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  

Modernity, Religion and Secularization in South-Eastern Europe.
The Romanian case

by Dan Dungaciu Ph.D., Lecturer in Sociology, University of Bucharest
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

The waters flow, but the stones remain. We are the stones.” (a Romanian bishop)

The last census in Romania (2002) indicates that Romania is one of the most religious countries in Europe (the same situation has been registered in 1992: 87,5% of the population declared itself Christian Orthodox – 0,04% atheists! – and the level of confidence in the Orthodox Church has been constantly high, 80-90%, in polls and surveys).

How can such an evolution be explained, after fifty years of atheistic and dogmatic regime? The usual “explanation” supplied by some hurried commentators is that religion has become after 1989 a “substitute ideology” (an ideological Ersatz) replacing the old ideology (the communist one) – now “disenchanted” and, therefore, refuted and eliminated. This so-called explanation remains, at best, naïve. First of all, because the disenchantment of the communist ideology has occurred, at least in Romania, even before the Soviet occupation of this part of Europe, and the real popular enthusiasm stirred – very rarely! – by the Communist Party (1945: the defeat of fascism in Europe; 1968: the opposition to the invasion of Czechoslovakia etc.) clearly vanished in the eighties. Therefore, to claim that the communist ideology has been a sort of Weltanschaung before 1989 is quite absurd. Even more, the most religious sections of the Romanian population in the nineties are the young people and the oldest ones, that is the categories which have been the least contaminated by the communist ideology!

The explanation, in my view, should be looked for in the processes of modernization that characterized the history of Romania – and of the entire South Eastern Europe – from the end of the 19th century until today. Religion – and the Church – have been involved, in different and subtle ways, in this process.

Recently, Grace Davie has accurately examined the nature of European religion within a global context. In Europe, the idea that as the world modernises it will necessarily secularise, has became a conviction but there is scant evidence for secularization in other spaces, despite convincing indicators of modernisation in those areas. Grace Davie’s point is that Europe increasingly looks like an exceptional case when it comes to the matters of faith.

            The argumentation is adequate, as far as Western Europe is concerned. But I shall argue in my paper that we can not talk about a European modernity as such, because, from the point of view of religion, there are at least two models of modernization – and modernities – in Europe: the first one is typical for the Western Europe, the second one for the South-Eastern Europe (the Orthodox area). The process of modernization in Mitteleuropa could be a third model, although is rather an intermediary model between the two. 

1. Eastern Europe trough the spectacles of the Western sociology of religion

An observation can be made by any sociologist of religion interested in the Southeastern Europe: the lack of attention given to the area is quite amazing. A famous historian used to say: “Although the Balkan peninsula has played a major role in history, the area has been subject to less intensive study than any other European region” (Jelavich 1983, IX). And she was right. The ignorance or the lack of attention given to the region can also be proved otherwise: the important readers or books on religion – or the most famous treatise on secularization – ignore almost systematically the texts of the Balkan authors and the materials concerning these questions in Eastern Europe.

            Before 1989, the religious question in this area has been ignored, mainly for political reasons[1]. After 1990, the political reasons have disappeared. But the lack of interest and the ignorance did not. And the ignorance doesn’t mean only “lack of attention” – the phenomenon still exists, that’s for sure -, but also more subtle forms and strategies. And I would like to point out just two of them.

The first one is the use – and abuse – of the so-called “secularization thesis”. I am not going to claim here that the Southeastern Europe is not secular – in the sense that social significance of religion declined[2], but this is not the whole story of the complex process which has occurred here. The secularization thesis contains a major risk: to be a sort of methodological or theoretical pair of glasses trough which we observe and consequently depict a reality – the Orthodox area – that, basically, has nothing to do with the construction of the theory as such. In other words, what should be reminded here is that the secularization thesis has been assembled and developed starting from empirical material collected in investigations carried out in Western Europe (Great Britain and, to a lesser extension, in the Northern countries). The religious landscape of South-Eastern Europe has been omitted from the initial debate. So, the story goes like that: the secularization thesis is used as a methodological framework or as a hypothesis – without a previous knowledge of the area -, and sometimes, not always, of course, what the researcher actually does during the investigation is to pick up – explicitly or implicitly – those particular elements which would help him or her to make his or her point. Southeastern Europe is large enough to find examples for almost everything… Needless to say, this strategy is fallacious from an anthropological and sociological point of view. (I shall come to this point later.)

