Compared to other European countries, Slovakia is a religiously pluralistic, even if predominantly Catholic society. As of 2014, 18 Churches are officially recognized. Levels of declared religious affiliation – in 2011 about 75 % of the population declared religious affiliation – and church attendance – in 2014 about 28 % declared to attend church at least once a week, 12 % at least once a month – indicate that Slovakia is a moderately religious country, similar, for example, to Spain.
Regarding the character of and relationship between Church and State, Slovakia has undergone fundamental and in some cases quite radical changes. As far as relations between religions and the State are concerned, the more than 25 years since the collapse of the socialist regime (1989) can be divided into five periods, the first of which covers the years of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic (1990-1992). Here an independent religious landscape took shape. One of the first changes in the Czechoslovak legal regime was the pluralization of the educational system. Apart from public and private schooling, the latter now also integrated Church or religious actors at all levels of education. The three types of schools – public, Church and private – receive funding according to student numbers. As public schools are attended by the majority of the population, they have become the main rival for both Church and private schools, who have to a certain degree become allies, and are particularly competitive in more urbanized and wealthy regions. Not surprisingly the Catholic Church is the most active player in the field. The second period, during which what can be referred to as an elementary Christianization of the State, covers the first years of independent Slovakia, until the adoption of the so-called Vatican Treaty (1993-2000). During the third period (2000-2004), which culminated in Slovakia’s membership of the European Union, Catholicism became the basic symbolic principle of the Slovak State. This tendency was somewhat countered during the fourth period (2004-2009), which is marked by the first restrictions on Catholicism’s penetration of State structures. Finally, the fifth period (2009-present) shows a process that can be observed in many other EU countries, i.e. a weakening of European identity.
The overall tendency is that of the increasing symbolic importance of (mainly Christian) religion as a source of symbolic capital and constituent power. The Catholic and Lutheran Churches have been granted differential privileges, leading to the recent emergence of the aforementioned Catholic-Lutheran asymmetrical dualism, whereby the Catholic Church is the dominant actor. Still, the religious landscape is made up of various registered Churches (15 in 1993), of which 12 receive State subsidies.
Since the adoption of the Treaty with the Vatican in 2000, Slovak religious actors can be divided into four groups: (1) the core of the religious field (Roman and Greek Catholic Churches); (2) its fringes (the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church and other registered Churches that receive State subsidies); (3) a sphere of registered religious activity on the boundaries of the existing religious field, unsubsidized but regulated by State legislation; and (4) non-registered religious groups.
The Treaty had far-reaching implications:
- The principle of a religiously neutral State was suppressed.
- The character of the State shifted from Christian to Catholic (with minor Lutheran influence).
- Catholic feast days became national holidays.
- The Slovak Republic now subsidized Catholic education.
- The Treaty was the basis for other partial agreements, notably regarding religious services in the armed forces (2002) and Catholic education (2004). It also obliged the State to subsidize the Catholic Church, and to accept the principle of conscientious objection, affecting issues such as abortion, euthanasia, etc.
- In 2005, disputes over the right to conscientious objection resulted in a governmental crisis and early elections. The Christian Democrats (KDH), a smaller party of the governing coalition, left theAfter elections in 2006, a new social democratic government was established; discussion of the issue came to a standstill.
- Religious actors were divided into four unequal types, leading to the institutionalization of religious inequality.
All of the above measures confirmed the privileged position of the Catholic Church. That being said, when similar agreements were signed with most registered Churches in Slovakia in 2002, the Treaty also served as a model. Indeed neither the State nor the non-Catholic Churches drafted treaties which were adjusted to their particular interests, needs and teachings: they simply used the agreement with the Holy See as a blueprint. Furthermore, and in spite of the mentioned Christianization of the Slovak religious landscape, three new religious groups, unrecognized before 1993 and unrelated to established Slovak Churches, were also able to become marginal actors in the religious field before conditions for registration were tightened in 2007: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, recognized in 1993, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (2006) and the Baha’i Faith (2007).
Regarding State financing, it should also be noted that apart from subsidies covering clergymen’s salaries, some religious actors active in public positions are also subsidized. This is most notably the case for teachers of religious courses, teachers in theological faculties, Church workers in the armed forces and police, and laymen active in Church institutions. Although Church affiliation is not always a necessary precondition, it is undeniable that the system allows the Churches, and first and foremost the Catholic Church, to gain increasing influence in society, not in the least through their presence in the educational system. Indeed teachers of religious courses are not only active at all levels and in all three educational systems, but their salaries and training are also covered by public funds. As for as religious schools are concerned, in 2010 they employed more than 10 % of all teachers, even if representing only 5 % of all educational institutions. As of 2015, they gather 15 % of all students.
