Croatia is a small country that has won its independence in early nineties after full thousand years of foreign rule. It is perhaps best known as the newest member of the European Union. We are being led to believe that our generation finally fulfilled longings of all previous generations and that our EU membership is a definite proof that we are a part of the West, legitimate heirs of great European tradition of progress and enlightenment. But is this really the case?
Historically, Croatia was known throughout Europe as Antemurale Christianitatis, a bulwark against Ottoman invasion and unrelenting defender of Europe’s Christianity. It seems that some of our politicians believe that the times haven’t changed and that Croatia must, once more, step up in defense of rapidly dechristianized Europe. In that spirit, Croatia entered into four international agreements with the Holy See: The Accord between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia on Economic Issues, The Accord between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia on cooperation in the field of education and culture, The Accord between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia on Pastoral Care of Catholics in the armed forces and law enforcement agencies and The Accord between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia on Legal Issues. It is important to note that all of these agreements were entered into, much as all other international agreements and treaties, without any public debate and without proper information to Croatian citizens on rights and obligations arising from these agreements. Even today, almost twenty years later, Croatian citizens are poorly informed on actual implications of these agreements on their lives. The main characteristic of all four agreements is complete disproportion of rights and obligations of two contracting parties, with the Republic of Croatia undertaking numerous obligations towards the Catholic Church while getting next to nothing in return. Oddly enough, these agreements were never questioned by ruling left wing coalitions and at the time of their ratification the only opposition came from the conservative politicians who, much to their credit, recognized that acceptance of such conditions meant relinquishing a part of Republic’s sovereignty to a foreign autocracy.
The Accord between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia on Legal Issues was entered into on December 18, 1996. By entering into this Agreement the Republic of Croatia explicitly recognized „irreplaceable role of the Catholic Church in upbringing of the Croatian people and its historic and current social, cultural and educational role“. To make things worse, parties agreed that they are „aware that the majority of citizens of the Republic of Croatia belong to the Catholic Church“. This choice of words is the best example of feudal character of relations between Croatia and the Holy See. Allegedly sovereign state explicitly accepted the claim that a part of its citizens, actually the majority of them, as established during the census, „belong“ to another state, taking into consideration that agreements were entered into with the Holy See as a sovereign state. Such statement quite clearly contradicts the spirit of, otherwise secular, Croatian Constitution pursuant to which power derives from the people and rests with the people as a community of free and equal citizens. Perhaps the next census should include the question whether Croatian citizens accept the sovereignty of the Holy See instead of sovereignty of the Republic, i.e. do they consider themselves citizens of the Holy See instead of Croatia? While answering this question, citizens should be aware that this agreement provides the Catholic Church with possibility and legal grounds for promotion of interests of the Holy See, which are not necessarily in line with interests of Croatian citizens.
Legislation of the Republic of Croatia is explicitly excluded from founding and overall legal status of legal entities of the Church, which are governed exclusively by provisions of the Canon law. This places the Catholic Church into a favored position in respect to all other religious groups since they have to comply and are governed by separate legislation. Recognition of status of a public entity for the Catholic Church means guaranteed funding from the state budget, which is not the case with any other religious group.
The agreement especially emphasizes the secrecy of confession, even in more detail than the Criminal Code. Confession secret may not be disclosed even when such disclosure is in public interest. It is hardly surprising that there have already been several cases in which priests refused to provide testimony. It is even less surprising that the most recent case if one of a bishop who refused to testify in criminal proceedings against a priest who is charged with embezzlement of some 1.5 million Euro of Church money. Even worse, in case of a criminal investigation of a cleric, prosecution must first inform the church authorities and only then they are allowed to proceed. Recently, there was a case of a Catholic priest who was convicted in front of a church court for sexual molestation of a minor but he was never indicted in front of a regular court due to statute of limitations. Pursuant to information that were made public, church authorities were aware that this priest was a pedophile but did nothing until it was no longer possible to cover it up. Had they acted immediately and informed authorities, the priest could have been prosecuted and hopefully some children could have been spared from molestation. Actions of the church authorities, however despicably immoral, were completely legal due to the shameful international agreement. The perfectly legal punishment for the priest was restriction of movement, prohibition of hearing of confessions, obligation to make monetary contribution to Caritas and obligation to apologize to victims. It may be said that he was forced to retire. This seems much more lenient than the mandatory prison sentence imposed by the Criminal Code.