            The second way of ignoring the area is illustrated by the recent debates regarding the secularization of Europe and the place of our continent in the worldwide religious picture. The so-called “case of Europe” has been recently brought back to the agenda by some authors who were trying to prove a so-called “European exceptionalism” as far as the attitude towards religion and Church is concerned.

The most significant attempt belongs, maybe, to Grace Davie, about which I would like to say a few words.

2. Davie’s “Europe” and the secularization thesis

The secularization thesis is developed within a European framework. For certain stages in Europe’s religious development, there is a convincing fit between the argument and the data. As Europe’s economic and political life developed, it was evident – at least for many sociologists – that religion diminished in public significance; religious aspirations continued to exist, but were increasingly relegated to the private sphere. As a commentator has put it: “Bit by bit… the thesis rather than the data began to dominate the agenda. The ‘fit’ became axiomatic, theoretically necessary rather than empirically founded – so much that Europe’s religious life was considered a prototype of global religiosity; what Europe did today everyone else would do tomorrow. Secularization was a necessary part of modernization and as the world modernized, it would automatically secularize” (Davie 2000, 26).

            But this picture has been challenged in the last decade. How is it possible to accommodate the very different situation found, for example, in United States within the same framework? Some authors talk about “exceptionalism” at this point, although it is not very clear which case is the exceptional one. Some answers lay in trying to understand American exceptionalism, but others, Berger and Martin, for example, have suggested that the argument be reversed. Exceptionalism undoubtedly exists, but it is Europe, rather than the United States that is exceptional.

In two books – Religion in Modern Europe (2000) and Europe. An Exceptional Case (2001a) – Grace Davie has made this point stronger than others. Briefly, Davie’s view – following Berger, Martin, and Casanova – concerns the atypical nature of religion in Europe – notably “the relatively low levels of religious activity and institutional commitment” (Davie 2001, 270). In her words: “… European patterns of religiousness are indeed unusual in the modern world and should be seen as one strand in what it means to be a European, rather than in terms of any necessary relationship between religion and modernity or religion and process of modernization” (Ibid., 271). Either “from the inside” or “from the outside”, the distinctiveness of the European case is obvious. This is, at least, Grace Davie’s point. And this is important not only for the “European patterns of religion”, but for Europe – for the European identity – as such: “All-important in the whole analysis is the specificity not only of Europe’s religion, but of culture in which this has been embedded for the best part of a millennium. Europe’s religious memory is part of what it means to be a European” (Ibid., 273).

            Grace Davie uses the world “Europe” a lot. But is not Europe as such that is at stake in her texts, but Western Europe. The Eastern area – if not ignored – is rarely approached or analyzed. And here lies the main problem of her strategy. When you say Europe, but what you mean is in fact Western Europe, an area more or less homogeneous as far as the religious landscape is concerned, a significant part of the continent remains unexplored or ignored. And this part of the continent – Central and Eastern Europe – has its own religious shape, past and maybe present. This part of Europe wishes to join Western Europe and in the next future will succeed. One of the consequences, whereof we are rarely aware, is that these countries will bring to the continent a different religious pattern and sensibility.

3. What do the figures say? Censuses in Romania: 1992-2002

Let’s take, for example, the case of Romania. The 1992 census indicates that Romania is one of the most religious countries in Europe: 99% Christians, 86,67% of the population declared itself Christian Orthodox, 0,04% atheists. The same situation has been registered in 2002: 99% Christians, 86,81% Christian Orthodox, 0,05% atheists. Again, the level of confidence in the Orthodox Church has been constantly high – 70-90%, in polls and surveys after 1990.

            The first remark is obvious: the situation in Romania doesn’t fit Davie’s picture. The formula “believing without belonging” which Davie has explored, first, in the British context and, later in the European one, can not be used to describe what is happening now in Romania. “Believing without belonging” means that “statistics relating to ‘soft’ religious variables – general statements of belief, the notion of a religious disposition, and denominational self-ascription – remain relatively high, whilst those that pertain to regular religious practice or to the credal statements of Christian doctrine have dropped very markedly indeed”. Nor does the formula “belonging without believing” accurately describe the condition of Romania in this respect. “Belonging without believing” means that people maintain a nominal rather than active allegiance to their churches and what they represent, but in a way provided for by their particular ecclesiastical history”. Or, as one commentator succinctly put it: “what people believe in is, in fact, belonging”.

