Barely Surviving: the Greek-Catholic Church in Romania from Communism to Democracy
Cristina Brăgea is a researcher at the Institute for Political Studies of Defence and Military History, Ministry of National Defence, Romania. She is a PhD candidate in the field of international relations within a co-supervision program between the University of Bucharest and École des Hautes Études de Sciences Sociales in Paris.
Photo: Andrej Kokelburg
After 1989, the normative framework of the post-communist Romanian state brought about a reconfiguration of the relationship between politics and religion. Within the new legislative apparatus, one of the first measures in the political-religious sphere was aimed at officially re-establishing the Greek-Catholic Church (official name: the Romanian Church United to Rome, Greek-Catholic), previously dissolved by the communist regime in 1948. This legislative act foreshadowed the dissociation of the post-communist Romanian state from the former totalitarian regime with regard to its religious control. However, historical resentments and sensitivities related to the reconstitution and government insertion of this Church in the public sphere have called into question the limits of the neutrality of Romanian legislators as well as the way to mediate dialogue between various religious factions.
The normative mechanism regarding the religious component: a difficult-to-overcome legacy of the communist regime
Shortly after the fall of the communist regime, the democratic Romanian state officially recognized the Greek-Catholic ‘cult’, outlawed by communist authorities in 1948[i]. The process of its organization was placed under the jurisdiction of the legal regime of religious cults, namely Decree 177/1948. The first element that needs to be emphasized is that the legislation used here was inherited from the communist regime and remained in force as late as January 2007. The second aspect that must be noted is the procedural inconsistency of the act of recognition of the Greek-Catholic Church, as the Romanian legislature granted official recognition to it despite the procedural stage stipulated by the law not being fulfilled. The legislation stipulated the need for an express request to be first given by the Greek-Catholic Church for its recognition as a religious cult, and only then it could be given legislative approval[ii]. This procedure was ignored in the process of the Church’s re-establishment. In addition, the same normative act established the legal mechanism for the restitution of Greek-Catholic properties, confiscated by the communist regime at the time of its suppression. The democratic regime’s strategy for this was a synchronous inverse to that of the communist Government, following the same twofold confiscation of Greek-Catholic assets: on one hand, properties in the possession of the state[iii] were progressively retroceded, while, on the other hand, churches and parish houses[iv] incorporated into the Romanian Orthodox Church became the object of an extremely problematic ownership dispute between the two churches[v].
The discursive line adopted by the Romanian state aimed at a position of neutrality against the request of the Greek-Catholic Church for the restitution in integrum of its property[vi]. By refusing a full and clear delineation of ownership for these properties in question, the Romanian legislature considered itself as respecting a duty of the democratic state to neutrality in relation to all religions, playing only the role of guardian of religious pluralism[vii]. In accordance with the 1991 Constitution (art. 29§5), which provided for the separation of church and state, a legislative act concerning the restitution of ecclesiastical property would have represented an unconstitutional interference by the state in the affairs of the Churches. Moreover, the first Romanian democratic governments denied descent from the former totalitarian State in order to avoid responsibility for redressing the injustices committed by the communist regime[viii]. It was only in 2006, after the publication of the Final Report of the Presidential Commission for the analysis of the communist dictatorship of Romania, that President Traian Băsescu condemned the communist regime and its criminal actions, including the persecution of cults and the abolition of the Greek-Catholic Church, as a public act of assuming responsibility for the past[ix].
The positioning of the Romanian democratic state in this matter was broadly favourable to the strategy of the Romanian Orthodox Church, which tried to prevent state intervention in the restitution process to avoid significant losses to its holdings. As such, it invoked and supported ecumenical dialogue as the only viable solution. The majority of former Greek Catholics chose not to return to their former denomination after 1990, strengthening the attempt of the Romanian Orthodox Church to keep the disputed assets in its possession, as well as boosting the legitimacy of an imperative to consult adherents of the churches for any possible restitution. This approach also resonated with the concern of the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs[x] that the mass restitution of churches, without taking into account the new confessional structure of the country and existing local sensitivities, could generate new social and inter-confessional tensions.
