On Jan. 1, a new constitution came into force in Hungary — the last of the former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe to reform its constitution.
The document — unusually in a European context — contains references to God and Christianity in its preamble. It is also largely pro-life, stipulating that the life of a fetus be protected from the moment of conception, marriage is only between a man and a woman, and it holds that “the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence.”
Yet the document has caused plenty of controversy, partly because of its pro-life and pro-Christian leanings in an increasingly secular Europe.
Gábor Győriványi, Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See, explained how the new constitution came about in a March 27 interview.
Tell us a little more about how the new constitution came about and the response you have had from the Holy See.
This new constitution is an old story to do with the Hungarian transition. The process started in 1998, and when the transition began, it was decided to have a new constitution in a democratic situation. The Holy See was aware of this process, they had very able nuncios there [in Hungary], but, of course, it was a very Hungarian initiative and also never coordinated with anyone from the Holy See.
There are many values incorporated into the new constitution. ... After the first motions, when it was presented to parliament, it was welcomed by the Holy See at lower levels, though not officially. The government changed, and the new Hungarian president was elected around the same time.
Practically the first trip of the new president of Hungary [then Pál Schmitt, who resigned in April over a controversy about his doctoral dissertation] was here to Rome, to the Vatican, and it had a kind of symbolic meaning — partly a returning to Christian values after a long period of time. During that visit, the Holy Father mentioned this work and the motion in parliament of the new constitution, and he supported and welcomed it.
Have you been pleased with the official public backing of the constitution coming from the Vatican, particularly over its Christian aspects?
Of course, we are happy, because the Holy See has a very real moral authority.
Naturally, it triggered reaction from liberals, socialists and other countries — that Hungary is part of a clerical reaction.
But we think quite differently. We think it’s a little bit strange to hear such voices in the European Union because the real founding fathers of the EU planned to base the union on Christian values and believed that European democracy can only be viable if it is constructed on a Christian basis.
So we hope that perhaps some of Europe’s new democracies — Poland, the Baltic states [Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania], as well as Hungary — can kind of give an impetus to a Christian renaissance, a coming back to the original vision of the founding fathers.
Is this the goal of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán?
Yes, I think so, because during these 20 years, we have made some mistakes. We totally opened up our economy, our country, also socially.
Yet there is a majority sentiment, a silent majority, as well.
And this silent majority has given its backing to the constitution?
Yes they have; they say they are Christian. But the real religious people are in a minority in Hungary. If there’s a survey, they say they are Christian, but they don’t attend church every week. But I think by combining our historical roots the culture will contain these values.
Some would argue that the Hungarian government has been very brave in view of the way Europe is at the moment. Would you like to see more support from the Church and other Christian groups and more encouragement that you’re doing the right thing?
Yes, we would be happy to have this. And it would be nice to have it not at a political level, because it can always be attacked.
There were attacks — people saying that Hungarian politicians organized groups from abroad to come and support. I don’t think the Hungarian government was involved in the organization of this; it was voluntary. Someone organized it, but not the government. But, really, it would be nice in the current crisis [to have more support].
New reports on the state of Christians in Europe show that, actually, the most persecution worldwide takes place in Europe. It’s not bloody, but it’s a more subtle, psychological influence on Christians, pressuring them not to live their faith in the community or not to represent these values in the community.
Some say that the issue of religious freedom has been misrepresented — would you tell us more about that?
In the new constitution, there is an article on religious freedom. It’s not unique to Hungary; others have articles saying freedom of religion and separation of the (church and) state are clear requirements, but, at the same time, governments have to cooperate with churches for the common good.
We had more than 300 churches registered, and there was abuse of this status because it was financed by subsidies. So we had to definitely cut this situation. Of course, many nations in Europe have this as well.
We chose a certain number of churches that can have real church status and are eligible for these subsidies, while others can be churches, religious organizations, but they can function as religious organizations. This is probably not a lucky [good] use of words because, while they are churches, they are not preferred churches in terms of church-state cooperation.
The media has reported a great deal about the government supposedly clamping down on press freedoms and restricting the judiciary. Is this another misrepresentation?
We always ask others to compare us with other countries, and I cannot imagine the press is freer in other countries.
Also the judiciary — there are different models, but the judiciary is totally separate and free. But we have been a little unlucky with our timing, because, if we had this constitution in 1990-1992, everyone would have been very happy to have had the freedoms we have governing religions, the press, the judiciary, also in a European context.
Our constitution is most European because it incorporates the whole European Act on Human Rights, word for word.
How do you see the future? Will all the heat that has been generated around this constitution recede?
Yes, I think it’ll calm down. Also, these are politically motivated attacks, and even the European Commission had some critical remarks, though not about the Christian parts, which are accepted.
We also hope to continue cooperation with churches. Now, we have a few outdated agreements with the Holy See and other churches, and so, in light of the new constitution, we are starting to rebuild these structures, not just regarding this new church law, but also real cooperation with churches.
We have just started negotiations with the Holy See to reorganize this judicial agreement between the Holy See and Hungary — to strengthen the cooperation.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.