            As censuses, surveys or available data show, neither “believing without belonging” nor “belonging without believing” – as theoretical frameworks – can be used in order to describe Eastern Europe today. As far as the religious landscape is concerned, Romania is different from Western Europe. A theoretically informed observation of these differences sets a demanding agenda for the Eastern sociology of religion at the turn of the millennium.

4. Researching the contemporary Orthodox area. The secularization thesis in a different context

How can the Romanian case be explained, after fifty years of atheistic and dogmatic regime? The usual but not too adequate “explanation” is that religion has become a “substitute ideology” (an ideological Ersatz) replacing the old ideology (the communist one) – now “disenchanted” and, therefore, refuted and eliminated. The classical formulation of this view belongs to Adam Michnik and has been formulated in 1991: “Communism aspired to the role of a worldview that explained everything. After Communism there remained an ideological vacuum; and the end of Communism meant the opening of a Pandora’s box. Into that vacuum began to creep demons from bygone epochs: ideologies proclaiming chauvinism and xenophobia, populism and intolerance. (…) Nationalism is the last word of Communism” (Michnik 1991). Some authors use “nationalism” as an ideological Erzatz, others, religion.

But this so-called explanation remain, at best, naïve. First of all, because the disenchantment of the communist ideology has occurred, at least in Romania, even before the Soviet occupation of this part of Europe, and the real popular enthusiasm stirred – very rarely! – by the Communist Party (1945: the defeat of fascism in Europe; 1968: the opposition to the invasion of Czechoslovakia etc.) clearly vanished in the eighties. Therefore, to claim that the communist ideology had been a sort of Weltanschauung before 1989 is quite absurd. Even more, as pools and surveys show, the most religious sections of the Romanian population in the nineties are the young people and the oldest ones, that is the categories which had been the least contaminated by the communist ideology! (see: Dungaciu 2000).

            After 1990 other strategies have been used in order to explain or to describe the religious landscape in Romania (and in South-eastern Europe, in general). In general, the starting point of these researches or surveys – as I said before – is a theory or a sociological framework produced in Western Europe and which are now tested and put to work in the Eastern (or Orthodox) area. But, again, there is a major risk in carrying out such research. South-eastern Europe is a large space, and, if the initial framework is – for example – the secularization thesis or different versions of it, you can use or select whatever you want in order to make your point.

What the secularization thesis sustains is, basically – in its strong version, at least – the inevitable and irreversible decline of the religious spirit in society. In spite of some important conflicting evidence to the theory of secularization collected during the last decade, many sociologists and historians concerned with the religious phenomenon went on working in this area, more or less explicitly, within that particular framework. Looking at the Orthodox region, one can see again that the theory of secularization is out of its “reference area”, the context (spiritual, political etc.) and the historical pattern being different from those the theory has been set to explain. These differences are important enough – at least starting with the modern era – to be considered as such in an analysis dedicated, after all, to modernity.

We have to recall here Steve Bruce’s warning: “… secularization is not inevitable. Of course, the West’s power and prestige give its characteristics a degree of preeminence as a model for others to emulate (or react against) but the changes described here will be repeated elsewhere only if the circumstances match the old” (Bruce 2001, 251).

            To understand “if the circumstances match the old” means to understand the processes of modernization that characterized the history of Southeastern Europe, in general, and Romania, in particular, from the end of the 19th century until today. Religion and the Church have been involved in this process in different and subtle ways.

5. Modernity and religion in Romania. Three elements

I am not going to offer here a theory of secularization of the Eastern Europe. What I am trying to do is to discuss three neglected elements which have to be taken into account when at stake is modernity and religion in Romania.

Again, we don’t forget the main question: How comes that in this area religion (or religious identity) and Church are still so important, at least in comparison with other parts of Europe? Or, to put it in Davie’s words: How comes that Eastern Europe is an exceptional case?

5.1 The specificity of the “Orthodox culture”. The Orthodox Church and Modernity

When we talk about “secularization” or “cultural changes” in Eastern Europe, the first element which has to be evaluated is the specificity of the “Orthodox culture” (Nikos Kokosalakis). As I said at the beginning of my paper, one of the geographical and cultural areas almost unassumed by the disciplinary knowledge of the sociologist of religion today is the Orthodox European area. There are, of course, some comparative analyses at the level of the entire Europe, but, unfortunately, what comparison means in many cases is just a translation of the Western concepts and/or theories to the East without a preliminary depiction of an area, which has its own particularities and specificity at least as far as religion and religious life are concerned. And there are some arguments for this statement[3].

