Rudolf Baláž, Chairman of the Slovak Bishops' Conference

Rudolf Baláž, the Catholic Bishop of the central Slovak diocese of Banská Bystrica and chairman of the Slovak Bishop's Conference, was an outspoken opponent of the former regime of Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. From 1995 to 1998, he led the church to several important public stands - against racism towards Hungarians and Romanies, and against the infamous "Protection of the Republic" law approved in early 1996 by the Mečiar cabinet.

Bishop Rudolf Baláž has always taken an active role in politics, especially as an opponent of former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar.

Rudolf Baláž, the Catholic Bishop of the central Slovak diocese of Banská Bystrica and chairman of the Slovak Bishop's Conference, was an outspoken opponent of the former regime of Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. From 1995 to 1998, he led the church to several important public stands - against racism towards Hungarians and Romanies, and against the infamous "Protection of the Republic" law approved in early 1996 by the Mečiar cabinet.

The Catholic church warned that the law, which proposed to punish "internal enemies" of the Slovak Republic, "creates the danger of a new totalitariansim in our republic," and participated in mass protests against its passage. Later that year, police searched Baláž's office in connection with the sale of the painting "Adoration of the Three Kings," disposition of which was a private matter of the church. Constructive dialogue with the Mečiar government ceased, Baláž said, when the church refused to accept a political gift from Mečiar: the founding of a Catholic university.

Tensions between the Catholic church and the Mečiar cabinet were echoed by increasingly strained relations between the Vatican and the Slovak state. Following a papal visit to Slovakia in 1995, Anton Neuwirth, the Slovak ambassador to the Vatican, was recalled to Bratislava for consultations, a step normally reserved for times of extreme tension. A treaty between Slovakia and the Holy See, which was supposed to have been signed at the end of 1997, was shelved by the Vatican after the Mečiar government insisted on being notified prior to the appointment of new bishops in the country. According to the independent SITA news agency, the Vatican delayed action on the treaty until it knew the results of September elections.

According to Baláž, the church has found new room for dialogue with the current cabinet under Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda. Catholic demands for a university, for equal funding of state and church schools and for a Vatican treaty have been strongly supported by conservative Christian members of the ruling coalition. Advocacy of these demands has been so strong, in fact, that Baláž has urged Christian politicians to proceed more slowly in order that the unity of the government not be shaken.

The Slovak Spectator met Bishop Baláž to discuss the role of the church in Slovakia, as well as relations between the church and the new cabinet.

Czech Cardinal Lubomír Vlk (left) jokes with Baláž, but never about the Vatican Treaty.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How do view the role of the church in modern society?

Rudof Baláž (RB): The role of the church in the modern world has to be assessed from two different viewpoints: the real position of the church in the state apparatus, and its philosophical and ethical contribution to society.

Since the September [national] elections, the position of the church has improved remarkably. The church's approach towards state officials has become very concrete, while they themselves have become very accessible. They are willing to listen to our demands, and their reactions are characterised by tolerance and optimism. Even though we sometimes disagree, we have almost always managed to reach a compromise after explaning our problems. This is a very positive aspect of our relations. Despite this, however, I still claim that the government is just testing its relationship with the church.

Concerning the contribution of the church to society, nurturing a spirit of unity is the most important role of the church. This idea is based on tolerance, tact and respect. Our role is to glue society together, not to fragment it. We can help to create a peaceful atmosphere in this country, the government of which needs stability.

As a bishop, I personally consider the current government to be an institution working for Slovakia's good. Therefore, I try hard to promote stability in the government, and I do my best to persuade its members not to violate the principle of unity in little skirmishes over trifles.

TSS: What is the biggest difference in the government's approach towards the church under the former [1994 to 1998] cabinet of Vladimír Mečiar and the current cabinet of Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda?

RB: The difference is that before elections [under the Mečiar cabinet] I personally viewed each offer of the state to cooperate as a tactical move. [The Mečiar government] wanted to have the church involved in promoting the ruling power in public, following an equation that said "you'll get this government's support, if you support this government." I didn't like this attitude and that's why I had such a negative approach towards this practice.

Concerning negotiations with the new government, I'm still realistic, but I've watched its moves and how it behaves, and I've noted that they [Dzurinda's cabinet] do not require that a pledge be taken between us. Instead, they listen closely to our demands, an approach which I find much more positive.

TSS: Does a government which supports the church have better chance to survive in Slovakia over the long term than one which ignores the church?

RB: Up to 69% of Slovaks claim to be Catholics and 12% to be Evangelists. In a state with such a widely religious population, one which respects Christian moral principles, a tolerant government has a greater chance of surviving, while voters are more likely to re-elect such a government.

Unfortunately, not all people who claim to be religious respect Christian principles. We have already seen people in Slovakia who declared a religious allegiance but supported mafia groups and blew up cars at the same time. These two different modes of behaviour cannot go together.

TSS: Do you feel that the current government is trying to maintain good relations with the church in order to score political points with the electorate?

