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East European Perspectives: March 7, 2001

7 March 2001, Volume 3, Number 5

The Church In Post-Communist Public Affairs

Encouraged by the post-communist religious revival, the Romanian Orthodox Church proved to be a constant public voice and a strong advocate for religious solutions to various civil issues. Some of the issues addressed by the Romanian Orthodox Church (BOR) during the last decade include parliamentary representation for the Orthodox hierarchy; introduction of compulsory religion courses at all pre-university educational levels; upholding a ban on homosexual behavior; an anti-abortion campaign; and the restitution of the property seized by the communist state from Greek Catholics and transferred to the BOR.

Political Representation For The Orthodox Church

In mid-1998, years after the Church's failed intervention with President Ion Iliescu to grant synod members seats in the country's senate, Archbishop Anania made two public requests. The first asked the synod to endorse the political involvement of priests as electoral advisers to the public. Dissatisfied with the quality of the country's politicians, whom he called "the unwanted who rule us," Anania proposed that the BOR select candidates for parliamentary mandates, and that priests urge believers during sermons to vote for people whom the Church trusts. Though formulated by one of the most conservative Orthodox leaders, the proposal was endorsed by progressive figures such as Metropolitan Nicolae Corneanu, who agreed that "the Church cannot support a specific party, since this move would alienate the other parties' followers, but priests may have political preferences and behave accordingly." Corneanu further explained that the BOR "can neither be apolitical, as some fear, not involved in political partisanship, as some wish," since it "must have a word to say in what goes on in the world, society and daily life" ("Evenimentul zilei," 12 April 1998). But many Romanians suggested that the Church should stick to religious affairs.

Much more controversial was Anania's second proposal, which reiterated the BOR's earlier request for state authorities to recognize all synod members as senators. Orthodox clergy overwhelmingly endorsed the Church's political involvement as natural, since as one clergyman put it, "the Church was actually never separated from the state. Wherever the ruler was, there the prelate was, too" (Mungiu-Pippidi 1998, p. 88). Church leaders did not conceal their disappointment when political leaders showed reluctance to embrace the proposal, especially since Orthodox leaders believed that their tacit support brought the new rulers to power. Bishop Ioachim of Husi insisted that a BOR legislative presence was nothing short of a moral obligation for state authorities ("Evenimentul zilei," 4 April 1999). Metropolitan Daniel Ciobotea of Moldova deplored the fact that the BOR "has been supported less by the current regime than by the Iliescu regime" (Mungiu-Pippidi 1998, p. 88). Critics pointed out that, if adopted, such a proposal could bring considerable damage to the fragile Romanian democracy. Father Ioan Dura maintained that these de jure senators would be, in fact, lifetime senators, since Orthodox priests are not required to retire. The 27-member synod would be a formidable parliamentary faction with unmatched political influence, due to the Church's moral standing and unparalleled village and town penetration, and, against the background of a growing loss of popularity suffered by political parties and politicians as a result of their perceived inability to solve the country's transitional problems. Even commentators usually uncritical of the BOR expressed doubts about the proposal. Journalist Dan Ciachir wrote that "the Church should have a voice in parliament, but the proposed solution seems non-viable" ("Evenimentul zilei," 4 April 1999).

Since Anania first voiced the proposal, a group of Orthodox members of parliament have prepared a draft law allowing for Orthodox leaders to become senators. But to date the parliament failed to discuss the draft. Extremist Greater Romania Party (PRM) leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor and Virgil Magureanu, the controversial former director of the Romanian Intelligence Service, endorsed the proposal, but more credible Romanian politicians either kept silent on the subject or refused to support it. The party representing the Transylvanian Hungarian community had strong reservations.

