Data gathered through the 2008 European Values Survey shows that the number of people belonging to religious communities might not be as high as Census data suggest, even though 84.2 % still declared that they belong to a religious community (G. Črpić, S. Zrinščak, ‘Dynamism in Stability: Religiosity in Croatia in 1999 and 2008’, Društvena istraživanja 105-106/1-2, 2010 — in Croatian). Many also declared that they believe in God (86.9 %), whereas the percentage of those who identified themselves as a religious person irrespectively of belonging to a religious community was also quite elevated (79 %). Regular Church attendance was significantly lower (42.6 % declared that they attend Church at least once a month), as was trust in the Church (53.1 % had great and near total trust in the Church). It should be noted that regarding these last two aspects, numbers have dropped significantly between 1999 and 2008: Church attendance from 52.5 to 42.6 %, trust in the Church from 62.6 to 53.1 %.
While this can be interpreted as indicative of a decreasing role of the Church, one should take into account the fact that trust in social institutions and in fellow citizens has been dropping even more significantly, making Croatia the European society in which trust is the lowest, apart from trust in the Church, which is considered to be one of very few trustworthy institutions. All of this illustrates the complexity of the religious situation in Croatia, which combines a strong institutionalized religion (Church) with high levels of individual religiosity (K. Nikodem, S. Zrinščak, ‘Croatia’s Religious Story: The Coexistence of Institutionalized and Individual Religiosity’, in D. Pollack, O. Müller, G. Pickel (eds.), The Social Significance of Religion in the Enlarged Europe, Farnham/Burlington, 2012). The Church is effectively omnipresent in the life of the majority of the population, even if there is a tendency to criticise certain aspects of its teachings. Indeed at least one third of the faithful finds it important to critically evaluate religious statements, whereby some even go so far as to combine the teachings of different religious traditions.
The Catholic Church’s dominant position is solidified by four agreements with the Holy See (1996-1998), agreements which mainly concern various aspects of the Church’s social role: the position of religious instruction as an optional subject in public schools, official recognition of Church weddings, Army and police chaplaincy, co-financing of the Church by the State, tax issues, restitution of property confiscated during the Communist era, etc. As prescribed by the 2002 Law on the Legal Position of Religious Communities, as well as following specific agreements between the Government and religious communities – a process provided by the mentioned law –, similar rights have also been granted to other religious communities. Currently, there are agreements with 19 religious communities, while other religions are recognised and benefit from a few privileges which ordinary civil society organizations do not have.
As said, the Church’s institutional position remains controversial. It has been suggested that international agreements with the Holy See on the position of the Catholic Church might violate the (Constitutional) principle of separation between Church and State, as well as that of religious equality. This however has not led to heated public debate. Indeed, and at least for the time being, the major political parties seem to prefer maintaining a status quo.
Other aspects of the Church’s public role are more controversial, such as for example religious instruction in schools, which was introduced by the Government, as an optional subject, in public primary and secondary schools in 1991-1992 (S. Zrinščak, D. Marinović-Jerolimov, A. Marinović, B. Ančić, ‘Church and State in Croatia: Legal Framework, Religious Instruction, and Social Expectations’, in S. Ramet (ed.), Religion and Politics in Post-Socialist Central and Southeastern Europe. Challenges since 1989, Basingstoke, 2014). However, Catholic religious instruction was only fully legalised after the 1996 Agreement with the Holy See, whereas some other religious communities have also signed agreements with the Government, giving them the right to organize religious instruction.
When less than 7 pupils per school opt for religious instruction, they have the right to attend religious courses in church premises – this is mainly the case in smaller communities – and the grades obtained are recognized by the school. About 95 % of all pupils opt for religious instruction, and the majority of them chooses Catholicism (93 %). In primary schools, no alternative activities are provided to pupils who do not attend religious instruction. As a consequence, and particularly in smaller communities, a certain degree of social pressure might be felt by these students. In secondary schools, students can choose between religious (75 %) and ethics courses (25 %).