For its part, the Greek-Catholic Church supported the idea of the explicit responsibility of the Romanian government for the restitution in integrum of its heritage. In this regard, as the successor of the communist regime, the Romanian democratic state had the obligation to return to the Greek-Catholic Church all properties in its possession at the time of its dissolution on December 1, 1948. The Greek-Catholic perspective was also supported by two resolutions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Council concerning the restitution in integrum of properties confiscated by communist totalitarian regimes across Europe.
The responsibility of the Romanian state for the restitution of the Greek-Catholic ecclesiastical properties owned by the Romanian Orthodox Church mostly amounted to mediating the dialogue between the two parties. After recommending the creation of a joint dialogue commission, made up of representatives of the clergy of the two Churches, the state intervened to bolster the dialogue by organizing joint discussions between the leaders of both Churches. A more concrete intervention was by financing the construction of new churches for the two denominations. According to the State Secretariat for Religious Affairs, the Greek-Catholic Church built 310 churches between 1990-2018 and recovered 242 churches, including five cathedrals, from the Romanian Orthodox Church[xi]. Finally, after an indecisive ending to the official dialogue, the Romanian legislature introduced the right of appeal to the civil authorities for cases in which the Joint Commission for Dialogue had failed to obtain concrete results. This provision was introduced for the first time in 2005[xii], which was later provided for by the Law of Cults from 2006[xiii].
From tangible to intangible assets: new uses and reinterpretations of Greek-Catholic symbolic resources
Deciding not to interfere in a matter considered strictly religious, the Romanian state encouraged an amiable and informal approach to the property dispute. The most often employed methods were negotiations at a local level. The creation of a Joint Commission for Dialogue, appealing to the legal and political authorities, targeted state mediation and ecumenical meetings – most notably those in Freising and Balamand – and provided government funding for building new churches for both Orthodox and Greek-Catholic communities. However, these various approaches had limited success in ending the dispute, with tensions and even violent actions in the local communities continuing. Beyond the physical violence manifested between the members of the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic denominations, the disputed properties were also the object of various forms of violence. Through forced occupation, destruction, desecration and demolition of churches, the claimed assets turned into physically contested assets. Subjected to this violence, the ineffable character of the disputed churches deteriorated, and they became emptied of their sacred, spiritual, character and reduced to mere material objects.
Despite the property dispute, the Greek-Catholic Church developed effective mechanisms of reinsertion into the public space of the democratic Romanian society. This was a slow process, manifesting itself through, political speeches, press activity, and religious services in public spaces attended by a significant number of Greek Catholics. In addition, this effort included urban interventions as part of projects launched by the local authorities of Transylvania for the commemoration of the Centenary of the Romanian State, a project carried out in 1918[xiv]. Through this, an attempt was made to build a new narrative regarding the collective memory of Greek-Catholicism in Romanian society, reflected by the integration of Greek-Catholic elements in the public space, especially in the localities faced with conflicts regarding the heritage issue.
Since the ecclesiastical properties were long disputed between the two communities, the Greek-Catholic community moved towards supporting itself via these cultural heritage efforts in the public space, a privileged place for debates and social interactions. By placing statues in parks or naming public squares and streets after hierarchs, martyrs, and Greek-Catholic intellectuals, these memorial elements become a restorative component that testifies to the history of a Church persecuted by the communist regime. As a result, the transfer of Greek-Catholic symbolic resources from the sacred space to the public one aims at a renewal of a collective imagination and public appreciation of this Church. In doing so, in addition to raising awareness of its persecution by the atheist communist regime, this effort also brings to society’s attention the Church’s key role in the political-social emancipation of Romanians in Transylvania during the Austro-Hungarian administration.
The defining element of the re-establishment of the Greek-Catholic Church and its re-entry into post-communist Romanian society was the issue of its formerly confiscated assets. Taken away by communist authorities during its suppression of the Greek-Catholic Church in 1948 and divided between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Romanian state, Greek-Catholic ecclesiastical heritage became divided, both materially and spiritually. The democratic state’s choice for non-interference in a matter deemed strictly religious was supported by constitutional provisions of church-state separation and the state’s role as guarantor of religious pluralism. This approach, however, was strongly contested by Greek-Catholic communities who considered the state, in its capacity as the successor of the communist regime, directly responsible for solving the injustices of the past regime.