The Romanian Orthodox Church And Education

The resumption of pre-university religious education after decades of officially backed atheistic propaganda was one of the earliest post-communist demands of the BOR. In 1990, both the new minister of religious affairs, Nicolae Stoicescu, and the synod stated their decision to encourage the introduction of religious education at all pre-university levels. The same demand was formulated by the Group of Reflection on Church Renewal, set up earlier in an effort to craft a new image for the Church and do away with the conservatism of a hierarchy tainted by collaboration with the communists. An optional religion class, for which pupils were not to be graded, was to be included in the curricula of elementary and high schools. The basics to be taught in class were to be selected by a synod-appointed mixed commission of clergymen and lay people. Defending the proposal, Stoicescu argued that religious education would contribute to the moral recovery of the nation, and Metropolitan Ciobotea explained that religious education was needed because "atheistic humanism cannot be replaced by a nihilist, indifferent and confused humanism" (Radio Romania, 24 January 1990). But the request was met with mixed feelings outside Orthodox circles. Some intellectuals opposed the idea of compulsory religious education altogether, while others criticized the poor quality of religious instruction and of related literature.

Compared to what it set out to accomplish, the Church met with limited success in its attempt to institutionalize pre-university religious education. To its chagrin, the July 1995 Law on Education made religion classes compulsory only in elementary schools. But the BOR was able to benefit from the legislators' oversight to make room for a non-religious or philosophical alternative. Financial constraints and lack of specialized teachers have meant that elementary schools offer religion classes mostly taught by Orthodox priests. While this shortcoming ran counter to the non-Orthodox parents' right to provide their children with education consonant with their beliefs, it allowed the BOR to make its doctrine, history, and world view known to a larger audience. The high school level faces the same practical constraints, but high school students can refuse to take the weekly religion class, even if this means no religious instruction at all. This has been their preferred choice since September 1997, when religion classes were first offered. While the study of Orthodoxy failed to spark interest among young members of the country's dominant religious community, Protestant and Catholic religion classes have been popular with ethnic Hungarian and German students. Ethnic schools, however, remain subject to restrictions, and confessional schools cannot be set up for the time being. Disappointed that religion was optional in high school, the BOR persuaded some deputies to support an extension of the compulsory character of religious study. The parliament has yet to vote on the new law. The Church also convinced the Ministry of Education to allow pupils and teachers, for the first time since 1947, to attend liturgy on the first day of the 1998-1999 school year.

Church involvement in education did not stop there. Calls for a revision of textbooks in consonance with Christian values have been heard at times. In 1990, the Group of Reflection on Church Renewal asked for a "de-Marxization" of textbooks so as to adequately reflect the contribution of Orthodoxy to Romanian culture (Rompres, 15 August 1990). Three years later, Metropolitan Plamadeala called on parliament to adopt educational programs and literature based on fundamental Christian values and ideals. His position was echoed in 1998 by Ioan Moisin, a National Peasant Party Christian Democratic (PNTCD) senator and Greek Catholic priest, who asked the Ministry of Education to set up a commission of "knowledgeable" Orthodox and Catholics to revise philosophy and biology textbooks to avoid contradictions with religious creationism. The senator complained that pupils were told by their religion teacher that humans are God's creation and by the philosophy and biology teachers of Darwinist persuasion that humans descend from the ape. The proposal also envisioned the formation of a Council of Public Morality, directly subordinate to the presidency and formed by church and teachers' representatives, which would supervise public education ("Evenimentul zilei," 18 March 1998). Neither the parliament nor the Ministry of Education seriously considered the proposals.

The Body And Society: The Romanian Orthodox Church On Homosexuality And Abortion

When Romania formally applied for membership in European structures in the early 1990s, Article 200 of its Criminal Code -- the punishment of sexual relationships among persons of the same sex with prison terms of up to five years -- came under heavy criticism. Under international pressure, the government initiated procedures to modify the code in accordance with European standards, but it was only after three years of bitter arguments that changes partially liberalizing homosexual activities came into effect by Law no. 140/1996. In its new reading, Article 200 read that homosexual activities were punishable with prison terms if they were carried out in public or if they caused public scandal. The article punished those "inciting or encouraging a person to practice sexual relations between persons of the same sex," and those engaging in "propaganda or association or any other act of proselytism committed in the same scope." While apparently more lenient than its predecessor, the new formulation did not specify what exactly constituted a "public scandal" and where should the fine line between "private" and "public" behavior be drawn. Some politicians believed that any homosexual act is potentially public because "what is damaging and immoral on the streets cannot be permissible and moral in intimacy," while others justified their hesitation to fully decriminalize homosexuality by claiming that the Romanians in general regard homosexual relations to be "abnormal." Indeed, a 1993 opinion poll revealed that four out of five Romanians believed homosexual acts were never justified, and the complete eradication of homosexuality served a legitimate national interest ("Public Scandals," 1998).

