When Eastern Europe's Catholics commemorate the collapse of communist rule this autumn, they will have much to be proud of. In countries previously under one-party rule, democracy is now firmly rooted, along with stable institutions and a free-market economy that has brought growth and opportunity. With the Iron Curtain now a distant memory, the Church can afford to celebrate, too.

Pope Benedict XVI's Sept. 26-28 visit to the Czech Republic is an opportunity to highlight the gains but also view challenges (see story, Page 12).

"There are still plenty of problems and nothing is finally resolved, but we are at least a lot more aware of the issues and challenges we face," Krzysztof Zanussi, a Polish member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, told Our Sunday Visitor. "We still yearn for the unity and togetherness we experienced during that great moment of transformation two decades ago. But in today's civic society, people have far greater possibilities to take responsibility for their lives and gain satisfaction and fulfillment. This is an indisputable achievement."

Gradual changes

As a leading film director, Zanussi thinks dramatic images of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 have dominated memories, obscuring the fact that the changes in Eastern and Central Europe happened in stages over a longer period.

While Poles insist it was their first semi-elections in June 1989 that set the stage for the domino-like collapse of communist regimes, Hungarians claim the turning point was their government's agreement to open its border with Austria that August.

In whichever version is accepted, Christians faced heavy restrictions and, in some cases, open persecution under communism. This quickly crumbled away during these crucial months. Churches were rededicated, bishops appointed, religious orders revived and newspapers relaunched, while parish life began to return to normal, helped by local populations eager to re-explore the long-closed world of religion and faith.

Some Catholics had to wait longer. The Baltic states, Russia and Ukraine still formed part of the Soviet Union and could only count on religious freedom when they became independent in 1991. For the Yugoslav republics of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, meanwhile, communism gave way to a bloody Balkan war that dragged on until 1995.

Elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe, tough struggles lay ahead. Throughout the 1990s, the Catholic Church had to campaign to assert its rights and freedoms, and to ensure that the emerging post-communist legal and constitutional order reflected Christian principles.

Church-state hurdles

Today, in the 10 former communist states now part of NATO and the European Union, democracy and human rights are secure, and the Church's mission is protected, helped by Western-style constitutions and concordats with the Vatican. Yet, though religious freedom is no longer an East-West issue, attitudes toward the Church and faith vary widely, while disputes continue over their role and place in society.

In predominantly Orthodox Romania and Bulgaria, Catholics still complain of discrimination, while in the Czech Republic no settlement has been reached on the Church's legal position. Even in traditionally Catholic Poland, Slovakia and Croatia, the Church still faces problems in its relations with the state, and periodically comes under attack by politicians seeking to curb its influence.

Father Laszlo Lukacs, a veteran Hungarian commentator, thinks the Church is still suffering the effects of rules hurriedly introduced two decades ago.

He remembers the surprise that greeted the events of 1989, as liberal reformers often ran ahead of the Church itself in their demands for the restoration of religious rights. Yet the very suddenness posed problems in countries like Hungary, where two-thirds of the population of 10 million had traditionally belonged to the Catholic Church.

Hungary's 1990 Law of Religious Freedom was hurriedly drafted by the last communist government, and allowed any sect or cult with at least 100 members to register as churches with full legal rights. Having had 17 registered denominations under communist rule, the country now has more than 700.

Meanwhile, another law was rapidly enacted on Church properties confiscated under communist rule, transferring responsibility from the state to local authorities. Although well-intentioned, this made it much harder for Church leaders to reclaim them. Under a 1997 treaty with the Vatican, the government agreed to return buildings to the Church up to a value of $550 million, while making index-linked compensation payments for other former assets. But this process won't be completed until 2011 and many fiscal problems remain unresolved.

Although the same treaty promised the Church's 200 schools and colleges the same subsidies as their state counterparts, this has been vigorously opposed by liberal and ex-communist parliamentarians, who have accused the Church of seeking to reimpose a Catholic "cultural monopoly."

In 2003, Catholic and Protestant leaders successfully appealed to Hungary's Constitutional Court against another law making state subsidies to religious communities depend on how many citizens covenanted taxes to them. In 2005, they were forced to appeal for constitutional arbitration again, this time against planned education cuts that would have forced many Church schools to close.

Although state schools are required by law to allocate time and premises for religious classes, this has involved a "daily struggle," Father Lukacs told OSV. In this and in other areas, the Church's work is still being contested.

"Things would have been quite different if democratically elected MPs had been given longer to consider these crucial provisions," said Father Lukacs, a Piarist order priest, who acted as spokesman for Hungary's Bishops' Conference and has also edited the Catholic Vigilia journal for more than two decades. "But we didn't, in retrospect, make any serious preparations -- the 40 years of communism were too long for us to have retained any kind of hope. Today, we're in much the same position as the countries of Western Europe. The social and economic changes have been so deep that it's difficult to place the Church in the new situation."