RB: The government has been in office only four months, which is too short a time to say one way or another. I don't get such a feeling from them, but then they've only just begun. But either way, we wouldn't accept such an offer to cooperate, since we didn't accept it from the former government.

TSS: Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský, who is the chairman of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), did not support his own government's programme, claiming that the programme statement did not include the three crucial demands proposed by the Slovak Catholic church: an official state treaty with the Vatican, the founding of a Catholic university and equal funding for state and church schools. How do you view Čarnogurský's actions? Was he playing politics, or are his Christian Democrats really trying to serve the needs of the church in Slovakia?

RB: I won't say what they should do. But I have told those people who should be hearing such things from me, that we share the opinions [of the Christian Democrats] to a certain extent. We want to promote the demands of the Catholic Church, because we find sympathy for these demands among the high percentage of the population which claims the Catholic faith.

On the other hand, I have personally appealed for peace [in the cabinet] instead of radical solutions and immediate fulfilment of these demands. The questions [opened by Čarnogurský] are certainly very serious, but the most important issue of all is that the government coalition, which was elected with big sacrifices by Slovak citizens, be stable and not fall apart. If the coalition falls, all the demands of the Catholic church will fall with it and die under its ruins. Only if the government is solid and sturdy can we deal with these matters. The government consists of four politically diverse parties which require mutual tolerance as well as our patience. If we don't let the government get on with the job of solving problems and making important decisions, what do we expect to happen? This logic has to be respected by everyone, including the Catholic church.

TSS: Are the demands of Catholics being used as political weapons by certain elements in the ruling coalition, such as the Christian Democrats?

RB: I don't blame anyone for bringing these demands into the light. From our point of view, they have to be noticed and dealt with. We have to understand, however, that the current situation does not allow for immediate solutions. As the old Roman proverb says - "Inter arma silent musae" [Among weapons, the muses are silent] - which means that no solutions can be found in the middle of a battlefield while under fire. And we certainly did find ourselves in the midst of a battlefield when these demands were raised [by Čarnogurský in November] and the government was shaken to its core. My response, therefore, was that we [the church and its supporters] have to wait. Also, I don't think that it's good to abuse a time of tension and insecurity to make political capital out of it.

On the other hand, I respect those politicians who stood up for the demands of the Catholic church. In their case, it could be considered as an expression of faith and love of the church. On the other hand, if I as a bishop did the same thing, I would only start a fight. I'm not obliged to follow their example though, because I am supposed to be able to see a little further than that.

TSS: What are the biggest problems of the church in Slovakia?

RB: The biggest problem, I think, is that the church jumped from the communism regime, which was atheist, to a newborn democracy, meaning that church members from the former [communist] regime merged with those who blew hot and cold after the [November 1989] revolution. We have many Catholics now beating their breasts, who just a few years ago served as agents for Moscow-based international socialism. Today they claim they believe in God, but their conversion never occurred publicly. And we also have those who suffered for their faith under the former [communist] regime, who were arrested and lost their families. And they are horrified and ask whether this is the way of doing things.

Many of the people who have recently entered the church have never said "Mea culpa." Instead, they say "So what?" This is our problem. I have to tolerate this situation, but [these new members of the church] should declare the reasons for their conversion.

TSS: How important is the treaty with the Vatican for Slovakia? What is the state of negotiations between the church and the Slovak cabinet?

RB: The text of the treaty with the Holy See is ready and is now being studied by experts in Slovakia as well as in the Vatican. In the near future, seven bishops and seven cabinet ministers will sit down together and negotiate the details of the treaty, and then have it prepared for ratification.

TSS: Some government officials say it would be better first to pass a general law on relations between churches and the Slovak state. This law, they say, would set out the exact rules governing the signing of bilateral church-state treaties in Slovakia, including the agreement between the Slovak Catholic church and the Vatican. In this way the government hopes to guarantee a level playing field for all churches in the country. Do you agree with this proposal?

RB: This has not yet been discussed with us, but despite that I think that the treaty with the Holy See is exceptional and very important for the state. If at any point the state succeeds in achieving a bilateral treaty with the Holy See, the country improves its credit abroad. The demands of the Holy See are considered to be very exacting and any state which meets them gains in stature.

The treaty also solves certain problems that exist between the state and the Catholic church, because it outlines all aspects of relations, including public financing for the church and other relevant matters.

TSS: What do you think of the performance of the new government in Slovakia, especially regarding such measures as the package of economic restrictions and the law on direct presidential elections?

RB: The economic package is a heritage from the past which had to be brought to light by the new cabinet. Everyone should be very tolerant and patient and should not blame the government for applying these measures, because they had no other option. The package is just a consequence of the mismanagement of the former government, which put a knife to the throat of the young Slovak state and made [an austerity package] absolutely inevitable.

Concerning direct presidential elections, I highly appreciate this move from the new ruling powers in Slovakia. Thank God that we can elect our new president in a direct vote. The entire nation now has the right to express its opinion and then bear responsibility for its choice.

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