A joint Human Rights Watch and International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission report published in late 1998 singled out the BOR as one of the most formidable opponents to decriminalizing homosexuality. Patriarch Teoctist repeatedly came out against "the acceptance of the degradingly abnormal and unnatural lifestyle as normal and legal." A number of Christian organizations helped sustain within the BOR's leadership the momentum for an anti-homosexuality crusade. After denouncing homosexuality as "propaganda for human degenerates," the Association of Christian Orthodox Students persuaded Patriarch Teoctist to ask legislators to maintain the ban on homosexuality, and mounted a tireless intimidation campaign against those members of parliament willing to decriminalize such behavior, accusing them of atheism and immorality. In its fight, the Church used state television to vehemently criticize the proposed changes to Article 200. In a number of religious programs Orthodox theologians, priests, and monks extolled the virtue of the traditional position vis-a-vis sexual relations and rejected any "Westernization" of the Romanians mores. The most outspoken was Archbishop Anania, who remarked that "Europe asks us to accept sex, homosexuality, vices, drugs, abortions, and genetic engineering, including cloning," and denounced the "impoverished Europe...built exclusively on politics and economics, lacking any trace of spirituality, culture or religion" that Romania was about to access. ("Evenimentul zilei," 16 April 1998).

In its fight against homosexuality, the BOR managed to win over several political formations. The extremist Party of Romanian National Unity and the PRM, which looked upon Orthodoxy and moral cleanliness as quintessential for Romanianism, proclaimed that Article 200 was too lenient and toleration of homosexuality was damaging to national pride. The PNTCD felt compelled to justify its Christian Democratic commitment by adopting a strictly traditional view on the subject. Late PNTCD leader Corneliu Coposu categorically opposed "sexual aberrations," arguing that the party's Christian moral foundation led it "to combat every deviation from the law of nature and from the moral principles of a future balanced society." He further claimed it to be imperative for "liberty to be blocked by the liberty of others when the collective sentiment of a group or a tradition is injured by some initiative pretending to be 'progressive' and modern" ("Public Scandals," 1998). PNTCD deputy Emil Popescu suggested that "incest was preferable to homosexuality since the former at least preserved the chance to procreation" ("Evenimentul zilei," 15 May 1998).

As a result of this campaign, homosexuality continues to be illegal in Romania. The state's reluctance to decriminalize homosexuality contributes to a climate of intolerance. One can only guess the reasons for the BOR's opposition to decriminalize homosexuality. Some commentators suggested that the Church might have adopted an extreme position vis-a-vis homosexuality because public sentiment favoring the liberalization of abortion after more than two decades of communist pro-natal policies had rendered abortion a highly sensitive issue.

Abortion was prohibited in 1966 by unpopular Decree no. 770 in order to achieve demographic targets. The decree was abrogated by the post-communist leaders days after the December 1989 uprising, and the sudden liberalization gave Romania the highest abortion rate in Europe, with over 1.2 million conducted yearly in a population of 23 million (Luxmoore, 1996). Public sentiment favoring the liberalization of abortion after more than two decades of communist pro-natal policies rendered abortion a highly sensitive issue. In a January 1994 open letter, Orthodox leaders urged the state to take legal action to curb the explosive increase in abortions ("National Catholic Reporter," 28 January 1994). The request was reiterated in 1997 by Senator Ioan Moisin, but his PNTCD did not support him for fear of alienating Romanian women, most of whom strongly oppose any restrictions on birth control.

