Many people speculate as to why Pope Francis is visiting Hungary. Why now? Yet Viktor Orban, the prime minister of that country, is the only one in the European Union who is making it more difficult to support Russia-invaded Ukraine, more or less unequivocally siding with the war aggressor. And when it is obvious that the populist propaganda machine that Orban has built will do everything it can to make political capital out of Pope Francis’ visit. After all, Orban never tires of emphasizing that there are currently only two states in Europe that want peace: Hungary and the Vatican.
As a Catholic theologian, I think that for Francis, after a short visit to the event in 2021 – the International Eucharistic Congress – the time has come not only for a country visit. Although this is of course also the task of the Pope, since it seems important to him to maintain contact with the particular Churches. But as I know Pope Francis, who represents the Argentine-style liberation theology (Teologia de pueblo) and as such has testified throughout his life that God is on the side of the poor, the marginalized, the abused, the persecuted and the disenfranchised , I believe that his visit is a very conscious decision. Behind this is the moral decay that has taken place in Hungary over the past 13 years.
I mean that a large part of the Hungarian population can no longer distinguish between aggressor and victim, criminal and innocent, black and white. I am speaking of what Pope Francis speaks about almost every day, in every noon prayer and in almost every public appearance: Russia’s war against Ukraine. At the beginning of the war he said it was an “extermination operation” which he compared to the “Nazi operation which resulted in the deaths of several million Jews”.
Visit to a mission area
Genocide is taking place in Ukraine – day after day. However, most Hungarians, including many Catholic Christians, do not see it that way and have turned against the victims, demanding that they finally surrender so that peace can prevail. But there can be no peace like that. But only the annihilation of a sovereign state. So when Pope Francis and Viktor Orban talk about peace, they mean something completely different. The Prime Minister supports Putin’s “Russian World” (russki mir) while the Pope prays for a peace that will bring freedom to Ukraine.
Viktor Orban (left) during a visit to Moscow on February 1, 2022 with Russian President Vladimir Putin
There is perhaps no other country in Europe right now that needs salvation from this immoral depravity and lack of solidarity with those in need as much as Hungary. And I think that’s ultimately why Pope Francis is coming. Because this country is a mission area. In which, as the prophet Ezekiel put it, he must remove the heart of stone from the body of men and give them hearts of flesh so that they may have life again. That’s a big challenge.
There is nothing surprising or new that the Hungarian prime minister and the propaganda machine he runs are doing everything they can to use even the Pope’s visit for their own political purposes. Orban has been doing essentially the same thing with the churches in Hungary since 2010. You are on a compulsory course for several reasons. One of the most important is the state support of the churches and thus their complete financial dependence.
Looking at the statistics, it becomes clear that the Hungarian government supports the churches to a greater extent than almost any other European country. In addition, between 2010 and 2022 the number of church educational institutions increased sharply. In other words, the state has outsourced a large part of public education and placed it under the responsibility of the churches.
In an increasingly secular Europe where the principle of separation of church and state is widely enforced, it is more than a curiosity that the opposite is happening in Hungary. On the surface, Pope Francis and the Holy See could be happy about it. But the real goal of the government is to use the church institutions to serve its own political indoctrination, which has little to do with true Christianity. Rather, these institutions are becoming strongholds of political Christianity, not sites of Christian spirituality so characteristic of Pope Francis.
conflict with the Vatican
Another factor that drew the Hungarian government and the Hungarian Catholic Church (or most churches) closer together was the many apparent ideological parallels or common values. Above all, I am thinking here that one of the most important ideological fronts of the Hungarian government is the protection and support of families. Under this motto, LGBTQ people were discriminated against up to the level of the Basic Law and completely disenfranchised. Because according to government rhetoric, all homosexuals are potentially pedophiles and therefore extremely dangerous to children, making it morally perfectly legitimate to launch a hate campaign against them.
Pope Francis on September 12, 2021 in Budapest in the Romanesque Hall of the Museum of Fine Arts during a meeting with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban (3rd from right) and the then Hungarian President Janos Ader (2nd from right)
The ever-closer alliance between the Hungarian government and the Hungarian Catholic Church has led to increasingly sharp conflicts between the latter and the Vatican. The first real turning point came with the refugee crisis in 2015. When Pope Francis suggested that every parish should take in a refugee family, almost no one followed him in Hungary except for the diocesan bishop Miklos Beer and a few Catholic priests. Cardinal Peter Erdö spoke of church institutions committing the crime of people smuggling if they took in refugees.
Will Francis Respond?
The same applies to the issue of the Russian war against Ukraine. Hungarian churches have become important disseminators of Russian wartime propaganda. A Budapest pastor wrote on Facebook in the fall of 2022 that Russia had “rescued children from Ukrainian concentration camps from Western pedophiles.” On other important societal issues, such as the complete disenfranchisement of LGBTQ people, Hungarian church leaders are essentially silent or, in more extreme cases, are openly pleased that the rights of this minority group are being trampled on.
The Jewish religious philosopher György Gabor commented on this situation as follows: “Politics are being sacralized, while religions are losing their sacral character.” In other words, the Hungarian churches have lost their freedom under the current government as well as under the communist dictatorship. Only this time it’s not about a direct persecution of the churches, but about their complete political instrumentalization. Perhaps Pope Francis will recognize this when he visits Hungary and find a way to respond.
dr Rita Perintfalvi is a Catholic theologian, Old Testament expert, religion teacher, cultural and social manager and publicist from Hungary. She works as a post-doc university assistant at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the Karl-Franzens-University Graz and lives in Budapest and Graz.