CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


June 17-20, 2004 - Baylor University, Waco, Texas

Romanian Challenges to Religious Pluralism: The Churches and the State

by Cristian G. Romocea
A paper presented at CESNUR 2004 international conference, Baylor University, Waco (Texas), June 18-20, 2004 - Preliminary version - Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

Increasing criticism and concern is heard today from the Romanian intellectuals’ quarter about the growing public activity of the Romanian Orthodox Church, about its anti-democratic, nationalist discourse, but moreover about the political manipulation of the Orthodox Church and its hierarchy at the hands of various political parties or leaders in post-Communist Romania.[1] Yet from the same quarter we often hear an appeal for more publicly active Romanian churches, particularly in terms of a spiritual social presence which would ensure the moral regeneration of the Romanian society.[2]

In response, various Romanian theologians have expressed their views on the roe of the Church in the modern nation-state with European aspirations. The spectrum of these responses ranges from radical views on the establishment of a theocratic state, to more liberal perspectives which begin to envisage the constructive integration of the churches into the modern Romanian society.

My attempt here is to relate the expectations of the Romanian state to the perspective of the Orthodoxy on the relationship between Church and State and to suggest what the nature of that relationship would have to entail in a democratic Romanian society. In this short presentation, the underlying argument will be that most of these expectations spring from an ideological stance rather than from a position grounded on a thorough evaluation of the current social and political context or from an understanding of the important role played by the religious communities in the vision of a democratic Europe in which extreme radical views and National Churches do not fare well.


The collapse of communism in the countries of the Eastern block has been perceived as a great liberating event marking the beginning of a new Central and Eastern Europe. This change brought about the formation of new states, the rediscovery of buried cultural traditions as well as the resurgence of old ideologies. In Romania, a country where some argued that the communist dictatorship was one of the most repressive in the whole of the Eastern block, liberation did not come through a non-violent change of government but had to be secured with sacrifice of human life. Of all the countries that have rid of communism at the dawn of the 9th decade of the 20th century, many expected Romania to become the example of a transition to a democratic society primarily because of the human sacrifice which was involved in attaining freedom from oppression.

More than thirteen years later, Romania is far behind most other Central and Eastern European countries in the struggle to make that transition possible, to limit and control the unprecedented corruption at the societal, institutional and governmental levels, to achieve a viable implementation of the market economy, or to convince international organizations such as the European Union that democracy has been correctly understood by this country.

Various political analysts and thinkers have suggested that the crumbling of the totalitarian regime has given rise in the Romanian society to political debates which are reminiscent of the inter-war period. The general argument for this phenomenon is that over 40 years, the totalitarian political leadership prevented the Romanian society from coming to terms with the political debate which animated the inter-war Romanian milieu. In the midst of the ideological turmoil, the polarization of the political ideologies which was known between 1920s and 1940s as the ‘national debate’ remerged ever more vigorously, and led to their exacerbation in Romania’s political landscape. The polarization I am referring to here is between the liberal tendencies of the supporters of the Europeanization and (nowadays) postmodernization, supporters of a Romanian democratization after the European model with leftist political inclinations on the one hand, and the supporters of a nationalist political agenda with a strong autochthonous, collectivist and authoritarian corporatist tendencies with political right affinities on the other hand.

Among the two factors contributing to the emblematic “national debate” of the inter-war Romania, Orthodoxy had an important place to play. One was the formation of the Greater Romania (1918) which had a major contribution to the influx of Orthodox nationalist propaganda. The second was the challenge that secularism and modernity posed to the transformation of the authoritarian Romanian society.[3]

The struggle of the traditionalist partisans with nationalist inclinations against the liberal intellectuals with democratic ideals led to the establishment of radical versions of mystical religious nationalism which often took the form of xenophobia, and particularly anti-Semitism. Among the most illustrious intellectual representatives of these tendencies were Nichifor Crainic and the publication “Gândirea”, and Nae Ionescu and the newspaper “Cuvântul”. Their contribution was to radicalize the young Romanian intelligentsia through the “right-wing spirit” ideology coupled with forms of nationalist mysticism.