Given this sensitivity, the BOR also has avoided formulating an official position toward abortion and contraception. The BOR's unofficial position can be gauged from statements in which various clergymen have condemned both practices, and from a pamphlet distributed by the Orthodox leadership to Orthodox priests in 1997. Prepared by Father Ilie Moldovan, a moral theology professor at the Sibiu Faculty of Theology and the BOR's leading authority on the subject, the pamphlet virulently condemns abortion (Moldovan, 1997). For Moldovan, the main goal of both marriage and sexual intercourse is procreation; a marriage whose main goal is eluded is "nothing but a legal form of prostitution," and all family planning methods dissociating sexuality from procreation are highly condemnable. The future child is a whole person immediately after the egg and the sperm come together, and any attempt to destroy the impregnated egg imperils "a total human, body and soul" and runs counter to the divine commandment of not killing. For Moldovan abortion remains unjustified and morally sinful even when the pregnancy endangers the mother's life or health. He goes as far as to reject the Ogino calendar-based planning, the only contraception method accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, and that Church's argument that "for just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children" and that "the use of infertile periods is in conformity with the objective criteria of morality" (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1999, p. 245). Moldovan's stance relies as much on religious as on ethno-national considerations. For him, abortion is a threat to the very survival of the Romanian nation, amounting to genocide. He advises his fellow Orthodox priests to refuse to give communion to women partaking in such an enterprise for seven years, and if they die as a result of abortion, to refuse to officiate at the burial.

Not all the Orthodox leaders agree with such radical views. Father Justin Marchis, who favors the Ogino contraceptive method, attacked the pamphlet on theological grounds, and deplored the widespread distribution that only Moldovan's text received. Other priests have maintained that the BOR's traditional non-interference in spouses' intimate relations means that the calendar is tacitly accepted as a contraceptive method, with all other methods being strongly rejected. Metropolitan Corneanu is among the few leaders who have made clear their opposition to any criminalization of homosexuality and abortion, and publicly stated that women, not some institution, have the right to decide whether or not to stall the pregnancy ("22," 29 February 1998).

Restitution Of Property To The Greek Catholic Church

Since 1990, when the Greek Catholic Church (BGC) was recognized again, a sour point for the BOR has been the Greek Catholics' insistence on restitution of their property lost under communism. The BGC was constituted in 1700 in Transylvania when the Habsburg regime, through the skillful mediation of the Jesuits, persuaded the local Orthodox clergy that their acceptance of Catholic dogma and the authority of the pope would earn them equal status with the Catholic and Protestant clergy. Within a century of this church's inception, Transylvanian Romanians "were transformed from a mute society of serfs and shepherds subservient to the will of Western European regional masters into a vocal class expressing 'national' aspirations" (Hupchick, 1995, p. 74). Greek Catholics not only played a major part in the national emancipation of Transylvanian Romanians but, as prominent politicians, they continued to play an important role in interwar Greater Romania.

The communists disbanded the BGC in late 1948, after the Vatican was denounced by the Orthodox Patriarch Justinian as "the center of the oldest imperialist tradition" (Durandin, 1995, p. 375) and the communists announced that they will no longer abide by the concordat. The BGC was forced to merge with the BOR, and its priests were promised state-sponsored salaries only if they declared themselves Orthodox. Greek Catholic churches were turned over to the BOR, and in November 1948 some 600 Greek Catholic priests, including all their bishops, were imprisoned. Faced with the alternative of arrest, other clergy and faithful joined the BOR. The latter supported the merge and saw the Greek Catholics' return to the Church from which their ancestors were separated in 1700 as a long-overdue reparation of a historical injustice. Until 1989 many Orthodox clergy and theologians sincerely believed that the 1948 suppression of the BGC had put an end to Greek Catholicism in Romania, but the unrecognized Church survived clandestinely until 1990, when it resurfaced. Its current members amount to only a fraction of its pre-communist membership -- 1 percent of the Romanian population. From a total of 1.4 million followers in the interwar period, the church currently has around 200,000 members (Radio Romania, 18 June 1997). The official Greek Catholic membership in the 1999 "Annuario Pontificio" is reportedly around 1.3 million, but observers consider that figure unrealistically high. Though most followers are old, they are vocal defenders of their Church's rights.

Chief among these rights is the return of the BGC property turned over to the BOR by the communists, including 1,800 churches, cemeteries and chapels ("Courrier Oecumenique du Moyen-Orient," 1992, p. 24). In the early 1990s, the Greek Catholics recovered part of their property. In the western region of Banat, several churches were returned by the Orthodox Metropolitan Nicolae Corneanu, and in several Transylvanian counties local Orthodox leaders voluntarily gave up smaller churches ("SEIA Newsletter," 2 March 1999). These gentlemen agreements, however, were too few to solve the dispute adequately. Most Orthodox and Greek Catholic priests refused to enter into direct negotiations and waited instead for a comprehensive solution to be proposed by their respective hierarchies. As always in Romanian history, decision-making was expected to take place at the center. Instead of examining each case on an individual basis, the two hierarchies have striven for a comprehensive solution.

