AIM: start

MON, 26 NOV 2001 15:51:42 GMT

Government and Chruch at War

AIM Zagreb, November 14, 2001

The Croatian government is corrupt! Demographic problems have assumed catastrophic proportions! Pensioners are having an ever harder time making ends meet! Defenders of the fatherland are worried about their dwindling rights! Young people are leaving the country, and the unemployment rate won't go down! Social reforms have been rash, without any consideration for the most vunlerable groups! The modest maternity leave benefits are being further reduced and health care will become a privilege of the rich...

The apathetic Croatian public is forced to listen to such bleak and pessimistic forecasts day in and day out, but when they are all put together on paper and read in one breath by the Church -- and what was quoted here is just a small part of a much longer and more pessimistic inventory of affairs in the country -- it is obvious that present political conditions could have major consequences.

This is exactly what happened in November, on Friday the 13th. Croatian bishops, led by Zagreb Archbishop Josip Bozanic, addressed the Croatian public with a Message on the Current Social Situation in the country. As opposed to some other similar addresses in the past, which went via institutions affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church and could thus be interpreted as the stance of part of the clergy, this time around the Church spoke in a single voice, in which there were no dissontant tones. This was corroborated by the fact that Archbishop Bozanic was at the event. Together with the head of the Center for Advancing Church Social Doctrine, Stjepan Baloban, Bozanic read the text.

The paper explains, in four points, why it was neccessary in the first place. Point One stresses the Church's historic right to social criticism; Points Two and Three list objections to the state of affairs in the country, of which the most important were mentioned at the beginning of this article, and Point Four calls on media outlets to understand this criticism properly and benevolently. The bishops claim that the current situation in Croatia resembles the one during the reign of Pope Leo XIII, known for his social enciclyc Rerum Novarum, the Magna Carta of Roman Catholic Social Doctrine, because "little space has been left for hope and optimism, and much for unsatisfaction, divisions, unbearability and insecurity." The Bishops announcement itself caused a great deal of unsatisfaction, and deepened divisions, unbearability and insecurity. Only a day later the government -- the objective of the criticism -- issued an equally harsh response. In its press release it said it was surprised by the "fierceness, superficiality and inobjectivity of the views that were made public." The government further said it was ready in direct contact with the Church to hear explanations, more so because the Church's criticism coincides with that of certain opposition parties and radical groups." The tone of the Church's announcement, however, is such," the government said, "that it leaves little rooms for dialog," but the government said it was ready to talk anyway, and even offer the Church the chance to suggest how the state budget should be restructured so as to result in a more just distribution of funds!

Regardless of its ostensibly conciliatory tone, this correspondence was a de facto declaration of war. And the war continues to this day, although its battles have been fought in the least likely places. After the government's annoucement, Croatian Parliament Speaker Zlatko Tomcic, the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party, distanced himself from it, saying it was not prepared at a government meeting, that not all ministers took part in writing it, and that his party could not and would not accept it. The only representative of the clergy to distance himself from the Church's position, on the other hand, was Father Ivan Grubisic, a Dominican belonging to the Church's left wing, a separate figure but rather influential. He said the bishops laid the entire blame on the Racan cabinet, forgetting the previous decade which was responsible for all social woes. The Church itself scornfully said it would have nothing to do with numbers -- nowhere in the world does the Church do such things. Instead of talking with the Church about distributing money, the government ought to do a better job.

A day after Tomcic's statement, Labor and Welfare Minister Davorko Vidovic, from the Social Democratic Party, held a press conference. He struck back at the Church with equal bitterness. Pointing out benefits provided by the government, with the Church itself receiving a handsome amount, Vidovic stressed that the Church is solely interested in regaining its property, quoting as an example three facilities housing minors and mentaly disturbed people which the Church, using pressure, wants back, regardless of what will happen with those accommodated there.

The Church responded that it only wants back what was taken from it by force, saying that one of the facilities located in Sisak will continue to care for minors. It did not mention the other two facilities. It turned out that the Church has other plans for them.

Racan and Bozanic attempted to end this fierce ecxhange after seven days, by calling for dialog. The outcome is not yet known but talks are very likely to fail. Other parties, groups and individuals joined in, and the debate, in all probability, will last, even if an official government-Church dialog does take place.

