Political Catholicism and the Church maintained their leading role in Slovenian social and political life throughout the first half of the 20th century. It was only WWII and the communist rise to power that ended their dominance over Slovenian society. In the Slovenian territory, WWII was characterized by the triangle “national liberation struggle/civil war/collaboration”. Since the Liberation Front was led by the Slovenian communists, the Church did not hesitate to support collaboration with the occupiers.
Immediately after the war, the Church was the only organized force of opposition in Slovenia. It was burdened not only by its role in the collaboration with the Italian and German occupiers, but also by its fifty years’ dominance over the Slovenian nation, materialized through political Catholicism. The new communist elite regarded the Catholic Church and religion as a result of unscientific delusions. An even bigger concern were its international connections via the Vatican, which the communist regime perceived as an institution that formed the ideological “pillar of reaction” and therefore needed to be uncompromisingly eliminated.
The communists altered their unbending stance towards the Church in the second half of the 1950’s, after Yugoslavia had distanced itself from the Soviet Union. Particularly since 1958, they adopted self-management socialism as interior policy. With the Yugoslav authorities responding positively to the Vatican’s efforts to normalize diplomatic relations, 1962 saw the beginning of official negotiations, which resulted in the 1966 Church-State agreement. This Church-State agreement finally also led to Tito’s visit to the Vatican in 1971.
The 1970’s saw the increasing popularity of several Catholic laymen and ecclesiastic dignitaries who wanted to establish intense dialogue with the communist authorities. They followed instructions from the Vatican, which intended to use the “Yugoslav case” as the model for establishing relations with socialist States. In this context, in 1980, a few years before Tito’s death, Alojzij Šuštar was appointed Archbishop of Ljubljana, and it was owing to his willingness and ability to foster dialogue with the regime that Slovenia witnessed further mitigation of repression.
In the 1980’s, Slovenia was swept by a democratization process in which the Church did not really participate. Consequently, its role in Slovenia is highly particular, and cannot be compared to the situation in other European countries. Still the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Slovenia were fairly important agents of Slovenia’s independence process, as it offered possibilities to meet their interests. Indeed, by playing a positive role, the Church partly made it up for its stance in the previous years, whereby it was able to kill two birds with one stone: it would no longer have to deal with not only the communist order in Slovenia, but also with Yugoslavia, a predominantly Orthodox country.
On November 21, 1990 the Slovenian Assembly adopted the Law on a Referendum on national Independence, which took place on December 23, 1990. Voter turnout was 93.2 %, with 88.2 % voting for an independent and sovereign Slovenia. As the plebiscite approached, members of the hierarchy appealed to the Slovenian population, urging them to vote in favor of independence. In the aftermath of the Yugoslav attack on Slovenia, the Bishops’ Conference issued a statement, which was followed by a public appeal, directed towards Slovenians and the international community. In both instances, a call was launched for international recognition of the independence of Slovenia.
In the immediate aftermath (June 28, 1991) of the attack, John Paul II sent a cable to the then Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Marković, protesting against the use of violence. On September 8, 1991 he addressed another appeal to the international community, indirectly drawing its attention to the right of nations to self-determination. At that time independence was favored by only two “solo players” in the international arena, Germany and Austria, as well as by the Vatican. Most significantly, the Holy See recognized Slovenia before the EEC member States.
Concomitantly, Catholic political engagement brought to the surface a number of ecclesiastic demands and desires that turned into subjects of political discussion. Up until today, these remain hotly debated issues. They include the return of post-WWII nationalized Church property, the reinterpretation of the (key) role played by the Church at the level of collaboration with the fascist and Nazi occupational authorities, discussion of the Church’s legal status, the introduction of a Sunday school in public schools, the influence and funding of religious media, and State funding of the Catholic Church. The Church expected for a solution to these issues to be found in the Slovenian Declaration of Independence and the inauguration of the new government, led by a Christian Democrat. It was strengthened in this belief by its traditionally strong position in society.
Indeed, with a population of 2 million, the Republic of Slovenia is a predominantly Catholic State: in the 1991 census, 70 % of the population declared to be Catholics. Less than 30 % of all citizens regularly attend religious services. Be that as it may, the 1991 Constitution of Slovenia stipulates strict separation between Church and State.
Since the Declaration of Independence, Slovenia has witnessed no major disputes. However, soon after Franc Rode was appointed Archbishop of Ljubljana in 1997, it became clear that he did not hesitate to address issues that went beyond the constitutionally stipulated separation of Church and State. Quite controversial even in the eyes of Slovenian Catholics, he also criticized individual social subsystems, called for the introduction of a Sunday school in public schools, advocated the increase in denationalization claims, and publicly opposed the right to abortion.