            First of all, “orthodoxy is a pre-modern culture in the sense that it was not directly disrupted by the major movements which constitute the foundations of modernity, namely the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment” (Kokosalakis 1995a, 234). And more, the typically modern phenomena, namely industrial revolution and capitalist accumulation “were born and grew outside countries where Orthodoxy has been the dominant religion” (Idem.). In other words, the continuity of the Orthodox culture, of the “way of life” that is specific for Orthodoxy (using a phrase imposed by the Greek philosopher Christos Yannaras) did not suffer “breaches”, or decisive displacements due to endogenous socio-cultural developments like those that define modernity. In this sense Orthodoxy “can be understand as pre-modern in a modern world”.

            What are the practical consequences of this peculiar condition?

First of all, the position of the Orthodox Church in this process: an insider and an outsider, at the same time. The Orthodox Church has not been part of the process of modernization – it has been involved in it, but not part of it. What we call today “disenchantment of the world” (Erzauberung der Welt) means, basically, disenchantment of the modern world – of modernity as an existential project. In the Orthodox area or in some parts of it the story is different for reasons, which I have already suggested. The Church and the Orthodox religion have not been part of modernity, but they have always been there, and still are, as an alternative existential project, which remains available and at hand. Today, when we witness the “disenchantment of the modern world” – this is what postmodernity and postmodernism are all about - , a resurrection of the traditional religiosity in the Orthodox area is not incomprehensible. And this is one of the reasons for the New Religious Movements as an alternative religiosity in this part of Europe[4]. The inner spirituality of the Orthodox peoples can still be expressed in traditional forms, because it is still there, available, not disenchanted… In this respect, the Orthodox religion could be called a post-modern religion.

The Orthodox area is not homogeneous, that’s for sure, and different countries should be approached differently. Nevertheless, they are all Orthodox. Let me say a few words about the Romanian case, with which I am more familiar[5].

Just two examples: in the 16th century, an epoch when Erasmus was talking about “Christ’s philosophy” and Machiavelli was turning religion into a mere princely hypocrisy and a mere means of dominating and manipulating subjects and all others, thus nullifying both God’s living accomplishment and the moral principle in politics – a Wallachian ruler, Neagoe Basarab, was interested in grounding all politics, diplomacy, and military doctrine of his people on the Hesychast-Orthodox belief in an ever living and ever manifest God, accessible to man, if not in His essence, at least in those un-created energies flowing ceaselessly all-over living beings, through which man ca establish immediate contact with the unseen divine, can request assistance through prayer an every important step, can always feel Him nearby, can drink from Him the power to face dangers seemingly indomitable and to conquer enemies seemingly unyielding.

            The 17th century – the century of Voltaire – has witnessed in Moldavia the most important spiritual resurrection in the Orthodox world. After sixteen years on the Holy Mountain, a remarkable starez, Paisii Velichkovskii (1722-1794), returned to Moldavia, as Abbot of the monastery of Neamtu. He re-established the monastic rule, organized a printing press and began to translate and publish the works of the Greek Fathers; he also translated a selection of the texts of the Greek Philokalia. This flowering of hesychast spirituality in this area stimulated both the publication of the Philokalia and by the arrival of many of Paisii’s owns disciples not only in other Romanian monasteries but also in Russia. The influence of this spiritual resurrection was immense, as the works of Dostoyevsky, to go no further, are there to testify.