Many theologians and clerics have been co-opted in this attempt at politicizing Orthodox Christianity, whose proposals included the creation of an ethnocratic corporatist Romanian state.[4] The task of implementing this political program in the inter-war Romania was presented to Corneliu Z. Codreanu, the leader of the infamous “Legion of St. Michael the Archangel”. Later called the “Iron Guard”, Codreanu’s legionary association became a religio-political movement and represented the sort of neo-pagan nationalism that would concretize under communism. The doctrinal essence of the Iron Guard was its Orthodox Christian fundamentalism and nationalism rather than its other typically fascist traits. Its followers militated for the transformation of Romania into a legionary national state, ethnically purified, Orthodox fundamentalist in nature and with pro-German affinities.[5]

By 1938 the Romanian King Charles II liquidated the democratic regime by subduing all democratic parties and establishing a Romanian monarchy. This coup (overthrow) was particularly important because as the King needed a prime minister to support his political actions, he chose Patriarch Miron Cristea. The Patriarch was outspoken in his denunciation of political pluralism, and during the inaugural speech he reiterated his contempt for the 29 political parties which were “to blame for the country’s lack of clarity of vision.”[6] King Charles II’s National Renewal Front did not last more than two years, being replaced by Codreanu’s Iron Guard (1940-41), but the lasting consequence of this tumultuous period for the Church’s relation to the State was crucial.

Almost the entire generation of theologians produced by the inter-war period was fascinated with the ethnocratic ideology. Even some of the most reputed scholars such as Father Dumitru Stniloae were drawn into the nationalist right-wing ideology.[7] The basis of this ethnocratic ideology was the common identity inherent of the three-fold structure represented by the Orthodox Church, the Nation and the State. Ethnocratic Orthodoxy was supposed to provide the reconciling element between a corporatist society and a totalitarian political leadership.[8] Thus, it was thought that a nationalist and corporatist Orthodoxy would offer the theologico-political solution to the inter-war social dilemma between liberal capitalist individualism and communist collectivism.

The recurrent feature of this Orthodox ethnocracy was a polemical and highly critical attitude towards the West, towards modernity, democracy and liberalism. All the intellectual and cultural values that were connected with the Western civilization, such as rationalism, individualism, universality, and so on, were discredited as forms of atheism. On the opposite, aspects of Marxist-Leninist collective mysticism such as homogeneity, fusion and totalitarian integration became elements bearing the substance of the Orthodox faith.

Little resistance was exhibited from other Orthodox theologians in regards to this national or moreover European euphoria generated by the seduction of extreme ideologies in the first half of the twentieth century. Moderate Romanian theologians and secular intellectuals who emerged as safeguarding a balanced ideological position through alternative forms of thinking such as “desperate activism” and “resigned historicism” made little impact to this ideological polarization.[9] It was for these reasons that by December 1947, when communists seized full political control of Romania, the terms “Orthodox” and “Romanian” were virtually interchangeable, giving a sort of continuity to the centuries-old relation of the Church to the ruler or the state.


The “national debate” of the inter-war Romania provides the starting point for the post 1989 expressions of the Church-state relations in Romania. In view of the association of the Orthodox Church with the nationalist, ethnocentric tendencies, various Romanian intellectuals have criticized the increasing activity of the churches in the social and political background of the emerging democratic society. The representatives of the civil society, political analysts and over-night experts in religious problems found themselves militating for a limitation of the Church’s activity in the society to a mere symbolic role.

In defense, theological voices like those of Orthodox Professor Radu Preda criticized the duplicitary propensity in the intellectuals’ arguments over the Church-state relationship in democracy[10]. One the one hand, he notes, secular thinkers herald a new age of Eastern and Central European ecumenism and religious pluralism in which the activist social and political presence of the churches in society is regarded as an abuse and as a clear indication of fundamentalism. On the other hand, however, the Romanian state arguably violates one of the crucial features of democracy, i.e. its commitment to pluralism, by playing a deterministic role in the drafting of the limits of the religious activity in society, and by concealing the state’s own intolerance and lack of commitment to pluralism through its attitude towards the churches. However, the inherent problem with such argumentation is, in my view, less of legislative nature and more related to the Orthodox fears that their elitist status as National Church is threatened by religious pluralism.