Internal problems

Not surprisingly, some East Europeans think the Church has had trouble coping with its heavy responsibilities.

Hopes of a mass religious revival were high in the first years after communist rule, but faded as consumer lifestyles and materialistic outlooks diluted popular enthusiasm. Even in Poland, which long defied the downward trend, priestly and religious-order vocations have begun to fall sharply, and there've been signs of a decline in church attendance. Having supported their countries' accession to the European Union, local priests and bishops have had to face the consequences of Westernization.

Zanussi, the Polish film director, thinks resistance to Christian pro-life values, even in his own country, is stronger now than under communism, when anti-Church policies were implemented by hostile regimes but found little popular support. To make matters worse, he thinks Church leaders have been divided and uncertain in their response.

"We've been used to having strong spiritual leaders, and we don't seem to have maintained the high standards we set ourselves when times were hard," Zanussi told OSV. "Religious decline doesn't have to be the inevitable price of freedom and modernization -- people are still strongly Christian in their thinking here. But we seem to have become more frivolous as we've become wealthier and more secure."

While secularization has taken its toll, the Church has also been hit by controversies, which have intensified since the April 2005 death of Pope John Paul II, who was revered throughout the region. In Poland, where at least 95 percent of the population still describes itself as Catholic, the Church's bishops have had to tackle persistent claims that it was more heavily infiltrated by the communist secret police than previously supposed, allegations that culminated in the 2007 resignation of Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus of Warsaw. Last winter, the Polish government's Anti-Corruption Office launched an investigation after reports that parishes and religious orders had made millions of dollars reselling land awarded to them at knockdown prices in compensation for communist-era confiscations.

Church leaders have blamed negative publicity like this on media aggressiveness, insisting it is far outweighed by the Church's positive pastoral contributions. But surveys suggest the social capital gained by the Church under communist rule is diminishing, as trust and confidence dwindle.

Opportunities

Father Artur Stopka, a leading Catholic writer, thinks this can create opportunities as well as dangers.

"Serious jolts are being felt in the hearts and minds of Polish Catholics, as the gap grows ever wider between confessing to 'being a Catholic' and observing the truths proclaimed by the Catholic Church in daily life," he wrote on Poland's Catholic website Wiara.pl. "Jolts like these can have positive effects, by causing what is dead, redundant and rotten to drop away and uncover what is healthy, vigorous and strong. But they can also cause destruction, ruin and disaster. Their results depend not only on their force, but also on how well we prepare for them and behave while they're under way."

In Hungary, Father Lukacs agrees. When a definitive history is written of the 40 years of communist rule, he points out, its impact on the Church and faith may well turn out to have been less devastating than that of the years of freedom which followed. But these are normal challenges, for which the Church can draw on the wisdom and expertise of Catholics in other democratic, pluralistic countries.

"The mixed fortunes of the Church have been something of a sideshow compared to the great overall political and social changes that have been occurring here," the Hungarian priest told OSV. "What we know for certain now is that its future depends heavily on the broader situation. We are still waiting to see where it will all lead."

CROATIA

With Catholics making up 88 percent of Croatia's 4.4 million inhabitants, according to official data, the Church has frequently clashed over social and educational issues with the country's center-left president, Stjepan Mesic, who was elected in February 2000 a decade after acting as the final president of Yugoslavia.

In May, the bishops' conference urged voters to back election candidates who "clearly represent values and attitudes imbued with Christian doctrine and testimony," while in July it warned that an Artificial Fertilization Act drafted by the government of Jadranka Kosor, who became Croatia's first female premier this summer, risked infringing Catholic teaching and "violating human dignity."

The bishops have defended the allocation of state budget funds to the Church, noting that a "large percentage" is used for charitable purposes. However, last month, President Mesic sparked controversy by calling for crosses to be banned from state institutions and public buildings to reflect Croatia's status as a "secular state."

Although Church leaders declined to comment, a rival candidate for the country's presidential election next January, Miroslav Tudjman, the son of Croatia's first post-communist head of state, condemned Mesic's demand as an "attack on the Catholic Church and religious feelings of most Croats," and vowed to continue allowing religious and historical symbols in state and military offices.

Meanwhile, the director of the Catholic weekly Glas Koncila, Nedjeljko Pintaric, said the cross was "a symbol of civilization" and should be defended as an "integral part of the national identity" of Croatia, which is negotiating membership in NATO and the European Union.

LITHUANIA

Having won universal praise for defending national identity and human rights under communist rule, the Catholic Church faces a severe shortage of priests in Lithuania, with only a handful ordained annually from its three seminaries. Although Catholics still make up 79 percent of the population of 3.7 million, according to a 2001 census, only 15 percent practice their faith.

