I moved here to this block, at the age of ten. I was a member of the community for three years. I was not aware of the fact that everything I got during the religious classes was the foundation of a clearly and healthily developing mentality. During the period of my life, several question emerged in me which resulted in a kind of chaos. I came to the wrong conclusion that I did not need the religious community… From that time on all that I experienced was that the equilibrium I had in me slowly disappeared, my human values started to blur and I shaped my value system in a completely wrong way. Among my sad experiences I must admit that I often felt ashamed to turn to and help people who needed me and my assistance. This was accompanied by a loneliness that I slowly started to perceive as the absence of the community. It became more and more evident for me that building was impossible on my own. A year ago (when I saw clearly and without doubt that the mental construction can only take place in a “constructive” community) I decided to return to the community and try to live with God again, which serves the development of the mental life of the people in my environment and also of myself. It was a wonderful experience for me that order and balance was found again in my heart and way of life. (A university student, a boy converted young.)

2.    “Nobody has a bigger love than the one who gives his life for his friends.” Although I had heard this sentence many times, still it had a very strong effect on me now. It came to my mind that actually this is what we told each other when we married. But can I tell my husband this now, 20 years later? To be honest, I did not dare to do so, because I felt he would not believe me. He carries pains that I caused him. I knew that first we had to make our relationship to each other better in order to change our relationship to our children and the other people. I realised that I had to start this, instead of waiting for him to change at last! I have to see him with new eyes and love him this way. I started by expecting him with a dinner, however late he came home. Then I made sure that not only I should speak until he gets so tired that his eyes close down, but also I should listen to his problems and pleasures first. … The weekend spent in our holiday home was very nice. Not only because of the sunshine. For example, I did not have to ask him twice to come to have lunch; he immediately stopped digging and came. I tried to weed the garden with pleasure and in a good mood. At night, when the children were already sleeping, we had a deep conversation that we had not had for a very long time. We were tired, still it was not difficult to listen to each other. He said first: I am ready to give my life for you! After fourteen years of marriage we were able to renew our union again.” (The mother of four children at the time of writing these lines, now of six children, a nurse.)

1.     The community makes an existing reality independent of the individual each time, to which one has to and can adapt (we can see the role of the collective identity).

2.     One can freely leave the community and return to that, as one wishes, the decision is up to the individual (we can see the role of the individual identity).

3.     The belonging to the community still exists if one is mentally ill, one can be a member of the community even s/he is deviant in a way, if s/he decides so (the content of the collective identity can be reconciled with the content of the personal identity).

4.     The religious identity of the individuals can continuously change, and the change can reach the marriage, too (the personal identity is in constant move).

From the above four points we can conclude that the collective identity and the personal identity have an interrelation. From my point of view this is the first and very deep level to contribute the democratic codes of civil society.

[1] Jeffrey C. Alexander: The binary discourse of civil society. Routledge, 2001. pp. 193–211.

[2] ibid.

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