The Budapest Option: Pope Francis’ Next Destination Is an Emerging Bastion of Conservative Christian Thought

The Hungarian capital represents an alternative to progressive secular politics and has drawn a crowd of international conservative intellectuals to the shores of the Danube.

Budapest is now home to noted Christian conservative thinkers like American journalist Rod Dreher, pictured here participating in a discussion at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. The city is drawing conservative thinkers from across the world in part to draw insights from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's political approach. Scruton cafés, named for the English conservative philosopher, are a fixture of the intellectual expat scene in the Hungarian capital.
Budapest is now home to noted Christian conservative thinkers like American journalist Rod Dreher, pictured here participating in a discussion at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. The city is drawing conservative thinkers from across the world in part to draw insights from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's political approach. Scruton cafés, named for the English conservative philosopher, are a fixture of the intellectual expat scene in the Hungarian capital. (photo: Gyurkovits Tamás and Solène Tadié photos)

Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to Hungary at the end of April is for decidedly religious purposes. But it also comes against the backdrop of Budapest’s emergence as the symbolic center of a distinct brand of political thought and action, a counterproposal to the secular progressivism offered by Brussels, home of the European Union’s executive branch.

However, in the showdown between Budapest and Brussels, religion and politics are not so easily disentangled, as one central question is whether Europe’s future should be Christian or not. Hungary’s ascendancy as a champion for the affirmative has helped generate a budding scene of religious and cultural conservative thinkers in the “Pearl of the Danube,” drawn from across Europe and beyond.

“It’s a real opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth, to meet with the finest and bravest intellectuals of the European landscape right now,” said Register Europe Correspondent Solène Tadié, who was born in France and relocated to Budapest this past summer after a decade in Rome to be a part of what she describes as a hub for “political and religious renewal in Europe.”

“It’s the beginning of something and has the excitement of something blossoming slowly,” said Tadié. 


Orbán’s Hungary

In many ways, this cadre of foreign academics, journalists and other intellectuals has come to Budapest to see the policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz Party in action.

During Orbán’s 12 years of leadership, Hungary ratified its first post-communist constitution in 2012, placing the Christian faith, family and the fatherland at the heart of the country’s political foundation. Subsequently, the Central European nation has also earned a reputation for using state power to actively promote these values — providing generous incentives for family formation, upping financial support for domestic churches and Christians persecuted abroad, banning content promoting homosexual activity and transgenderism to children, and restricting immigration to a far greater extent than most European countries.

Many of these policies have been decried by progressives and even some conservatives as authoritarian overreach, or instances of xenophobia and bigotry. Others, however, have celebrated Orbán’s approach as a departure from a failed and flawed emphasis on limited government that has contributed to secularism, individualism and societal fraying in the West.

For his part, Pope Francis seems to have a mixed view of the Hungarian prime minister’s policy priorities. During the Pope’s brief stop in Budapest for the 2021 Eucharistic Congress, many in the media suggested that Francis made a veiled critique of Hungary’s immigration policies by urging Hungary to “extend its arms to everyone” while remaining rooted in its cultural identity. The Vatican’s description of topics discussed between the two leaders, however, made no mention of immigration, but noted that “the protection and promotion of the family” had been covered. 

Relatedly, while Orbán’s style of populist nationalism may have been at odds with Pope Francis’ vision of global solidarity expressed in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, the Pope also thanked the Hungarian leader during a Vatican visit last year for Hungary’s acceptance of Ukrainian war refugees, while Orbán suggested earlier this year that the Vatican and Hungary were the only voices in Europe calling for peace between Russia and Ukraine.

Religious and cultural conservative intellectuals who have come to Budapest in recent years are far more enthusiastic about Orbán’s vision and approach, especially compared to what else is on offer in Europe.

“I had heard a lot of great things about Hungary, a lot of great things about the way Orbán is governing this country, and since the Hungarian project seems to have become very relevant for the right in the West, I thought it made sense for me to be here,” explained Mark Granza, the Italian founder of the “dissident right” magazine IM-1776, who moved to Budapest with his family in the fall of 2022.


‘An International Network’

But Orbán’s impact on the emergence of a burgeoning international conservative scene in Budapest goes beyond the social policies he has promoted. In fact, it’s something of an Orbán policy itself.

In a 2019 conversation with visiting conservative speakers, Orbán shared his hope that Hungary could serve as a kind of international capital for conservative thought. That hope has been backed up by concrete actions, such as the 2020 transformation of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) in Budapest into a major center of international conservative scholarship and formation, aided by government funding to the tune of $1.7 billion.

MCC currently hosts nearly 50 visiting fellows, mostly from European countries like Germany, France and the United Kingdom, with academic interests ranging from international diplomacy to the role of religion in society. Visiting scholars teach students enrolled in MCC programs, while also pursuing Hungarian-related research in their field of study. 

Thibaud Gibelin, a French historian and political scientist living in Budapest as an MCC visiting fellow, said the initiative is helping to build an “international network with a conservative orientation,” whose members are attempting “to shape a political vision and intellectual reform based on common belonging to European civilization.”

But the conservative intellectual scene in Budapest is also of increasing relevance to Americans and other non-Europeans, as well. 