Negotiations were first stalled by the Greek Catholics' demand for the RESTITUTIO IN INTEGRUM, a return of all their former churches and property. The Greek Catholics stressed that Romania could become a veritable ETAT DE DROIT only when such core democratic principles as property inviolability are strictly observed. If the Romanian authorities genuinely respect private property, then they should return the Greek Catholic churches or pay compensation. In turn, the BOR argued that demographically and historically integral restitution was unjustified. Demographically, Greek Catholic membership had dwindled so much that many Greek Catholic village communities were entirely wiped away. Church transfer in such villages would mean that Orthodox believers no longer had a place to worship, while the village church stood empty. Historically, the BOR said, many Greek Catholic churches were in fact pre-1700 Orthodox churches. If restitution was to be carried out, then the BOR felt entitled to ask for its property given to the Greek Catholics by the Habsburg regime. From such uncompromising positions, the two Churches managed to strike a deal in 1993, agreeing that they should start from today's realities in their bilateral ties and discussions on church restitution (Radio Romania, 18 June 1997). The declaration seemingly implied that the Greek Catholics would scale down their demands and look for solutions alternative to integral restitution, while the Orthodox would give up historical arguments and recognize the other Church's rights and existence. But negotiations were again thwarted by the Orthodox leaders' unwillingness to pursue the matter further and the Greek Catholics' frustration with such an attitude. In the end, Patriarch Teoctist asked for the conflict to be solved by the country's authorities instead of by church leaders.

In 1997, Senator Matei Boila, a Greek Catholic priest and PNTCD member, proposed a law returning to the Greek Catholics the churches in localities where there are at least two formerly Greek Catholic churches and an active Greek Catholic community. This proposal of partial church restitution, which also suggested the joint, alternate use of some churches, was more than reasonable. It responded to earlier Orthodox criticisms of not depriving the Orthodox of their churches, and at the same time allowed the Greek Catholics to have their own church in localities where they were living. But the draft was met with hostility by the BOR; the patriarch categorically rejected it and the Transylvanian prelates threatened "civil war" if the Boila bill was passed. Minister of Religions Gheorghe Anghelescu sided with the Orthodox and proposed that the state finance the building of a few new churches for Greek Catholics, while the Orthodox keep the old ones. Unfazed by criticism, in June 1997 the Senate approved the Boila law.

The decision prompted bitter reaction from Orthodox clergy and politicians alike. Patriarch Teoctist voiced "consternation" at the vote, which allegedly maintained "a climate of religious hatred" with "utterly unpredictable consequences for Transylvanian peace." Forgetting his previous call for a state solution to the dispute, Teoctist labeled the decision "an inadmissible interference in the national church's problems" ("Evenimentul zilei," 17 June 1997). Metropolitan Ciobotea deplored restitution carried out "by constraint rather than by goodwill agreement," and blamed the Greek Catholics for refusing negotiation. Metropolitan Plamadeala considered the law to be "an attempt against the life of the Orthodox Church and of our nation" (Rompres, 18 June 1997).

Orthodox opposition to the Boila law meant that no list of churches designated for transfer could be drafted. In most localities where the law could be enforced, that is, in those villages and towns with active Greek Catholic communities and at least two churches, Orthodox priests refused to vacate any church. The case of the formerly Greek Catholic Transfiguration Cathedral of Cluj, the major Transylvanian city, speaks for the great divide between the two Churches. Following a court decision, on 13 March 1998 the BOR had to return the cathedral back to the Greek Catholics but after heated discussions with Orthodox clergy and devotees, the court representative refused, on technical grounds, to enforce the court order. Exasperated by a process with no end in sight and disappointed with the authorities' refusal to return what they considered to be rightfully theirs, Greek Catholic believers entered the church and proceeded to the altar to remove the Orthodox clergy by force. Inside the church were Orthodox parishioners who attended a liturgy deliberately scheduled for that time by the parish priest in the hope of delaying the transfer. It did not take long for young seminarians of both sides to pitch battles inside the church, on the altar and, finally, on top of the holy table (Reuters, 13 March 1997). The violence took by surprise the Romanian press and authorities alike, which unanimously condemned the lack of dialogue between the Churches and called for an end to the conflict.