It must be said that cases of sexual harassment are not as frequent in Croatia as they are in some other countries with the Catholic majority. This is largely due to the fact that Croatia still has a relatively well functioning social network that functions as a combination of government’s intervention and mutual support of extended families. This network remains a rapidly devolving legacy of a once secular state with the combination of economic failure and increased influence of the Church bound to soon make it a mere memory.
The Accord between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia on Pastoral Care of Catholics in the armed forces and law enforcement agencies was entered into on December 18, 1996 and is probably the least disputed and harmful of all four agreements. It is certainly fair provide pastoral care to those that are willing to assume personal risks in order to protect their fellow citizens who are not willing and, indeed, in most cases not required to assume these risks. In spite of that, this agreement also institutionalizes inequality between rights of Catholics and others, even though they all assume the same risks. Given the fact that only about two thirds of members of armed forces declare themselves as Catholics and in spite of the fact that the Republic of Croatia entered into similar agreements with some other religious groups, obligations on providing of pastoral care for non-Catholics are much smaller, especially financial obligations. This leads us to conclusion that about one third of members of armed forces realize their right on pastoral case in a much smaller extent than the Catholics. Such practice certainly does not seem fair and is clearly in contradiction with legislation governing military service pursuant to which all members of the armed forces should be treated equally, regardless of this ethnicity, gender, marital status, sexual orientation and political persuasion.
All expenses are being paid exclusively by the government. For instance, the government paid for construction of luxurious building of military ordinariate, commonly known in Croatia as the “Onyx Castle” due to extravagant material used for construction.
Such favored position of the Catholic Church, at expense of all taxpayers, let to situations in which members of the armed forces are routinely ordered to attend religious (Catholic) ceremonies and clergy is routinely present at public ceremonies of armed forces. Since soldiers are under obligation to follow orders of their superiors, which includes participation in religious ceremonies as a part of official protocol, regardless of occasion, and since refusal to follow orders is punishable; it is clear that non-Catholic members of the armed forces are coerced into participation in religious ceremonies they otherwise would not attend.
The Accord between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia on Economic Issues was entered into last, on October 09, 1998 and relates primarily to funding of the Catholic Church. Due to the fact that this agreement contains no control mechanisms and especially due to the fact that the Catholic Church assumes no obligations on basis of which it would be possible to control the use of allocated funds, it must be concluded that this agreement does not meet standards of a democratic society.
At the same time, financial obligations imposed on the Republic of Croatia are enormous and constitute a heavy burden on Croatian struggling economy. All contributions, charity and gifts received by the Church are explicitly exempt from taxation and they, regardless of the amounts and regardless of their sufficiency for activities of the Catholic Church in Croatia, do not affect financial obligations of the government in any way.
Majority of this agreement relates to return and compensation for property expropriated by the Yugoslav government. This issue is a particularly problematic one, taking into consideration that the Republic of Croatia, in order to avoid obligation to compensate for property expropriated by government of the Nazi-puppet state from World War II, limited its obligation only to property expropriated after the war. Clearly, the main beneficiary of this unfair and discriminatory legislation is the Catholic Church. During World War II Croatian government expropriated valuable property mostly owned by non-Croats. This property is not to be returned or compensated for. At the same time expropriations from 1945 and on affected mostly Croats and the Catholic Church. Even though one may raise the issue of origin of property owned by the Church, it is clear that such property must also be compensated for. This should not be subject to debate. However, all property should be compensated for under same conditions. Ignoring this obvious moral principle, the Church and the government agree on compensation under much more favorable terms that those applied to citizens. While citizens have to comply with strict conditions and time limits in order to qualify for return or compensation, the Church does not have to comply with any formal conditions. One must be under serious delusion about the morality of the Church in order to be surprised by this solution.