State co-financing of Churches has also been challenged as a possible violation of the Constitutional provision of Church-State separation. The Church is also often perceived as too wealthy, notably investing its riches in building activities rather than using them for social purposes. It has defended itself against such criticism by suggesting the exact opposite, i.e. that it reserves most of the money it receives for cultural and welfare purposes. Criticism is mainly directed towards the Catholic Church which, due to its size and dominant position in society, benefits from the most substantial subsidies. Most other religious communities that have signed agreements with the Government seem satisfied with the rights granted to them (religious instruction in schools, recognition of Church weddings, etc.). Even though State financing is very limited, this type of support is crucial for them.
The role of religion in present-day Croatian society, as well as opinions on religion and secularism, can be aptly illustrated by two recent events. The first one concerns gay rights. In 2003, Croatia passed the first law on same-sex partnerships, which since then are legally recognised. However, the law did not provide for the same rights as those obtained through marriage. When the centre-left Government, which came to power in December 2011, wanted to change the law in order to extend the rights obtained through same-sex partnership (rights concerning property, tax issues and social care, but not adoption), vivid public debate arose. Backed by a series of non-profit organizations and by the Catholic Church, “In the name of family”, an ad hoc founded civil organization, collected 749,316 signatures asking for a Constitutional referendum. The referendum was held on December 1, 2013. Although only 37.9 % of all citizens voted, the legal minimum was reached; as the majority of participants (65.87 %) voted in favour of the central question, the Constitution now defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Be that as it may, in 2014 the Government passed a new Law on the Life Union of Same-Sex Persons, granting them many additional rights, however still excluding adoption. The debate is ongoing: recently it has been argued that same-sex partnership, although not called marriage, violates the referendum’s outcome.
A subsequent controversial issue is the introduction of health education, especially with regards to sexuality. The latter themes were not introduced as entirely new subjects, but were linked to different subjects that were already being taught in primary and secondary public schools. Based on the proposals made by a group of experts appointed by the Ministry of Education, the health education curriculum was introduced by decree in January 2013. It was harshly criticised by religious communities, Church-based and right-wing organizations. The main objection was that parts of the curriculum were seen as promoting “gender ideology”, i.e., homosexuality and “irresponsible” sexual behaviour, that “natural” sexual differences were denied, and that parents lost the right to choose the appropriate education for their children. In May 2013, the Constitutional Court abolished the decree, as it considered that the curriculum had not been the object of public debate, and that parents’ opinions had not been taken into account.
Although these two examples are indicative of the considerable impact of (Catholic) religion on Croatian society, it is not always easy to differentiate between the role of religion and that of other aspects of a society, which harbours a peculiar mix of traditional and modern values. Indeed there are many signs of dominance of traditional values (on which religion has a profound influence), but at the same time some modern values are more or less widely accepted. This is for example the case with abortion. While research suggests that the majority of the population considers abortion to be a termination of life, they are against any legal restriction of it. Although there are quite often practical obstacles, abortion is legal up until 10 weeks of pregnancy, whereby the woman’s will is decisive. Religious communities have urged for a change of the law on abortion, but so far have been unsuccessful. Nothing seems to indicate that they will be, at least not anywhere in the near future.
In present-day Croatia, debate about secularism and the position of the Churches is all but impossible. Religion is nevertheless very present, and it profoundly affects the majority of the population. As indicated, Croatia is a predominantly Catholic country in which religions such as the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Islamic and Jewish Communities also have a certain public visibility. Still others operate freely in society, but remain nearly invisible, mainly due to the fact that they are largely ignored by public and social media. Contrary to many other European countries, Islam is not a subject of controversy, as Muslims, mainly originating from neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina, do not differ much from the other citizens in terms of language and culture. Finally, the number of non-religious persons and atheists is slowly increasing, but for the time being it is impossible to predict whether this rise will continue, and at what pace.
Siniša Zrinščak (University of Zagreb).