            The relationship between Orthodoxy and modernity is unique in this respect. And it has to be pointed out in order to understand the relation between religion, Church and people in this area, and to widen the perspective of the analysis to make it able to contain historical-cultural horizons large enough to host a multiple dimension investigation. The immediate benefit coming from this is that a better definition of the object of study is proposed – “Orthodox culture”. We must deal here – this is the message – with different cultural realities, Western and Eastern, and the concepts and theories of one of them – the modern Western one – cannot be used without precautions on the other. The “modern rationalist categories” describing the society, for instance, in terms of dichotomy like “Church-state” or “religion-politics” could be inadequate when we speak about the Eastern societies. The main problem is this: the sociological concepts as much as they derive from a modern Weltanschauung – because sociology is the science of modernity par excellence – cannot have but a very limited value when used in explaining a “premodern”, “preindustrial” and – even! – “pre-sociological” Orthodox culture. That value is reduced to the social “fields” that either manages to get completely out of the influence of the specifically Orthodox way of life (which should not be mistaken with the influence of the Church) or are set up as mimetic copies of some Western developments. But what is fatally left outside is exactly the object of research. Nikos Kokosalakis, a Greek sociologist, is investigating how the sociology of religion, in its classical Western variant, departs from the Eastern social reality in its different respects: political (relations Church-state, constitution of the modern national identities etc.), economical (the theme of relation between Orthodoxy and capitalism has, actually, a rather controversial bibliography), civic (dichotomy public-private sphere etc). The analysis is not exhaustive, but it gives us an important suggestion anyway. If “la modernité n’a pas affecté la religion orthodoxe de l’intérieur, contrairement aux autre traditions chrétiennes” (Kokosalakis 1996: 133), then the secularization also, as an effect of modernization (and of modernity, in general) is a different process in the Orthodox and non-Orthodox societies respectively. Kokosalakis tries to identify the sense of these differences using again the Greek case and adapting a concept like “private religion” or “privatization of religion”, which becomes “personalization of religion”. The purpose is to give an account of the specific features of the “transformation de la religiosité en Grece, mais dans le cadre strict de la spécificité de la tradition orthodoxe ou la personnalisation n’équivaut pas a une parte de la dimension sociale” (Kokosalakis 1996: 147-148). So that we can see a certain secularization of the social structures coexisting with high levels of religiosity at the individual level, and also with religious gestures performed by the state (which are not simply formal).

 5.2 Religion and national identity

The second element is the relation between religion and national identity in the Orthodox area. The classical theories of secularization did not ignore this relation, and the analysis is often concentrated on religion and nationhood “as complementary or antagonistic guardians of overall group identity and of the master symbols of belonging” (Martin 1978, 108). But, again, the Eastern area of the continent has rarely been depicted from this crucial point of view. And this is a serious lack, at least because the institution of autocephaly is quite unique in the religious picture of our continent. The term autocephalous comes from the ancient Greek and means that the body in question has its own head and is therefore independent or self-governing. The institution of autocephaly is not a 19th century invention. From the beginning, Orthodox Christianity proved more inclined to contemplation and preserved more clearly the early Christian tradition of sobornost (conciliatory or togetherness).

The Orthodox tradition also spoke in this context, of the “divinization” of man by God – a concept entirely foreign to the Western Christianity.

            The institution of autocephaly characterized the entire Orthodox area. But as far as the Romanian case is concerned, the story of the church/national identity relation is far more complicated. It began at the beginning of the 18th century in Transylvania and involved a different church, namely the Greek Catholic Church (or the so-called Uniat Church, a Church derived from the Orthodox Church). This religious policy of the Vatican “to trace the development of national consciousness and explain the nature of early modern nationalism among the Romanians of Transylvania in the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century”. The period 1700-1848 describes the gradual transformation of an identity that was initial religious and was based upon the Romanians’ membership in the international Orthodox community into one that was national and broadly European. National, but never anti-religious, anti-clerical or anti-Church.

The story is long and complex (see: Hitchins 1977, 1999, 1999a). In the final decade of the seventeenth century two events of crucial importance for the progress of the Romanians of Transylvania occurred: the political incorporation of the principality into the Habsburg Monarcy as a result of a successful war against the Ottoman Empire and a religious union of a part of the Romanian Orthodox clergy and faithful with the Roman Catholic Church[6]. The campaign to covert the Romanian Orthodox was but one aspect of the general Catholic resurgence in the Habsburg Monarchy in the latter half of the seventeenth century. On September 4, 1700, the Orthodox Metropolitan convoked a general synod, at which, the Four Articles of the Council of Florence were solemnly adopted. The Uniat Church in Transylvania has been born. On March 19, 1700 the Emperor has consecrated this religious act through the Second Leopoldine Diploma. An assessment of the church union reveals, first of all, that it brought few substantive changes to Romanian religious life. In matters of doctrine and practice, then, the two Romanian churches had remained essentially Eastern. The importance of the union for the Romanians lies, therefore, elsewhere.

What is important to understand at this point is that the most significant demand the Metropolitan Teofil – the leader of the Orthodox at that moment – made was not religious at all but political: the new Uniate, or Greek Catholic Church and its faithful should henceforth enjoy the same rights as the Roman Catholic Church and its members – the point which has been made by Teofil was that the Romanians would no longer accept second-class status, but would insist upon being “received as sons of the fatherland”.