The ideological tension which emerges from these conflicting opinions has often been perceived as irreconcilable and has led to a fracture of the constructive dialogue between the Church and the State in post-communist Romania and, as George Baconsky suggested, it provides grounds for increasing polemics among the intellectuals.[11]


Before going any further, we must question the claim that Romanian intellectuals of the post-1989 era do indeed retain such dualism in their Church-state perception. The dramatic societal changes undergone by Romania placed almost from the very beginning the Church in the midst of the events following the collapse of Ceausescu’s regime. The prominence of the Neoprotestant pastors who led into public prayer masses of street protesters in various cities of Romania and the presence of the Orthodox Church clerics at the formation of the first interim political leadership, at the opening of various institutions, the erection of new buildings and monuments, seemed to indicate that the churches do have an important role, even if symbolical, in the transition of the society towards a liberal democracy.

Nonetheless, judging from the churches’ oscillation between complete disregard for the social and political realm and uncritical support and endorsement of the political decisions of various governments, as well as between negative attitudes towards pluralism and democracy and formal support for the country’s commitment to European integration, we can conclude that both the churches and the state experience a profound lack of direction.

It is possible, in my view, that the political polarization has led to extreme statements from the intellectuals regarding the Church’s relation to the state. Thus, the Romanian Orthodox Church has been criticized for exerting no real presence in society and politics, yet when Bishop Bartholomeu Anania demanded in 1998 for priestly political involvement and proposed that clergy would advise believers to vote parties that retain a Christian ideology, i.e. the Christian Democrats, the Orthodox Church came under harsh criticism.[12] Victim of conspiracy theories and speculative thinking, reputed political analysts like Alina Mungiu-Pippidi feared the resurgence of a form of Iron Guard fascist movement, and suggestions have been made even of hidden plans of the Orthodox Church to force the establishment of a theocratic Romanian state.[13]

Furthermore, it has been argued that Orthodoxy is a threat to Romania’s modernization and democratization.[14] This argument went as far as to argue that the complete removal of the Romanian Orthodox Church from public life would represent the ideal solution to the legislative integration of Romania in the European Union.[15]

True, after forty years of oppressive communism and Marxist ideology, the events of December 1989 found the Orthodox Church still reticent to modernity. Many were disappointed about the way in which churches missed the opportunity to become the regenerating factor in the confused society of the 1990s. The Orthodox Church closed itself in ritual liturgies, the Greek Catholics were too busy regaining their buildings from the Orthodox, while the Protestants and the Neoprotestants, lacking reasonable forms of social thinking, were concerned with the soul-saving business thus loosing the chance to become a real social presence.

              However, there are attempts at reform and ideological cleansing among the Orthodox quarter. After the collapse of the communist regime, the Orthodox Church’s leadership repented and confessed its lack of courage in defending the Church, asking for forgiveness for the concessions made during communism in order to survive.[16] Any clergy who have been sanctioned for political reasons were consequently reinstated.[17] Less than a year after the anti-communist revolt, the Orthodox Church declared for the first time in its history full autonomy from the Romanian state, banning any interference of the secular state with the bishops’ elections or in other matters of religious administration.[18] At the same time, Metropolitan Daniel and Father D. Staniloae initiated the “Reflection Group for the Renewal of the Church” which began to address the need for renewal of the Church’s hierarchy, teaching, administration and relationship to the Romanian society.[19]

Notwithstanding these attempts at renewal and separation between the Church and the State, the Orthodox legacy of identification with Romanian nationalism continues to represent a major challenge today. In reference to this relationship alone, the Romanian Orthodox Church is often thought to be permeated more by nationalism and pragmatism than by critical theological reflection.[20] Although considered autonomous towards the Romanian state, the Church demands subsidies for the Orthodox clergy from the government. Moreover, the National Congress of the Church held in 1994, reiterated in the article two of the Orthodox Church Constitution its status as “national, autocephalous, and united in its organization” thus a National Church.

               Various statements issued by the Orthodox clergy in Romania illustrate the degree to which they perceive the separation from the state. Bishop Gherasim of Suceava expressed his support for the political involvement of the clergy arguing that “the Church was actually never separated from the state… Where the ruler was, there the prelate was, too.”[21] From such attitudes we can conclude that the Orthodox Church has not come to the point of understanding that clear and unabridged separation of the church from the state is the mark of a real democracy.

