Financing Churches in Slovakia: Debate and Dilemma
by Lubomir Martin Ondrasek, special contributor
A fairly large portion of the Slovak public believes that an inordinately important concern of churches — especially the dominant Roman Catholic Church — is to pursue their economic interest and extend political influence. As a result, Slovak churches face a serious challenge: In the process of negotiations with the government concerning economic security, the decline of trust could turn into a full-blown crisis of confidence, with possibly irreversible consequences for churches.
Under the current system, the state pays the wages of the clergy, even though it does not regulate the number of clergy hired each year. Over the last decade, state expenditures for registered churches that have exercised their legal right to receive funding (13 out of 18) have more than doubled. Yet, in order not to be viewed as interfering with the church’s internal affairs and thus compromising religious freedom, the state has not tried to influence policies regarding the church and its clergy.
Changing the system of direct state financing of churches and religious societies is currently the most pertinent and widely discussed issue concerning state-church relations in Slovakia. The present system of financing of churches and religious societies is problematic and untenable in the long run, but the absence of social consensus and political will has precluded its replacement with a more appropriate model. The law that governs the financing — passed shortly after the forced nationalization of church property by the Communist Party — has been in effect since 1949, though the model of direct state support of churches stretches back to the eighteenth century. This long history indicates that any fundamental change in the financing model, which would be derived from the doctrine of strict separation of church and state, is unrealistic and, to many Slovaks, also undesirable.
In February 2011, Daniel Krajcer, the Minister of Culture of the Slovak Republic, met with representatives of the registered churches, taking the first step toward fulfilling the government’s commitment, in cooperation with the churches, to “open an all-society dialogue on the problematic issues of funding the churches.” This meeting represents an official attempt to identify and implement a mutually suitable financing model. Although there is no guarantee that this effort will prove more successful than previous attempts, both the state and the churches are better equipped to bring this task to fruition than ever before. Considering the social, religious, and political contexts surrounding the debate, it may be several years before a sufficiently broad consensus is reached and a new model of financing takes effect.
Recent discussions indicate that Slovakia will not indiscriminately copy foreign financing models, even though these models — especially the European ones — are being carefully considered. Most likely, the state will continue to subsidize religious schools, restoration and preservation of church buildings that represent national cultural heritage, wages of clergy serving in the armed forces, and various public benefit activities for the foreseeable future.
The new model will probably affect the two most controversial aspects of the current system of financing: clergy salaries and financial support for the operational costs of denominational headquarters. Undoubtedly, Slovak churches will have to rely more heavily on self-financing, but their revenue will likely continue to be indirectly supplemented by the state through a church tax or tax assignation.
Since the model of financing churches through a church tax (i.e., an additional tax imposed by the state on believers) is unpopular in Slovakia, its establishment would almost certainly lead to an outflow of members from traditional churches, as recently witnessed in Germany and Austria. Thus, the most feasible model appears to be tax assignation. In this case, every citizen would be required to designate a specific percentage of their income tax to one of the recognized churches or other previously approved cultural or charitable organizations.
Though the Slovaks’ trust of the institutional church seems to be gradually declining, they are not withdrawing their church affiliation, as has happened in some Western European countries. However, the Slovak churches must now realize that the challenge is not only economic but also ethical.
About the image: The Catholic church tower in Bratislava, Slovakia. (photo: Riviera Kid/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Encountering Min and Mao
Shubha Bala, associate producer
Being new on the staff, I love hearing older programs that are new to me. Preparing for the Mayfair Yang show this week, Krista mentioned a past conversation with author Anchee Min, whose name came up again the next day when we received a copy of her latest book, Pearl of China.
“I was awarded by the school and the principal and the entire district, the neighborhood, with red color, the certificate of Mao’s Good Child. And I was so proud. I was the child, the best child in the neighborhood, and yet my mother refused to put that certificate on the wall. She was not happy and told me she wants to disown me. And I was very confused. But she said something. She said, ‘Your father and I are teachers. Imagine if our student come up and denounce us, how I feel?’ She instill this common sense in me that conflict with my vanity and my devotion to Mao’s words.”
She also reflects on embracing her identity as an adult:
“I feel that I am more Chinese in America than I could feel if I was in China. You know, the moment I step on my motherland in China, my guard will be up. I talk differently, behave differently.”
Her conversation touches on the Buddhist traditions of her grandparents, her mother hiding her Christianity even to her own daughter, and on the weight of choice in her life:
“…when I learned that my brother and my sister were rejected by American visas, and the American Consulate says that the only chance that they can come to America is to study is to have me go back, to exchange, which means I would go back to China for good, and I was not able to quit, you know, what I had achieved here. And that was a very selfish act. And after I made that decision, then I talked to my father. I said, ‘I couldn’t live with it.’ So I told my father that I want to come and to let my sister have the chance. And my father says, ‘No way, because you come home that doesn’t mean that they will get the visa, and that you will lose your visa for good. And my biggest fear is if China were to ever have a conflict with America, you will be the first person to be denounced as American spy.’ So, I ended up staying here.”