As for the financial side of the Church-State relationship, the funding of the Catholic Church in Slovenia is mostly stipulated by the Denationalization Act, i.e. the act on the return of nationalized property, passed in November 1991, during the rule of a Christian Democrat Prime Minister. With the Act legalizing the return of property “in kind”, property was denationalized to such an extent that it became the Church’s primary source of funding.
Apart from commercial activities carried out under the auspices of the Church, an additional lifeline is the selling of (tax free) religious services, whereas the Church is also allowed to compete in public tenders for different programs funded by municipal and State budgets. In addition to (tax free) voluntary contributions and donations, it can also rely on State funding for ecclesiastic buildings. This also applies to part of priests’ pensions, as well as to their invalidity and health insurance.
Recently, a completely new financial source has also been introduced: general State funding for Churches and religious communities. Whereas the latter are exempt from a whole series of taxes (real estate income, property, inheritance,…), an additional highly particular source of income is also owed directly to tax payers, who can ask the State to transfer 0.5 % of their income taxes to a religious institution of their choice.
In spite of its high expectations following the signing of a subsequent Concordat (with the Vatican) in 2001, the Church has had difficulties penetrating the public education system, even if it did manage to establish its own ecclesiastic schooling. In the field of public education, the separation between Church and State has been strictly observed, whereby both political parties and the Church are simply forbidden to be active in schools. One exception is the elementary school course in Religions and Ethics, which can include lectures by theologians, but the latter have no monopoly on the curriculum. Be that as it may, the Republic of Slovenia finances the Faculty of Theology, which is incorporated into the national system of public university education, and it also covers up to 85 % of private Catholic schools’ expenses. There are also twenty-two Catholic kindergartens and four Catholic grammar schools, as well as the Catholic Institute, which aims at establishing a new Catholic university.
It should by now be clear that most of the Church’s expectations upon national independence have come true. However, in 2011, the tide seems to have somewhat turned, when Roman daily L’Espresso leaked information revealing that the Archdiocese of Maribor had put the Church in the red by € 800 million due to inappropriate investments. Following Vatican pressure, the Archbishop of Maribor soon resigned “at his own request”. Recently, it has emerged that the deficit is considerably larger, as debt claims are said to have amounted to € 1.0002 billion.
The financial collapse of the Archdiocese of Maribor gave the Church a blow of unprecedented dimensions. In 2013 and 2014, the Holy See reacted with drastic measures: it deposed the highest dignitaries of the Slovenian Catholic Church, which had not happened in the Slovenian territory since the Counter-Reformation at the end of the 16th century. The media labeled the developments a “human resources tsunami in the Slovenian Church”.
The scandal had serious consequences for Church affiliation. Whereas in 2005 70.3 % of the Slovenian population declared themselves Catholic, their share dropped from 67.5 % in 2009 to 63.1 % in 2013. However, as indicated by Slovenian public opinion polls, the importance of religion in life between 2009 and 2013 does not seem to have changed significantly.
The current topics in social polemics in connection to religious issues in Slovenia are in part related to the loss of the financial foundation that followed the mentioned catastrophe. Firstly, the Church remains the supporter of the right wing political option that draws its legitimacy from the anti-communism movement of the 1970’s. This raises the question of reconciliation and national pacification due to collaboration of the Church with the Italian and German occupier and the communist revolution. Another issue is the question of religious education at school, and especially its introduction in the public school system. The Church also demands an increase in the number of private schools owned by Catholics, whereby also urging for State financing for such schools. To all this can be added a series of “classic” issues that are also at the center of attention in many other EU countries: same-sex marriage, artificial insemination, adoption by same-sex couples, army chaplains in the military and the establishment of a military ordinariate, and finally also abortion.
The main tension and opposition inducing factor in Slovenian society is the Church’s mobilization, and sometimes also creation, of civil society groups intended at exercising political pressure. They have great public visibility, and call for the organization of referendums on key issues. Moreover, the Church’s continuing insistence on the WW II era image of Catholics as “humiliated and insulted citizens” has maintained it into a kind of social ghetto. Thus the idea of a “permanent divide” in Slovenian society has taken shape, whereby the election of Pope Francis has also led to internal division within the Church, i.e. between those who favor and those who oppose his policies. A case in point is the recent encyclical Laudato, considered an embarrassment for the friendly relations between the xenophobic political right and the Catholic Church in Slovenia.
Egon Pelikan (Institute for Historical Studies, Koper, Slovenia).