University of Dallas political theorist Gladden Pappin, one of several American Catholic thinkers who have taken a keen interest in Orbán’s Hungary, has just been named president of the government-sponsored Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs, following nearly two years as an MCC visiting fellow. Pappin confirmed with the Register that he and his family will be living in Budapest as dual American-Hungarian citizens after gaining citizenship through his wife’s family background.

“For me, Hungary is the pivotal country — a Christian, conservative country that seeks to survive and thrive while wars as well as adverse cultural trends swirl around it,” Pappin told the Register. “Budapest is the place to be to understand the shifting global dynamic within Europe and outside.”

Meanwhile, the Danube Institute, a Budapestian conservative think tank, is currently hosting Americans Daniel Mahoney, emeritus professor of politics at Assumption University, and Rod Dreher, the conservative Christian essayist and author of The Benedict Option. MCC also co-sponsors the Budapest Fellowship Program, which sponsors young professionals and graduate students from the U.S. to do a year of research and writing on Hungarian history and culture.

In just one month this spring, Budapest will have seen a veritable who’s who of high-profile North American conservative speakers and events. American activist and journalist Christopher Rufo was a featured speaker at the Danube Institute earlier this month, while the city’s second-annual Conservative Action Political Conference (May 4-5) and a lecture by Canadian public intellectual Jordan Peterson at Budapest’s Sports Arena (May 9) are still to come.

Dreher, who took up residence in Budapest full time this past September, told the Register that a sense of mutual exchange between visiting conservatives and their Hungarian hosts characterizes the intellectual scene in Budapest. Religious conservatives in the U.S., he said, have much to learn from the Hungarian experience.

“Sometimes, it feels like the American conservative future is in part being worked out here on the banks of the Danube,” said Dreher, who is currently working on a new book on Christian reenchantment, “exploring possibilities unlearning modernity’s flattening of [the] spiritual and aesthetic experience.”


Expat Scene

Although he has, on occasion, drawn some comparisons between the conservative expat scene in Budapest and the 1920s’ Lost Generation of Paris’ Left Bank, Dreher acknowledges that there are at least as many differences, and not just in terms of the politics. The scene in Hungary is still in its nascent stages; the Hungarian language, related only to Finnish and Estonian on the European scene, is unfamiliar and hard to learn for most foreigners; and, as Dreher has wryly noted, Budapest doesn’t have fresh oysters.

But the former second capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has many of the ingredients that make for a compelling émigré scene — rich history and culture, beautiful architecture and environs, good food and quality beer and wine — and all for far cheaper than you’ll find in America’s most cosmopolitan cities. And while the city itself is fairly liberal, Dreher noted that it’s not in an antagonistic way.

Even more, Dreher said that Budapest’s conservative expat experience has something that sets it apart: substance, conveying a sense of purpose and the feeling that those who have come here for the intellectual life are part of something bigger.

Tadié described the intellectual scene in Budapest, which plays out at official talks and functions, but also at restaurants, dinner parties and cafés (such as one of the city’s three Scruton cafés, named for the conservative English philosopher), as “vivid and dynamic,” characterized by an “originality of mind” and an openness to talking about ideas that’s different from her native France or even Rome. 

In Budapest, she said, there is not only the opportunity to discover Central and Eastern European figures largely ignored further west, like the great communist-resister Cardinal József Mindszenty, but also to reclaim Western thinkers that have become neglected in their native lands. For instance, later this year, Tadié will help host a conference on the thought of contemporary French intellectuals Raymond Aron and Pierre Manent, which she said would be far harder to pull off back in France.

“They are rediscovering their roots here in Hungary, so it allows others to do the same,” Tadié explained.


Come and See

Not everyone is thrilled about Budapest becoming an international hub of intellectual conservatism, however. 

Mainstream publications and media like The New York Times, The New Yorker and National Public Radio have all produced content ominously casting the American conservative interest in Hungary as flirtation with totalitarianism. James Patterson, chairman of politics at Ave Maria University, has expressed concerns about tensions between Orbánian politics and Catholic social teaching and the American Catholic interest in the former.

But those who have made the move say the critiques from abroad often don’t match up with what they’re seeing on the ground. In fact, both Dreher and Tadié were motivated to move to Budapest, in part, out of a desire to more accurately portray what’s transpiring in Hungary than accounts from The Associated Press or BBC. Tadié, for instance, noted that in her conversations with Hungarians of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, many are frustrated by foreign media’s portrayal of Hungary, even those who don’t support Orbán. She also noted that a more accurate portrayal of what’s transpiring in Hungary doesn’t require a “blanket endorsement” of everything Fidesz pursues.

Dreher and Tadié both agree that the best way to form an accurate judgment of what’s happening in Hungary is to experience it firsthand. Both shared stories of friends visiting from France or the U.S. having their perspectives dramatically shift after spending time in Budapest. 

Dreher pointed to the experience of Peter Boghossian, an atheist liberal philosopher from the U.S. and current MCC fellow who has found the intellectual climate in Budapest far more open-minded than, for instance, Portland State, where he resigned from teaching in 2021.

With the city’s international political significance in mind, it will be worthwhile to note what Pope Francis makes of Hungary’s capital when he comes and sees it April 28-30. While the political vision of Budapest may not completely align with Rome, perhaps the Pope will give an indication that in some ways it’s closer than Brussels.