Since Slovakia has become a member of the European Union, slowly but steadily the question of gender equality started to appear on both the national and European political agenda. Even though efforts were made to increase awareness, public debate in Slovakia largely ignored the issue. At the same time, the Catholic Church and the Christian Democrats increasingly started to focus on ethical issues. As a direct consequence, as early as 2004 a first resolution forbidding embryonic stem cell research was voted. One year later a second resolution followed. Thus the first years of EU membership point to a conflict between two symbolic systems and two types of symbolic capital in the process of shaping power structures in Slovakia: European and Catholic. Debate on bioethical issues, reproductive rights, religious and sexual education revealed tensions between the Catholic Church and Slovakia regarding the nation’s relation to the European Union and other international authorities.
Since 2012, a new, sixth phase in the development of relations between the State and religions in Slovakia seems to be taking shape. Its features are only starting to emerge. In addition to the Catholic Church’s continued influence on the State and to ongoing relations between the Slovak Republic and the Holy See, religion increasingly started to penetrate public life. Most significantly in this context, during the pre-election period (spring of 2012), the Bishops’ Conference of Slovakia held consultations with the largest political parties and presented a series of requirements the Catholic Church wanted parties to meet. These included prohibiting abortion, “protecting” heterosexual marriage, restricting contraception, and guaranteeing Sunday rest. Another sign of the times is the creation, by the new government, of a so-called Board of Solidarity and Development of the Slovak Republic. Along with employers’ confederations, unions and representatives of retired people, as far as religious organizations are concerned only the Catholic and Lutheran Churches were represented on this latter Board. Both Churches thus became even more important integrating actors in society, representing Christianity as a whole as well as all other Churches and religious associations. Most significantly in this context, in May 2012 a number of members of Parliament from several political parties urged for the creation of an ecumenical chapel on the premises of the National Council (Parliament), whereas there was also a symbolic struggle between the government and the Churches over whether to maintain or abolish a national holiday that was also a Catholic and Lutheran holiday. The holiday was maintained, in large part due to the protection extended to Catholic feast days by the agreement with the Holy See.
In 2013, the Catholic Church also started applying political pressure on legislation through various public activities. On September 22, 2013 the Catholic Church organized a National March for Life in Košice, Slovakia’s second largest city and European Capital of Culture. It was attended by roughly 70,000 participants, mainly from Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. At this occasion, the Church directly addressed politicians, asking them to render abortion illegal by means of a constitutional amendment intended to preserve “respect for life from conception to natural death”, and to protect heterosexual marriage.
Religion also became a significant issue in the 2014 campaigns for the Slovak presidential elections, of which the first round took place on March 15, the second on March 29. During the campaign Prime Minister Robert Fico, a former member of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, emphasized his Catholic childhood and, supported by certain media, labeled his rival Andrej Kiska a Scientologist, leading to intense public discussion on religious sects. Discussions finally ended when Kiska was elected president.
Furthermore, in February 2014, the governing social democratic party (SMER) reached an agreement with the Christian Democratic Movement (opposition), advocating a change in the Constitution that would define marriage as the union of “one man and one woman”. On July 4, 2014, this effectively led to a constitutional amendment. Simultaneously, and as a result of the growing influence of mainly Catholic activists, a campaign was launched in order to hold a referendum “on family”. The campaign was initiated in 2014 after the Bishops’ Conference of Slovakia overwhelmingly supported the move, organizing anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia rallies: after a first national march, a local event was organized in Bratislava in September 2014; it will be followed by a second national march in September 2015. The Catholic Church-backed group Alliance for Family gathered 400,000 signatures, and the referendum took place on February 7, 2015. It included questions relating to same-sex marriage, adoption by homosexual couples and sexual education. Despite Vatican support, the referendum was no success, as only 21.4 % of eligible voters participated, far short of the required 50 %.
More recently, a number of civic initiatives in favor of increasing financial separation of Church and State have attracted media attention. These were notably supported by the new small liberal political party SKOK (ex-members of the SaS party). Although this agenda is not advanced by a very strong political actor, it seems to have public backing: according to a public opinion poll conducted in the summer of 2014, more than 30 % of the population supports the strict separation of Church and State, while more than 48 % does not accept the current situation in which Churches are subsidized.
The present analysis has clearly shown that over the last 25 years the State’s symbolic and legal privileging of two main Christian actors, along with their integration into the symbolic character of the Slovak State, has increased. Representatives of the Catholic Church have become important actors in public discourse and policy, whereby the permanent strengthening of economic positions and the symbolic favoring of traditional Churches allow for the reproduction of the principles of both the fields of religion and power, which date back to the formation of the Slovak Republic. Indeed the influence of religion, and especially of various Christian organisations, has been continually increasing. That being said, in recent years an opposite tendency, urging for a more strict separation between the State and religious organizations and catalyzed by various small political parties and civic organisations, has also been gaining momentum.
Miroslav Tížik (Institute for Sociology, Slovak Academy of Sciences).