THE CABINET has pledged stronger cooperation with the Catholic Church and the pope following a recent visit by President Rudolf Schuster to the Vatican, his first foreign visit since the September parliamentary elections.
The cabinet has promised to address state financing of the Catholic Church, Catholic education in state schools and issues surrounding objections of conscience, such as whether information gleaned from confessions should be considered privileged.
Local Catholic authorities are now hopeful that specific bilateral treaties between the state and the Vatican will be passed within the four-year term of the new cabinet.
Of the country's 83 per cent believers, nearly 70 per cent claim to be Catholic, which means Slovakia has 3.7 million faithful, according to the 2001 national census. This figure puts the Church in a strong position to ask the state to address its needs.
In November 2000 Slovakia signed a general treaty with the Vatican granting respect, safety, and assistance to the Catholic Church in the country.
At that time many observers criticised the Vatican treaty for being too vague. However, its lack of hard goals was useful to the wide-spectrum ruling coalition at the time, because it enabled it to avoid political conflicts.
Now two of the four parties in the new cabinet have the word Christian in their names, and the Catholic Church expects a smoother passage of the three Vatican treaties.
Marián Gavenda, spokesman for the Slovak Conference of Bishops (KBS) told The Slovak Spectator October 29 that a special commission with the KBS was already working on the Vatican treaties.
"We hope the first treaty to be completed will be the one concerned with the education sector," Gavenda said.
That treaty would include an agreement on the financing of church schools and it would also grant the Catholic Church the right to have Catholic educators lecturing children on the Christian faith in all state schools.
Slovak state officials have expressed their will to cooperate with the church's wishes as far as possible.
"In the sphere of education we have to guarantee that the financing of church schools is on an equal level with state schools," said Deputy Prime Minister Pál Csáky.
But Katarína Závacká from the Slovak Academy of Science's Institute of State and Law said she believed the state should not cover all church schools' costs. She argued that if parents want to send their children to schools that are not run by the state, they should cover part of the costs themselves.
"The state can contribute to these schools to a certain extent but they aren't state schools. Those who want their children to attend [church] schools, should pay for it," Závacká said.
Under the existing law on school financing, the country's approximately 150 religious schools are entitled to obtain money from the state budget only after they comply with a certain set of requirements.
The two other treaties with the Vatican that Gavenda hopes will be passed under this cabinet concern objections of conscience and the financing of the Church.
Gavenda said the state was currently obliged to pay the wages of religious servants and also covered "about 20 per cent of the expenses related to the operation of bishops' offices".
"We are not expecting any special treatment but finances are always a problem. The faithful are taxpayers like all other people, and the Church does many things that alleviate the state, such as caring for the handicapped," said Gavenda.
How much the state would be bound to contribute to the Church would be a matter of both political agreement in the cabinet and negotiations between the Church and the state.
A treaty concerning spiritual services to be provided by Catholic priests to those who work in the country's security forces - including the army, police and penitentiary facilities - was already passed in August this year.
According to that treaty, which Schuster officially exchanged with Vatican cardinal Angelo Sodano on October 28, up to 70 Catholic priests will be hired to the forces to carry out spiritual services. Similar treaties have already been passed in Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and Croatia.
Schuster said the Vatican was not putting any pressure on Slovakia to prepare the new treaties mentioned by Gavenda, and added that if similar requirements were demanded by Slovakia's other registered churches, they should be granted the legal safeguards as well.
"If their requirements prove to be substantial, it wouldn't be good to exclude them," the president said.
Preliminary support for the passage of the three new treaties with the Vatican was expressed by the ruling coalition parties in the cabinet's policy programme.
"In the [cabinet's programme] we have accepted [the treaties]," Ľubomír Lintner, vice-chair of the ruling coalition's liberal New Citizen's Alliance party told Slovak daily Pravda.
4. Nov 2002 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová