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Lithuania

In contemporary Lithuania religion is becoming more public, but at the same time more individual and private. Generally, in the Lithuanian public sphere religion means Roman Catholicism. The reasons for this are manifold. Firstly, demographical data (2001 and 2011 population censuses) shows that more than 77 % of the population consider themselves Catholic. Furthermore, the Catholic Church can be considered a “national Church” in that it supported the nation’s struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, thus gaining a special status within society.

This situation was reinforced when in 2000 an international agreement between the Republic of Lithuania and the Holy See was signed. The Roman Catholic Church’s privileged position in society distinguishes Lithuania from other Baltic States, and approximates it to its southern neighbor Poland, where the majority of the population is Catholic – even if the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania prescribes that there is to be no State religion. Another common feature of both Lithuanian and Polish society is ethnic homogeneity.

Together with Latvia and Poland, Lithuania has implemented a so-called differential system regarding religious communities, whereby “historical” or “traditional” religious communities are considered more privileged than others. One of the main privileges from which traditional religious communities benefit is State financial support: these communities are subsidized based on membership numbers provided by census data. It should come as no surprise that the Roman Catholic Church is the main beneficiary. In the case of special needs, disasters,... additional funds can be allocated. At the local level, religious communities can also be financed, among other things, through different social activities, whereas all traditional religious communities – as well as some other registered communities – benefit from tax exemptions on profits generated by religious activities. They are also exempt from taxes on immovable property.

Another area in which traditional religious communities are more advantaged than others is religious education in public schools. The latter subject is part of the obligatory “moral education” discipline; pupils or their parents have to choose between a religious education and an ethics course. Religious education courses are confessional, and they are the responsibility of traditional religious communities. The absolute majority are Roman Catholic, and the State is responsible for Roman Catholic teachers’ formation.

As far as census data is concerned, although the 2011 population census did not reveal any profound changes in the religious demography, some elements stand out as indicative of a slow evolution in Lithuanian society. Firstly, there is a slight decrease in the percentage of Roman Catholics. Secondly, membership numbers of Ancient Baltic faith adherents – to which scientific literature usually refers as Pagans – have risen from 1270 to 5118 between 2001 and 2011. Both tendencies seem to be a consequence of the increasing role of the Roman Catholic Church in Lithuania.

As for Ancient Baltic faith, in 2001-2002 public discussions were held about its status, i.e. whether or not it is a traditional religious community. Public figures and Roman Catholic Church members participated in the discussions. In the end the traditional religious community status was not attributed, based mainly on the argument that tradition should be written, not oral (as is the case for Ancient Baltic faith). In spite of the non-recognition, the debate raised the issue of the role of the Roman Catholic Church, and its impact on political decision-making. Ever since, there has been a strict juxtaposition between the Ancient Baltic Faith community and the Roman Catholic Church.

Another public event in which the Roman Catholic Church played a major part was the impeachment of the President of the Republic of Lithuania, Rolandas Paksas, in 2003-2004. A crucial element in the impeachment process was the implication of clairvoyant Lena Lolishvili in Paksas’ political activities. Cardinal Audrys Juozas Bačkis even went as far as to state that Lolishvili was the representative of the forces of evil, striving to divide society.

In 2008, the Roman Catholic Church also actively participated in public debate on conservative family policies which were approved by Parliament, but later declared unconstitutional (2012). For the first time in its history, the Lithuanian Catholic Church tried to influence political debate through the activities, i.e. the lobbywork, of non-governmental associations in Parliament. The Church‘s role in the debate on family policy marks a symbolic change, as the Church evolved from being an active agent in political life in the early nineties – the Church actively participated in the process leading up to the Declaration of Independence, as well as in the drafting of legislation, whereas clergy members even participated in local elections – to becoming a civil society actor.  

The participation of the Roman Catholic Church in the above mentioned public debates has led to increased criticism towards the Church, whereas anti-clericalism spread throughout the media and society at large. Most significantly, 2012 survey data shows a clear evolution in public opinion: Church leaders should not influence governmental decisions (53 %), the Church should be less publicly active (50 %), priests should not participate in the legislative process (75 %), in political activities, and in elections (78 %).

Meanwhile Church leaders continue to publicly express their concerns over morality issues. This reflects in the results generated by surveys undertaken in 2012. Indeed 2012 public survey data showed increasing religious individualism and religious “privatization”. Moreover, 78 % of the population stated that they were believers, whereby 67 % believed in one God, 58 % believed in Jesus Christ, 57 % believed in God the Father, 57 % believed in the Virgin Mary, 44 % believed in life after death, and 38 % believed in purgatory. At the level of religious praxis, 61 % of all respondents confirmed that they prayed on a regular basis, and 64 % that they went to confession. Concerning moral issues, 69 % of all respondents opined that suicide cannot by any means be deemed acceptable, 62 % is against homosexual intercourse, 21 % against euthanasia, and 13 % against abortion.

Clearly religious individualism is on the rise among Lithuanians, especially at the level of belief and praxis. Individualism and religious privatization also manifest themselves at the consequential level, i.e. they affect how religious values are implemented in everyday life. As such, religious life in contemporary Lithuania tends to mirror tendencies that can be observed in other Western countries where religion is becoming more public, whether through participation in civil society or by publicly discussing moral issues. At the same time religion also has a tendency to become more individualized and private, whereby individuals choose to construct their own beliefs, to practice them according to their own needs, and to apply religious values to their life choices accordingly. Thus after 25 years of national independence, Lithuanian society seems to have arrived at a point in which the heritage of the Soviet era can be considered foregone, at least at the level of religiosity.

Milda Alisauskiene (Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas).

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