Finally, therefore, the Orthodox as well as all other Romanian churches have the responsibility of escaping the ideological vortex which draws them in a compromising position in the current political order. They must express their allegiance to the well-being of the Romanian society not just at the individual level but by developing their social and political thinking. Their flirting and fascination with political power must be exchanged for a devotion to State separation, while nationalist propaganda must be replaced with critical theological reflection. The religious community ought to broaden its understanding of democracy and liberalism. To be capable to exercise a positive social role, the Romanian churches must learn to avoid fighting on the side of their national group, employing faith as a weapon in the struggle. To prevent such situations, theologians and laity should become actively involved in ecumenical cooperation and dialogue with the civil society….


The Romanian secular intellectuals, political analysts and social psychologists must express their commitment to a thorough evaluation of the intrinsic ideologies and often dualist approaches to religious life, translated in a commitment to securing the expression of the religious, ethnic and cultural diversity of Romania. The irreversible commitment of the Romanian state to European integration urges us to renounce the ideological and duplicitary approaches to Church - State relations and to become truly concerned with building a democratic society committed to religious pluralism. A democratic society must support the transformation of the churches into an important factor to the process of renewing old mentalities and recurring ideologies, and to the development of their critical theological reflection in relation to the social and political thinking.

[1] Andrei Plesu, Dilema Nr. 203, 1996. See also Ioan Ica Jr., Dilema Sociala a BOR: Radiografia unei probleme.

[2] Andrei Marga, Speech, June, 2002.

[3] Zigu Ornea, Anii Treizeci: Extrema Dreaptă Românească (The Thirtees: The Extreme Romanian Right-wing), (Bucureşti: Editura Fundaţiei Culturale Române, 1995). Especially the first two chapters: Democracy and Rationalism under Accusation; Romanianess and Autochthonism.

[4] See Nichifor Crainic, Ortodoxie şi Etnocraţie (Orthodoxy and Ethnocracy), (Bucureşti: Editura Albatros, 1997).

[5] Ibid, pp. 240-71.

[6] Ornea, Anii Treizeci, Op. cit., p. 314.

[7] Dumitru Stăniloae, Ortodoxie şi Românism (Orthodoxy and Romanianess), (Bucureşti: Editura Albatros, 1998).

[8] Crainic, Ortodoxie şi Etnocraţie, Op. cit.

[9] Mircea Vulcănescu, Către Fiinţa Spiritualităţii Româneşti: Dimensiunea Românească a Existenţei, v. 3 (Towards the Being of the Romanian Spirituality: The Romanian Dimension of Existence), (Bucureşti: Editura Eminescu, 1996), pp. 30-45, 46-52.

[10] Radu Preda, Biserica in Stat: O invitatie la dezbatere (Editura Scripta, 1999).

[11] Baconsky, Dilema, Nr. 183, 1996, p. 11.

[12] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Church and State in Eastern Europe, EECR, v. 7, 1998.

[13] Op. cit. for Iron Guard.

[14] I. P. Culianu, “Duşmanii Caputalismului”(The Enemies of Capitalism) in Mircea Eliade (Bucureşti: Editura Nemira, 1995), pp. 169-74. See also “Ku Klux Klan Ortodox” in Meridian, May-June, 1990, p. 64.

[15] Gabriel Andreescu, “Relaţii Internaţionale şi Ortodoxie în Estul şi Sud-Estul Europei” (International Relations and Orthodoxy in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe), in Studii Internaţionale, No. 4, 1998, pp. 3-32.

[16] “Romanian Patriarch asks for forgiveness” in BBC News, available online: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/643898.stm.

[17] World Council of Churches, “Orthodox Church Admits Mistakes in Romania” in The Word, April 1990, 29-30.

[18] Romanian Church Seeks to Cleanse Itself” in Christian Century, April 3, 1991, 357-8.

[19] “Innoiri in Biserica Ortodoxa” (tr. Renewal within the Orthodox Church) in Romania Libera, Jan, 14, 1990, 2.

[20] See Paul Negrut, Biserica si Statul (tr. Church and State) Oradea: Emanuel, 2000.

[21] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, Ibid,.

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