The union – although the Uniat church was never the church of the majority of Romanians in Transylvania – could be considered the first step of Romanian modernity – at least political modernity, and had profound effects on Romanian political development. The imperial diplomas of 1699 and 1701 provided a legal foundation for the later political activity of the Romanians as a separate, distinct entity in a country whose constitution had denied them recognition as a nation. The Union also set Romanian intellectual life in a new direction. The Uniate intellectual elite were the authors and the propagators of a new idea of nation. These intellectuals had come to view the connection with Rome from a perspective that transcended religious motives to embrace an entirely new idea of community. Gradually, from a religious and political idea of nation – based primarily upon legal precedents and privileged castes -, the Romanian intellectuals developed an organic view of nation that blurred all distinctions between them except the ethnic. At the end of the 18th century, this modern conception of nation has been prevalent. In 1790, for the first time, Romanians mounted an organized political campaign, in which Uniate intellectuals were joined by their Orthodox colleagues. They even requested permission to hold a national congress under the chairmanship of the two bishops, to which members of the clergy and nobility would be invited to discuss how best the demands of the Romanian nation might be fulfilled. The Supplex Libellus Valachorum, the most important single political act of the Romanians in the eighteenth century, claimed rights for all Romanians without regard to religion, and they presented their demands on behalf of the entire Romanian nation, United and Orthodox together. From now on, the distinction between the two religions had no political importance anymore. The generation of Romanian intellectuals in Transylvania who reached maturity between 1830 and 1848 undertook to transform the Romania cultural community into a full-fledged political nation (Hitchins 1999a).

The trend on the other side of the Carpatians – Wallachia and Moldova – was the same. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Orthodox monks and bishops have been actively involved in the struggle for national rights and national education against the Fanariot (Orthodox Greeks) regime appointed by the Ottoman Empire. The slogan of the national-religious camp was that “no divine or natural law can condemn a nation for demanding its public rights” (see Georgescu 1971).

Both churches – United and Orthodox – have played a major role in 1918, when the so-called Great Romania has been achieved for the first time. In the Constitution which has been promulgated after the first World War, the two churches were called “national churches”.

5.3 State-Church relation in the Orthodox area

The third element which has to be taken into account is the relation between church and state in this area. “External domination” or “power and alternative power” are categories which are included in the general debate concerning secularization (Martin 1978). My aim here is not to offer a theory of religion and political power in Southeastern Europe, but to suggest that a particular view on the church/state relation strongly influences the position of church in society and, in the end, the process of secularization at the level of the entire community.

            The level of confidence in the Orthodox Church in polls and surveys has been constantly high after 1989 in Romania: somewhere around 80-90%, in spite of its – apparent - “collaborationism” with the communist regime. The explanation is not difficult to get, if we understand the perspective and the reaction the East Europeans had to the Communism. The communist regime has been perceived from the beginning as another “occupant” in the long series of occupants and dominant regimes, which have marked the history of this part of Europe. In order to understand the condition of the Christian church, or, more accurately, the perspective of the people on the condition of their Church, we must consider the condition of these societies at that moment. The Eastern societies were, at the beginning of the century, traditional, rural societies, with a high degree of religiosity. Religion was one of the major existential landmarks. Thus, the perspective of these societies on the political reality was, at its turn, influenced by religion – including here also their perspective on communism. And here we have a major distinction between our contemporary societies and the East European societies from the beginning of the century. Essentially, the distinction is between the religious perspective and the secular perspective on Communism.

The secular perspective on Communism – prevalent today – sees in it a totalitarian system, which is inefficient economically, socially, or politically, a regime which trespasses systematically on human rights etc., etc.; sometimes, it also notices the trespassing on the religious rights that happened in the communist societies. On the contrary, a religious perspective changes almost radically the hierarchies. Communism becomes here a political regime, which is trying to turn all values and axiologies upside down, a system which closes or destroys churches, a project that wishes to substitute a worldly leader to God and to impose the reign of Anti-Christ on earth.

In Romania, for instance, this vision was extremely powerful. The religious anti-communism was, probably, stronger in Romania than anywhere else. The fascist movement in Romania used religion and religious symbolic in the highest degree, which is very different to the similar movements in Germany, Italy or elsewhere (Dungaciu 2000). That is the main reason why the anti-Soviet propaganda was very effective and why terms like “anti-Soviet crusade”, or the “battle with Anti-Christ” were used during the ’40. Of course, we must add the geopolitical fact that Romania had a common frontier with the USSR and a better chance to be informed about what was happening in the “land of freedom”.