Church leaders have criticized government failures to ensure the right to religious education in the ex-Soviet Baltic republic, and have urged it to do more to discourage high divorce, corruption and emigration rates.

In an interview, Archbishop Sigitas Tamkevicius of Kaunas, head of the country's bishops' conference, said the Church had received back some buildings seized under Soviet rule, but had been offered below-value compensation for others.

He added Catholics had campaigned to restrict drink advertising after a "plague of alcoholism" caused a massive increase in alcohol poisoning among young people. However, parallel attempts to reduce abortions had caused a "harsh reaction," the Jesuit archbishop said.

POLAND

Although long-running disputes over abortion, religious education and other issues have now largely been settled, the Catholic Church still has to defend its role in Poland. Last month, the bishops' conference hit out at ex-communist politicians from the opposition Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) after they announced plans to withdraw the Church's state budget allocations as a means of easing the recession.

The anti-Church call was the latest by the SLD, which said last year it was also preparing a dossier against clergy business activities and tax exemptions, and would demand the scrapping of Poland's 1993 concordat with the Vatican if returned to power.

However, the former communists were accused of "anti-Church demagogy" by Father Jozef Kloch, the bishops' conference spokesman. "They haven't even considered the help the Church gives to Poles, such as through Caritas," he told Poland's Catholic Information Agency. "The SLD aren't capable of presenting any kind of positive program. It's easier for them to say, 'Let's take something from the Church.'"

Although at least 90 percent of Poland's 38 million inhabitants still call themselves Catholics, admissions to the Church's 84 seminaries have plummeted by 30 percent in the past three years, while recruitment to female religious orders has almost halved, falling 15 percent last year alone. Though still high by Western standards, Church attendance also seems to be on the decline, dropping 4 percent in 2008, according to the Church's Statistics Institute.

Some Catholics blame recent controversies, including criticisms of compensation claims by dioceses and religious orders for lands and buildings seized under communist rule, and allegations that the Church was infiltrated by secret-police agents and has tried to draw a veil of silence over less positive aspects of its communist-era record.

However, Church leaders say negative publicity has more to do with media hostility. They say any signs of religious decline are due to demographic changes and mass migration, as well as the social and cultural pressures that have been the inevitable by-product of Westernization.

ROMANIA

Church news has been dominated for the past two decades by persistent refusals by Romania's predominant Orthodox Church, which claims the loyalty of 87 percent of the country's 22 million inhabitants, to return Catholic properties confiscated and placed in Orthodox hands under communist rule. Although a Catholic-Orthodox commission was set up in 1998, a year before Pope John Paul II's Romanian visit, this made no progress, and ecumenical ties are said to have deteriorated since the September 2007 election of Orthodox Patriarch Daniel Ciobotea.

Romania's Greek Catholic Church combines the Eastern liturgy with loyalty to Rome, and had 2,588 churches in 1948, of which only 160 have been returned. In February, its leaders protested a new draft law, which will allow all disputed properties to be taken over by Orthodox majority parishes.

The Church has had other challenges to contend with too, including the building of a giant tower block outside Bucharest's Cathedral of St. Joseph, which resumed this summer after being cleared by a court order. Archbishop Ioan Robu of Bucharest has warned the new Millennium Building will place the 19th-century cathedral at risk.

SLOVAKIA

The rights of the Catholic Church, which comprised 69 percent of the Slovak population of 5.4 million in a 2001 census, were codified under a Vatican concordat in 2000, which was followed up by further accords regulating the Church's finances and confirming its right to teach religion in state schools and operate army, police and prison chaplaincies. However, disputes have periodically flared over aspects of Catholic teaching.

In February 2006, Slovakia's center-right government collapsed when its premier, Mikulas Dziurinda, shelved a further agreement, which would have allowed doctors and judges to opt out of abortions and divorce cases, after opponents warned it would violate women's rights and infringe European Union norms.

However, relations have been tenser with the present Social Democrat-led coalition, headed by premier Robert Fico, which has insisted on a secularizing program. In December 2007, the 23-member bishops' conference protested planned cuts in religious education and warned in a pastoral letter that a government project for sex education in schools would force" a permissive and individualistic ethos on Slovak society."

Last month, the bishops condemned calls for state funding of IVF treatment and protested plans by the U.N. Population Fund to open a new regional office in Bratislava. The Church has faced challenges in extending pastoral care for Slovakia's large Roma, or Gypsy, population, as well as over its provision for ethnic Hungarians, who make up a tenth of the population.

Upcoming feature

Don't miss the In Focus in the Nov. 8 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. Contributing editor Russell Shaw relates the critical -- and often unsung -- role of religion in the Nov. 9, 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and says Europe finds itself today at an equally momentous turning point.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.