Left to negotiations between the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Churches, the inheritance issue became the focal point of tense inter-denominational relations. The reintegration of the Greek-Catholic Church into the public sphere came to be realized by memorial approaches, most of which benefited from the support of public authorities. The transfer of Greek-Catholic symbols from the sacred space to the public one constituted a lot more than the mere process of legitimizing a community – and created new frontiers of encounter and awareness of a community which had become the ‘other’.
This process favoured the emergence of new social dynamics and facilitated, through a common and shared experience, the appropriation of this ‘memory of the other’, a process that Maurice Halbwachs called ‘collective memory’. Finally, in recent years, the central and local authorities of Transylvania have transformed this narrative of memory into a central element of political discourse. Thus, through an alternative use of symbolic religious elements in the public space, an attempt was made to encourage social reconciliation through coherently defined memory initiatives[xv].
[i] Decree No 126 of 24 April 1990 on some measures concerning the Romanian Church United to Rome (Greek-Catholic), in Monitorul Oficial, No 54 of 25 April 1990. [ii] Decree No 177 of 4 August 1948 on the general regime of religious cults, in Monitorul Oficial, No 178/4 August 1948, arts. 13, 14, and 17. [iii] Decree No 126 of 24 April 1990 on some measures concerning the Romanian Church United to Rome (Greek-Catholic), in Monitorul Oficial, No 54 of 25 April 1990, Art. 2. [iv] Decree No 126 of 24 April 1990 on some measures concerning the Romanian Church United to Rome (Greek-Catholic), in the Official Gazette, No 54 of 25 April 1990, Article 3. [v] Vatican Radio Archive, Romania section (ARV.Sr), file August 1992 - September 1992. [vi] ARV.Sr, file January 1989 - August 1990. [vii] ARV.Sr, file May 2002 - June 2002. [viii] Lavinia Stan, Lucian Turcescu, Religie și politica în România postcomunistă (Bucharest: Curtea Veche, 2010), 199-200. [ix] Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania, Final Report (Bucharest: Humanitas, 2006); ARV.Sr, file November 2007 - December 2007. [x] The governmental structure that regulates the relationship between the Romanian state and the recognized cults. [xi] State Secretariat for Cults, The State and Religious Cults (București: Litera, 2018), 121-22. [xii] Law No 182 of 13 June 2005 approving Government Ordinance No 64/2004 supplementing Article 3 of Decree-Law No 126/1990 on some measures concerning the Romanian Church United with Rome (Greek Catholic), in Monitorul Oficial, No 505 of 14 June 2005. [xiii] Law No 489 of 28 December 2006 on freedom of religion and the general system of religious denominations, Article 31§3, in Monitorul Oficial, No 201 of 21 March 2014. [xiv] Among these projects, the most visible in the public space was the construction of monuments in memory of the cultural, political and ecclesiastical figures who played an important role in defining the Romanian national state. A significant number of these figures belonged to the Greek-Catholic denomination, which favoured the joining of Orthodox and Greek-Catholic elements in the state's official narrative as essential and equal parts in the process of national unification. In addition, it was thus emphasized that the feeling of belonging to the Romanian nation comes before belonging to a certain confession or religion. In this sense, a statue representing Iuliu Maniu, a Greek-Catholic politician, actively involved in the perfection of the Romanian national state in 1918, was unveiled on 8 January, 2019 in Cluj, in Cipariu Square, near the Greek-Catholic cathedral dedicated to the martyrs of the 20th century. In Sibiu, on November 28, 2018, the local authorities marked the centenary of the Romanian state by placing in the Astra Park a bust of the Greek-Catholic statesman Alexandru Vaida-Voevod, who played an important role in the union of Transylvania with Romania. [xv] A suggestive example is represented by the placement in Cluj, on November 30, 2018, of three statues representing Orthodox and Greek-Catholic personalities (Orthodox Bishop Nicolae Ivan, Orthodox Metropolitan Bartolomeu Anania and Greek-Catholic Cardinal Iuliu Hossu). Also, on April 13, 2019, two statues representing a Greek-Catholic bishop - Demetriu Radu - and an Orthodox bishop - Roman Ciorogariu were unveiled in Piața Unirii in Oradea. These Romanian hierarchs fought to preserve the national consciousness of the Romanians who lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the creation of the Romanian national state in 1918. The sculptor Alexandru Păsat chose to position them face to face, leaving the impression of a mutual contemplation of the struggle for the same national ideals.