Neither Church acknowledged any wrongdoing. Greek Catholic leaders were conspicuously silent on the subject, and the Orthodox patriarch suggested that the confrontation, which "damaged the image of the two Churches, the country, the state and church authority" (Rompres, 18 March 1997), proved once again that the other Church refuses the dialogue. The Cluj conflict led to at least one significant change in the BOR's attitude. While before the incident state authorities were called to solve the dispute surrounding church restitution, once the state put forward proposals with which the Orthodox disagreed they were eager to take the matter into their own hands and pleaded with the state not to interfere in a "strictly religious matter." Formal meetings between Orthodox and Greek Catholic bishops resumed in late 1998 and early 1999, allowing for some progress to be made. Meeting in October 1998 in Blaj, Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Roman Catholic bishops sought to establish a climate of trust between the two Churches. The meeting was followed in January 1999 by one between Orthodox and Catholic clerics. The participants drafted an agreement to share churches in towns where more than one proper building existed (Reuters, 4 February 1999). The Orthodox refusal to return confiscated Greek Catholic churches was a main impediment to a papal visit, but once the visit was accomplished in early May 1999, there were signs that it had inspired concessions on both sides. Yet there are still some 1,700 churches to be returned to the BGC.

It would be simplistic to consider the conflict surrounding church restitution and its solution a merely technical and judicial rather than a full-fledged political and economic problem. Most political leaders share anti-Greek Catholic feelings, while those sympathetic to the Greek Catholic viewpoint could hardly advance solutions perceived as damaging Orthodox interests. The post-1996 government led by Christian Democrats has ruled by "ordinances" (governmental orders) and decrees. For example, an August 1998 ordinance ordered the restitution of buildings belonging to ethnic minorities, such as the Bacau Jewish schools and the Cluj Presbyterian Theological Institute ("SEIA Newsletter," 2 March 1999). But the Christian Democratic government refused to adopt similar measures with regard to the dispute over church restitution.

Concluding Remarks

The Orthodox Church's place in the new Romanian political order remains ill defined and subject to much controversy. This is because many Orthodox leaders view democratization as a threat to their Byzantine view of church-state relations and because the state is unwilling to relinquish its traditional centralist coordination of every single aspect of the Romanians' life, including the religious one. These have not been easy years for the BOR, as any narrative of events suggests. Parties with strikingly different philosophies interfered constantly in its life through the passage of laws in which the church had little input. Many Orthodox core demands (such as parliamentary representation for the entire church hierarchy, formal recognition as the "national church," compulsory religious education at all pre-university levels, and a ban on abortion), have been either disregarded or only partially fulfilled. But by sheer numbers alone, the BOR has managed to maintain a strong political voice that politicians cannot ignore.

Is it possible that the future will bring a separation between Church and state in Romania? As early as 1993, the influential Metropolitan Ciobotea came out in favor of full separation between Church and state and complete depoliticization of the Church (Ionescu, 1996, p. 27). Not all Orthodox officials felt the same way, and following the Orthodox-Greek Catholic March 1998 controversy over the Cluj cathedral, Ciobotea himself changed his mind and urged the state to support the BOR more vigorously. This is no small thing: as Metropolitan of Moldova, Ciobotea will most likely be the next Romanian Orthodox patriarch. Yet state legislation and increased public financial support must be accompanied by proposals for the Church to change inwardly and renew itself. This will be its challenge for the new millennium.

Lavinia Stan is a professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto, and Lucian Turcescu a professor of Religious Studies at St. Francis Xavier University, Canada.

Part A of this article appeared on 21 February 2001 ("East European Perspectives," Vol. 3, No. 4).


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An earlier version of this article was published in "Europe-Asia Studies," Vol. 52, no. 8 (December 2000), pp. 1467-1488. It is reprinted with permission.