The Fall of the Wall, JFK’s Assassination, and Two Birthdays
Krista Tippett, host
I was born on the night John F. Kennedy was elected president: November 9, 1960. To be more precise, the election itself was on November 8, but I was born in the wee hours of the night, in a long ago age before computerized returns, as his slim victory became apparent. My father paced the halls of the hospital with a transistor radio at his ear. He was a member of our local Oklahoma chapter of Young Democrats. He told me that I was the handsome president’s personal good luck charm. And so the Camelot president’s assassination is the earliest memory I recall — too early, some say, for me to really remember it, but I know I do. I can still feel the panic of the adults around me and the terrible sense that somehow I had failed.
Two decades later, I ended up spending most of the 1980s, most of my 20s, in a city that kept Kennedy’s memory alive like no other. He remained the unparalleled icon of the charismatic America that had rushed to Berlin’s side as the barbed wire beginnings of the Wall closed around it on August 13, 1961. I wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times when the Berlin Wall hit the quarter-century mark in 1986. By that time, it was 12-feet high — and two walls actually, with a no man’s land in between, scattered with tank traps, its every inch monitored by men with binoculars and guns. It wouldn’t be right to say that the Wall had gained acceptance in either of the German worlds it sliced apart. But it had become part of the fabric of reality, of life and imagination. And what really kept it standing was a rock-solid, ingrown fear — a faith, if you will — that the mighty Soviet Union would send in its tanks if those men with guns ever fell down on the job.
Gorbachev inspired a completely different kind of faith, one which evaporated that fear and revealed the Wall for what it was — slabs of concrete and asbestos manned by border guards, who were human beings, after all, and could not possibly resist the peaceful crush of the entire city of East Berlin moving towards them, unafraid, on the night of November 9, 1989. And so it was on my 29th birthday that I learned, stepping off an airplane in Oklahoma, that the wall had opened up.
The suddenness of the Wall’s fall utterly defied the imagination of everyone living closest to it. Even with Gorbachev, and the political changes that rolled across Eastern Europe in the mid-80s, no one really believed it could open up from one day to the next. I recently learned that one of my great friends and colleagues from those years, John Tagliabue of The New York Times, spent the evening of November 9 watching television in a hotel room in Warsaw with the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was as stupefied by the turn of events as anyone else. I could never have imagined that I would one day walk across a bridge that had separated me by less than a mile from an East German family I loved, but had been an impassable border zone throughout our friendship.
Or that I would stroll through the inner wall and the outer wall minus the tank traps, as people chiseled and hammered out pieces to sell or to save for posterity. Nor could I have anticipated the magical reunion I would have with some East German artist friends in Austria for the Christmas of 1989. I would be there as they and their children saw mountains for the first time.
I hold these memories as a reminder that there is at any given moment much we don’t see, and more change possible than we can begin to imagine. I recently had a lovely conversation, that will air on our show in early December, with Bill McKibben. He and I are exact contemporaries; we were both born in 1960 and in college for the same four years. In 1989, he was publishing The End of Nature — the first book about the then-obscure subject of climate change. As I learned from him, though, the science of climate change had begun to emerge at the height of the Cold War. Already in 1957, two scientists at the Scripps Institution described their findings that humanity had initiated an unprecedented “geophysical experiment” that it might not survive. And if humanity is around to write history in a century or two, what was happening with the climate in 1960 and 1989 may dwarf what we perceived as the great dramas we were living through.
I draw caution as well as hope from the fact that history tends to surprise us. And I think I’ve had enough historically momentous birthdays for one lifetime.
It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll
Kate Moos, Managing Producer
Tom Stoppard’s new play “Rock-n-Roll” is getting mixed reviews here, but tickets are scarce, so I was thrilled when my friend Chris scored some for us. This is Stoppard’s chronicle of the intersection of pop culture and politics in then-Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution.
Stoppard, I learned from the program notes, was born in the Czech town of Zlin, where I — highly coincidentally — have a close friend, Hannah, who grew up there. Hannah, much younger than Stoppard, is a devout Catholic, for theological and political reasons (the Catholic Church was a staunch form of dissidence in parts of the East bloc).
I remember Hannah telling me about the day her father called her into the kitchen for an earnest, whispered confession. He apologized to her for not joining the Communist Party because he knew it would limit her chances, and he pleaded with her to stop going to Mass. Her teachers, the secret police, the Party, knew of it, and if she persisted, she would be sent to work at the shoe factory, and never be allowed an education.
Stoppard’s play is a history of the world many people alive today have never heard of. The Plastic People of the Universe, one of the world’s most obscure rock and roll bands, and Western rock, carry the zeitgeist of revolution and resistance, and their consequent cynicism and despair, in the final years of the Soviet Union. It’s a story that matters.