WARSAW, Poland —When a team of Hungarian religious leaders visited Brussels, Belgium, in February, it was just the latest step in a campaign to gain Church support for the eastward expansion of the European Union.

Last October, Hungary joined Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia in E.U. membership negotiations that are expected to last five years. And during that time, deep changes will be needed in how these ex-communist countries are organized and governed.

Yet, though stability and prosperity could be the ultimate rewards, not everyone is sure the price is worth paying.

On March 16, the European Union's governing commission, headed by Jacques Santer, resigned amid corruption charges, highlighting the urgent need to rethink the 15-country bloc's future.

The appointment of Italian Romano Prodi to take charge augurs well.

For one thing, he's won unanimous approval for his pledges to clean up the E.U. Commission. For another, he is a practicing Catholic at a time when demands are growing for Europe's churches to exert a stronger influence in E.U. affairs.

“Although our governments are negotiating our integration, E.U. officials have had doubts if this is really popular,” explained Father Laszlo Lukacs, spokesman for Hungary's Catholic Bishops Conference. “During our Brussels trip, we told them Hungary had joined Europe a thousand years ago, when the Magyars became Christian.

“But we all agreed the E.U. should-n't be only a forum for economic interests. It has to uphold common values, and this is where religious communities are important.”

The Hungarian visit was the third from Eastern Europe after delegations from the Polish and Czech Bishops Conferences in 1997 and 1998. Like the Hungarians, they too returned from E.U. headquarters convinced their countries’ prospects lay with Europe.

But much work will be needed before the dream of European unity becomes a reality.

When Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO on March 12, the breakthrough was welcomed overwhelmingly as the fruit of a historic yearning for national security.

But joining the European Union is more controversial, since it concerns complex economic, political and social issues. If the East Europeans join at the right time, they'll reap great benefits. If they join prematurely, their economies could be crushed by richer neighbors.

Opening their borders to full integration will also have a profound impact on social and moral habits. It's this aspect which most concerns Church leaders — and not only Catholics.

Religious Impact

“E.U. officials know the traditional status of churches differs widely between member-states — the E.U.'s legislation also states clearly that our identity must be preserved, “said Lutheran Bishop Bela Harmati, who was on the Hungarian delegation to Brussels. “But it's frequently protested that our parliaments must surrender sovereignty to Brussels, as well as our national unity and self-understanding. This misgiving will take a lot of shifting.”

In surveys, more than half of Polish citizens have predicted E.U. membership won't affect religious beliefs and might even deepen them. But another third fears they'll be eroded, and that figure includes many Catholics.

Four decades ago, they point out, when the first E.U. prototype institutions were formed, the churches of Spain and Italy were as full as Poland's are today, while the Dutch Church sent more priests abroad as missionaries than it even employed at home.

Churches weren't even mentioned in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, under which E.U. member-states agreed to closer political and economic links.

A brief statement recognizing the “status enjoyed by churches and religious associations and communities” was accepted by E.U. foreign ministers at their June 1997 Amsterdam summit.

Since then, there's been talk of recognizing a deeper spiritual dimension to European life.

“The debate is widening over where the whole E.U. project is going, and just what it represents in relation to its founders’ intentions,” explained Father Noel Treannor, the Irish secretary-general of the Commission of Episcopal Conferences of Europe.

Catholic bishops from the European Union's 15-member-states has met twice yearly since the episcopal commission's foundation in 1980. Besides consulting regularly with Brussels officials, commission bishops monitor E.U. legislation and have permanent working groups on law, bioethics and social affairs.

They've also vigorously backed the European Union's eastward expansion, insisting it will offer West Europeans a chance to extend democracy and stability to the whole continent.

The Vatican established diplomatic ties with the European Union in the early 1970s, and appointed a head of mission to the Union two years ago.

But as a E.U.-centered organization, the episcopal commission's views are taken note of. “Throughout the 1990s, we've seen a growing acceptance of the need for involvement by Churches,” Father Treannor told the Register.

Fears of ‘Euro-regions’

Yet the uncertainties look set to persist.

Critics say the European Union's guiding principle of “subsidiarity,” a concept taken from Catholic teaching, will erode historic nation-states by transferring power locally to “Euro-regions,” as well as federally to E.U. departments.

If true, that will pose problems for the new democracies of Eastern Europe, which are only just rebuilding their national institutions from the wreckage of the past.

Catholic nationalists, especially in Poland, have kept up a broadside against the European Union, claiming closer links will destroy the country's religious and moral culture.

Their views aren't representative. In an unprecedented 1998 survey of Polish priests by the Warsaw-based CBOS agency, 84% supported their country's E.U. accession.

Well over a third said E.U. institutions should be doing more to “support churches and religious life.” But two-thirds felt confident E.U. membership wouldn't affect the Church's position.

In the West, too, however, opinions are divided between richer and poorer states over the desirability of E.U. enlargement. Opposition to new members could grow if unemployment — already at a record 12% in Germany — continues to increase.

But in a March declaration, the episcopal commission said Europe's unification was premised on the maintenance of peace. And that, in turn, depended on implementing solidarity and justice.

“Like the Western Church, East European Catholics will have to find their places in a pluralist society,” Father Treannor said. “This is a definitive challenge, which will add value to the Catholic identity.

“It's impossible to quantify their likely contribution, but their presence will certainly enlarge the historical experience and heritage of Christian churches already operating in the E.U., and help build up the Catholic Church's platform for championing the concerns which all European citizens share.”

That's a view most East European Church leaders would readily concur with.

“The E.U. isn't the Kingdom of God, but belonging to it will bring our country a better future,” said Bela Harmati, the Hungarian Lutheran. “Our churches still need to learn a lot more about it. But we know we can't stand alone and must join a larger community, if we're to avoid being trapped in the former Soviet Bloc which was our destiny for 40 years.”

A 1998 survey demonstrated that a majority of Poles believe that their future was now tied, for better or worse, to the European Union. With that in mind, Church leaders are determined to make their voices heard, and make the region's Catholic culture accepted.

Created during the Cold War, when Europe was divided between hostile blocs, the European Union could still realize the hopes and dreams of medieval Christendom, and become a fountainhead for the freedom and tolerance which countless generations never knew. But that depends on many things, especially, wise leadership and deep conviction.