Lessons from Central Europe

As Professor Wood, who has long experience in government, makes clear here, it’s no longer a stretch to see in the history of other nations parallels with the kinds of limitations on religious liberty we’re starting to see in our own country. By nature, we Americans resist such comparisons, but we’re not exempt from history or common human nature. In circumstances like these, we have to speak out before it becomes too late or at least keep alive archipelagoes of holiness, of truth. Almost every column that appears on this site also appears in French on the site of France catholique and columns regularly appear in several other languages as well. Our partners tell us that they value our work because there’s rarely anything like it in their own countries.  If you value what The Catholic Thing does too, we need your support. We’re near the end of our fundraising efforts and are very close to meeting our goals. Help your poor editor to give it up and go back to the business of public Catholicism already. Please make your contribution to The Catholic Thing – and the resistance. – Robert Royal


A few years back, I found myself meeting regularly with representatives of Central European governments and, later, often traveling to the region.  The place came to hold a fascination for reasons that were not entirely clear to me at that point.

“Central Europe” includes a great many very different peoples and places. Lithuania seems very “Catholic” in obvious ways, while Estonia does not.  The Czech Republic and Slovakia are quite different, which produced the “Velvet Divorce” after the end of the Cold War.  Poland and Croatia have deep Catholic roots that have played out in ways different than in Hungary. 

Recent political and economic developments have left the individual countries so different that many question whether it is still possible to think of them as a single region at all.

But whether someone is encountering these places for the first time or has known them for a lifetime, over and under all the differences there is an identifiable “feel” and sensibility that includes similarities in weather, architecture, historical experience, and worldview.

In my meetings with government officials and with people I came to know through Catholic connections, many of whom in the early 2000s were quite young for their posts, one common element was an appreciation of freedom that was not so obvious among their American and Western European counterparts.  These men and women still had vivid memories of communist rule.

One told me of his parents being informed that school and his university chances would go better for him if they would quit going to Mass.  Such harassment was the norm.

One reason for my fascination with the region is that some – not all – Catholics and Protestants survived, faith intact, despite the tender mercies of a powerful, modern bureaucratic-administrative state.  That state sought, with great vigor and the best available technology, to secularize society and drive religion into, at most, the home and those church buildings that were permitted to exist.  We may have something to learn from their experience.

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa

John Hittinger of the University of St Thomas in Houston has recently described the similarities between our situation and theirs.  He cites Cardinal George’s warnings from earlier this year about the effects of the HHS mandate on provision of birth control, effectively forcing Catholic institutions to secularize or fold.  The cardinal noted that religious freedom was guaranteed in the Soviet constitution too, while the reality was very different and highly constrained.  Some Russian Orthodox Church leaders had KGB rank and perquisites.

The most prominent Catholic opponent to this Cold War reality was, of course, Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland, later Pope John Paul II.  He provided a four-point plan for the Church in those circumstances: “ (1) appeal to the rights of law and morality to fight the unjust attacks on its actions and institutions; (2) be a teacher above all, explaining the true faith and its applications to all spheres of life…; (3) use dramatic opportunities to express solidarity with those Catholics who are being attacked and those institutions being subverted; celebrate milestones and heroes of the faith in [our own] country; …4) strongly challenge and counter the ‘splitting from above and below’ [tactics of the state] and be ready to impose the doctrinal and practical discipline required to maintain the unity of faith.”

Easy to say, hard to do.  The pope won the war.  But in the battles along the way, in Poland and elsewhere, many (including clergy) were tragically co-opted by the state and collaborated in its program. 

What happened during those years that allowed Christianity to survive in Central Europe seems to have been just the most recent episode of what the late Hungarian-born Father Stanley Jaki described in his book, Archipelago Church.  He argues that the Church, in the last century and at all times when the “storms of moral destruction” blow, is really an archipelago of islands of holiness and truth rather than a continental whole.  The saints sustain these islands over the centuries, even as their locations change amidst the contingencies of history. 

Such islands have existed and continue in Western Europe as well, where secularization has proceeded apace in the last two centuries without the assistance of a communist regime.  And throughout Europe, a different but important problem has been the more friendly collaboration in secularization of a government-funded and legally instituted Church that is beholden to a large state apparatus. 

The amount of funding Catholic institutions receive from the federal government in the United States creates a similar tension between resisting the state when it overreaches in its authority, and risking the loss of the money that funds Church works.  American Catholics have traditionally supported large government social programs.  With the accrual of resources to the government to fund those programs, though, goes power as well, which can then be turned to any number of purposes, for example, the HHS mandate.

The islands of the archipelago form the “living organism” of the Church, with its ecclesial structures providing the necessary skeleton.  What was new in the last century, in Fr Jaki’s view, was the recognition of the role of the laity, which culminated in Vatican II (a council for which he also reserved considerable criticism).  To sustain the archipelago going forward, to implement Cardinal Wojtyla’s four-point plan, the laity will have to play a new role along with the hierarchy.  The role of the laity will be a major theme of the upcoming Year of Faith, beginning on October 11.

America is, we may hope, still a long way from Central Europe of the 1960s, and it would be wrongful self-victimization to compare our situation to the Christians who were facing the communist Leviathan.  But those who emerged from that region in the mid-twentieth century, with experience of what happens when the secular state undertakes to cleanse public spaces of religious influence, have much to teach us at this moment in our own history.

Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.