Former Minister of Human Capacities Zoltán Balogh was elected bishop by the Dunamellék District of the Reformed Church of Hungary on Thursday. Never before has a former minister been elected bishop in Hungarian history, and it may raise some questions about church and state in Hungary.
The holy man
According to Telex, Balogh was originally a turner (lathe worker). He then studied theology, and became a priest in Maglód. He advised politician Gábor Fodor on matters relating to religion in the early 90s, and became personal advisor to Viktor Orbán in 1998.
He held several other positions within Fidesz, Hungary’s primary governing party, and became a member of parliament in 2006. As a result of the latter, he suspended his priesthood. He was subsequently Minister of Human Capacities from 2012 to 2018.
He returned to the church in 2018. Although he was defensive of the government’s actions up to that point, he has since voiced temperate criticism of the governing parties’ methods and propaganda.
A historic event
His election is historic; although bishops have previously become ministers, never has a minister become a bishop before in Hungarian history. This raises several questions pertaining to the absolute separation of church and state, considered a foundational tenet of modern democracy since the U.S. Bill of Rights.
Reviewing the country’s current constitution adopted in 2011, there is an unequivocal separation between church and state. Yet, while separate entities, it is also written that the state and churches cooperate in achieving community goals. Christianity is also specifically highlighted in the national avowal at the beginning of the constitution, although the different religious traditions of Hungary are also recognized:
“We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood. We value the various religious traditions of our country.”
Churches that take part in this operate as “established” churches. The state provides certain special rights and privileges to these institutions. As to exactly what those rights are is regulated by a separate cardinal act, the Church Law.
Law of the land
The law recognizes 32 established churches. These include some of Hungary’s largest institutions, such as the Catholic Church and the Reformed Church. Churches that belong to this group are eligible for government subsidies and voluntary tax contributions from citizens of up to 1% of their total tax.
As a result of the new constitution and the Church Law, almost 300 churches lost their legal status in Hungary. Since they have historically been subsidized, and no longer receive any funds, they are now struggling to survive.
Image by Zoltán Balogh
In 2014, The European Court of Human Rights ruled that the law violates freedom of religion and should be amended. In 2018, amendments were carried out which reframed the issue rather than address the facets of it that the ECHR found objectionable; namely, the arbitrary and discretionary treatment of various churches by the government. On the other hand, many religious communities became eligible for the kind of tax-based subsidy described above.
featured photo illustration by Zoltán Balogh/MTI