For instance, the Croat Democratic Union said Vidovic's statement recalls "the difficult communist years when the Church was constantly under attack," stressing that the government cannot stand being criticized, and responds to any dissent with repression, and sometimes with parliamentary violence as well. Party president Ivo Sanader praised Zlatko Tomcic's statement. Mate Granic's Democratic Center sided with the Croat Democratic Union by saying that the government "is returning us to communism." The Church, said Vesna Skare Ozbolt, party vice president, criticized social conditions during the Croat Democratic Union era, which caused equal anger. As opposed to the former government, guilty, according to Archbishop Bozanic, of "the sin of structures," the current government is guilty of "the sin of ommission," because it pays no attention to the most vulnerable social groups. And so on, and so forth...

Most of the Church's objections are true, so true that they are, in fact, trivial. Conditions in Croatia are almost desperate and even according to government forecasts, they will not change for another year. In this, the Church's position is quite acceptable. Some other objections, however, do not hold water. Namely, when asked about the Church calling the Racan government corrupt, a word it never used to describe the government when the Croat Democratic Union was in office, Archbishop Bozanic replied that this was a quotation of Pope John Paul II, and adding, at the suggestion of a jorunalist, that "bribes given to health care workers are proof enough..." This makes no sense. Doctors and nurses were bribed in Croatia under all regimes, and the phenomenon will probably persist in the future. This is something beyond politics and it is proof of nothing else but corruption in the health care system. Birth rate began dropping in the days of socialism and the current Croatian government cannot be held responsible for that. The Croat Democratic Union upgraded maternity leave benefits in the last days of its rule, knowing full well they were unrealistic and that they will be a stone around the neck of their successors in office, over which they would be fiercely criticized. The same goes for veteran and handicapped benefits. The high unemployement rate was created by the Croat Democratic Union, and that was the time when the large number of young and educated people left the country. The Union destroyed the welfare system by massive layoffs in the health care sector, and massive employment in the army and police, and that after the war ended... The Church said none of this, and it is clear that by saying what it did, it joined the anti-government struggle, in which it has always participated, but less openly.

Namely, while the former government was in office, whose ascent, establishing and a decade-long rule it helped unselfishly, the Church gained a series of privileges cemented by an agreement made with the Holy See. Many critics say that Croatia was thereby turned into a de facto Catholic state, in which the Roman Catholic Church has a privileged position compared with all other religious communities. Thus, the Church is receiving almost DM40 million annually for various purposes. The state funds religious instruction, numerous university level schools, and it alone has the right to marry people in ceremonies having the same status as civil marriages. The Church was promised it would get back all property confiscated during the communist era, and that it will be compensated for property that cannot be returned. The state is paying for the construction and maintenance of churches and other relegious facilities; it pays pensions to retired priests, it guarantees that in the event police plan to investigate a clergyman, church authorities are to be informed first, etc. All these privileges coincided with the nationalistic stances of many clergymen, from the lowest to the highest ranks, and they fully correspond to what the radical rightists hold dear.

The Church's public address, furthermore, coincided with a major political reallignement in Croatia. Many expect the coalition government to fall soon, followed by early election. By acting in this way, the Church extended its support to the rightists rallied around the Union, still the single most powerful party in the country, whose return to power seems no longer an unlikely possibility. The stance of the Croatian Peasant Party (a coalition partner which has the best relations with the Church) shows that it cares more about what the Church has to say, than about the government. The latter is prone to change, while the former is somewhat firmer. Croatia, allegedly, is searching for a "third road" -- behind the stories of a "right of center" government lies the desire to have the Croatian Democratic Union back in office, with asssitance from the "Liberals" and "Peasants." The Church did its part, but that was not its last move. The problem is that clergymen failed to perceive that the entire state structure, its non-ideologic, economic and social part, established during the Tudjman era was untenable, and that reforms carried out by the current government would have been pursued by any other government. If, however, the Church does know this, that means that it wants nothing else but to see in power the rightist, nationalistic group reponsible for present conditions existing in Croatia, well deserving of the criticism listed at the beginning of this article.

Boris Raseta