Today, the secular perspective is predominant but to look at the communist issue only from this secular standpoint is to simplify it. Especially when we are talking about the Christian Church after 1944, when it has found itself confronted with a regime that was denying from the start its ontological premises. This is the framework – the one of an impossible meeting – where we have to examine the relation between the Church and the communist regime after the Soviet occupation. At least as far as the situation of the Church is concerned, the saying of a recent commentator is very appropriate: “There is no communist society, but a communist domination of the society, which survives as well as it can” (Volkoff, 1991).

To talk in this context about “adaptation” or “co-optation” of the Church with the communist state, as Sabrina Ramet (1988 and 1989) – among others (see also Gillet 1997) – does, is therefore, a truism or an over-simplification. What else could the Church have done, realistically speaking? We do not have to forget that, for example, out of the 2544 prelates and religious officials that have been imprisoned in Romania, 1888 were Orthodox, 235 were Greek-Catholic, 172 Roman-Catholic, 67 Protestants, 25 Neo-Protestants, 23 Muslim, and 13 Jewish (Caravia et al., 1999).

The real question is this: in a government of terror does a Church do better or worse if it compromises with the State? To get sacraments to the people it needed a legal status. To have a legal status it had to do what the State wanted and not to criticize the policy or the leaders of the State. If this was humiliation, a prelate must sometimes put up with humiliation or the necessity for flattery of politicians because the higher good was that the people should get the sacraments and the faith which they needed. Patriarch Alexei in Moscow, Patriarh Justinian in Bucharest, Patriarh Kiril in Bulgaria, the Lutheran Bishop Schönherr in East Berlin and the Lutheran archbishops in Latvia and Estonia all “helped their Churches by a certain willingness to play along with the State”; that is, “to make the best of a bad situation, to get such freedom for the Church as were still allowed, and in return to lay on courtesy or flattery for the State leaders, so that the State regarded the Church, however lamentable and backward, as a help to it in being accepted by some of the people” (Chadwick, 1993: 69). The question Owen Chadwick asked still remains: “It is really the higher good to be silent in the face of injustice?”. An open question… It is certain, anyway, that all the churches that were majority churches in their countries have chosen the co-operation and not the overt opposition[7].

This “solution” – compromises for sacraments – has been adopted, in fact, everywhere in Eastern Europe: Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox areas. Compromise was and is, in fact, the condition of the Church in this area. Or, at least, this is what many people still believe even today. And this interpretation is still prevalent and could be an explanation for the high level of trust that Orthodox Church has been accredited with after 1990.


The main purpose of this text is to call attention upon a theme that is important for the Eastern sociology of religion at the beginning of the century, both from the point of view of its substance and its up-to-dateness (the high interest raised by similar matters elsewhere can be a proof). This is the theme of the religiosity and secularization in the Christian Orthodox contemporary area, one of the least analyzed regions, in spite of its closeness to the West and of the relatively high accessibility, given the number of elements of similitude and cultural evolution.

            Anyway, if the moderns have been unique in history in conceiving a sacredless world, obviously this is not the case with the Orthodox societies. 

The main argument of my paper – and, additionally, I have tried to suggest some possible explanations for that – is that we cannot talk about a European modernity as such, because, from the point of view of religion, there are at least two models of modernization – and modernities – in Europe: the first one is typical for the Western Europe, the second one for the South-Eastern Europe (the Orthodox area). The process of modernization in Mitteleuropa could be a third model, although is rather an intermediary model between the two.

            Anyway, there is a lot of work to do in the future in order to clarify the complex picture of the religious past and present of our continent.



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— (2003), “What the secularization paradigm rally says”, paper presented at Religiosity in the secularized world, 12th annual conference of the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft objektive Hermeneutik” - Frankfurt am Main/Germany.

Caravia, Paul / Constantinescu, Virgiliu, Stănescu, Flori (1999), The Imprisoned Church. Romania 1944-1989, Bucureşti: Academia Română, Institutul Naţional de Studiu al Totalitarismului.

Carras, Costas (1998) “The Orthodox Church and politics in a Post-communist World”, in P. Kitromilides and Th. Veremis (eds.), The Orthodox Church in a Changing World, Helenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, Centre for Asia Minor Studies, Athens, pp. 15-38.

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— (2001a) Europe. An Exceptional Case, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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— (2001) “Nihil Obstat? Religion and Nationalism in Romania During and After the Communist Regime - some methodological considerations”, in Religion and Patterns of Social Transformation, The International Study of Religin in Eastern and Central Europe Association, Zagreb (forthcoming).

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(1996) Traditional Religion in Late Modernity, mss., 1996.

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[1] It is worth remembering here a famous episode, which is very relevant for a general attitude and a general frame of mind. An example is offered by the Costas Carras, a Greek historian established in the Great Britain after the second World War. At the beginning of the sixties, he attempted to publish a letter from Russia, describing the sufferings inflicted to the Church by the persecutions and the terror unleashed by Hrusciv – the most terrible from the great Stalin terror of the fourth decade. The British press reacted with a constant refuse to publish the letter, the editors putting forward different reasons for this: The Times had a new correspondent in Moscow, whose position would have jeopardized, Daily Telegraph considered that its readers are not interested by religion; The Guardian had published shortly before an article about the harassment of the Orthodox Church and they didn’t want to come back to the matter so soon; and, finally, Encounter, considered an anti-Soviet magazine offered, through its representative, both the worst and the best explanations for not publishing the letter; “It does the Church good to be persecuted!” In the end, the only publication interested in the letter was the English language Russian catholic weekly, The Tablet. But it gave the whole thing the meaning that the critical position of the authors was because they were already on the road to Rome… (Carras 1998, 17-20).

[2] See: Wilson 2001, Bruce 2001, Bruce 2003, Martin 1978.

[3] I am not going to reify or to essentialise the concept of “Orthodox culture” - or to suggest a sort of Spenglerian – civilization versus culture – dichotomy (a more or less essentialist approach). What I am trying to do is to remind that modernity has been different in Eastern Europe in the sense that it has not been something “organic”. Modernity is a Western invention. This is a truism, but one that we sometimes forget.

[4] I mean a strong dynamic and credible NRM. As national censuses prove, many of these movements are, in many cases, accepted by the populations for political or economical reasons.

[5] The temptation to fuse nation and Church has its own historical mythology in Romania. The idea that “the Romanian people was born Christian” has gone on to identity with Orthodox Christianity. The claim that he apostle Andrew preached in Dobrogea (part of Romania) is very strong and popular today and this is why now he is starting to be venerated as patron saint of Romania. Leaving aside the fact that the “birth” of a people is a highly mythological concept, and in the face of the paucity of source material we ought to be more cautious, we have to take into account that this view (perspective), as a historical discourse, is much more ambitious and prevalent in its manifestations nowadays.

[6] The Romanians formed in the 18th century a sizable proportion of the population of Transylvania: the conscription of 1721 showed 46,138 Romanian households subject to taxation, which represented almost 49% of the total of such households, and at the end of the century the number of Romanians was something over 50% of the total population. The exclusion of the Romanians from the ranks of the political nations was based in the first instance upon the criterion of social class.

[7] Only two famous cases here, described by the same author. After more than seventeen years of imprisonment, in 1963 the Uniat metropolitan Slipyj was released on the condition that he did not talk. He went into exile at Rome and, in 1971, as Pope Paul VI moved for reconciliation with the East, Slipyj “could hold his peace no longer”. He talked of the “cruel destruction of his Church”. Speaking in Rome, he “denounced the Vatican for its silence and failure to protest at the persecution of the Uniats by the Russians”. Lately Paul VI sent representatives to the Moscow council to pay respects at the election of the new Patriarch of Moscow, Pimen. There Pimen had declared the old union of the Ukrainians with Rome, the so-called Union of Brest-Litovsk, to be null and void. Yet not a single Roman Catholic present protested at this speech (Ibid. 54). In the name of something more important, Slipyj’ voice had to be ignored…

More interesting is the case of Jozsef Mindszenty, one of the most extraordinary prelates of the twentieth century. After October 1956 – the Hungarian Revolution -, he remained in the American embassy at Budapest for fifteen years. In 1971, his presence hampered friendship between Hungary and the United States. The Pope ordered him to come out. His speeches in the West against communism caused some Hungarian bishops to ask Rome to silence him. Pope did not allow him to publish his memoir – it could aggravate the predicament of the Hungarian church. However, Mindszenty published his memoirs, the only autobiography of a cardinal to end with an pitiless attack upon his Pope (Ibid.).

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