Regardless of the morality of such favored position of the Church in respect to all other beneficiaries, this agreement is clearly in contradiction to the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia pursuant to which all citizens are equal. Even the largest religious organization in the country should not be exempt from application of this principle. Indeed, it is particularly harmful to violate this principle in order to benefit an organization that clearly has the right to be compensated and has resources to fulfill all legal conditions for such compensation when most citizens that would otherwise be entitled to compensation may not fulfill them due to complexity of proceedings and related costs.
The government also pays a certain monetary contingency based on the number of parishes, all under explanation that the government recognizes socially valuable work of the Catholic Church in cultural, educational, social and ethical matters. The Church, as a recipient of these funds, is under no obligation to justify its expenditure and therefore it may not be verified whether these amounts were used for socially valuable work or, as often is the case, for new SUVs. At the same time, a certain amount is being paid for construction of churches and pastoral objects that are not listed as cultural heritage, as well as for charitable activities of the Church. In other words, when the Catholic Church generously donates 12 million Kuna to victims of recent floods, it gives them our money and gets all the credit for it. As if this is not enough, the government undertook to provide appropriate land for construction of new churches and church buildings.
Besides, each year upon recommendation of the Church the government approves and finances special programs and projects of legal entities of the Church that are considered generally useful. In this respect the Church also gained a favored position taking into consideration that, besides fund allocated and paid on other basis, it receives a significant portion of funds allocated to projects and programs of civil associations and organizations. Taking into consideration the already permanent incapacity of the government to provide significant funding for such projects, additional financing of Church activities suffocates civil society and has very detrimental consequences on plurality of society.
The exact amount paid annually by the government is not publicly known. It is estimated that the annual amount exceeds one billion Kuna (roughly 150 million Euro or roughly 1% of annual state budget), without financing of projects of legal entities incorporated by the Church.
Probably the most important international agreement and certainly the one with the most far reaching consequences is the Accord between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia on cooperation in the field of education and culture entered into on December 18, 1996. Already in the preamble the Republic of Croatia recognizes “irreplaceable role (of the Catholic Church) in upbringing of Croatian people and its historic and current role in cultural and moral education of people, as well as its role in the field of education and culture”. The Republic of Croatia also “recognizes that majority of its citizens belong to the Catholic Church”. Such wording is certainly odd, especially since Croatian citizens never gave a mandate to its government to transfer some of its competences to a foreign autocracy. Perhaps it is time to ask citizens whether they “belong” to the Republic of Croatia as a society of free and equal citizens or to a foreign autocracy that does not recognize human rights even on a declaratory level.
This agreement provided legal grounds for introduction of Catholic education into all public schools, starting from the first grade, with no alternative subject until the fourth grade of elementary school. In order to include Catholic education in curriculum, the government had to reduce the number of mathematic and Croatian language classes (35 school hours per year, each).
While rights of parents to provide their children with religious education may not be disputed, although it may be reasonably argued that additional mathematic and language lessons would be much more useful, Catholic education in public schools is certainly not the best possible solution for exercise of this right. The government did enter into similar agreements with some other religious groups but with one significant difference. Catholic education is guaranteed while others are merely given the option to organize religious classes, provided there is sufficient interest among parents and, of course, funds. In most cases it is not possible to organize such education, except in minority schools. It should be noted that the government refused to enter into similar agreements with some religious groups thus completely preventing them from organizing religious education in accordance with their beliefs. Such practice is a clear violation of Croatian laws and Constitution as well as of European Convention on Human Rights.
As if religious classes for Catholics are not enough, the government undertook the obligation to “take into consideration values of Christian ethics” in all public kindergartens, schools and universities. This is, of course, further exploited by the Church and even other subjects include “Christian” literature and non-scientific statements. Simultaneously, Church-sponsored and backed organizations are objecting and thus far have been very successful in prevention of introduction of civil and health education into school curriculum. Even though values of Christian ethics may be questioned in a free society, we may generally accept that these are good values but they, by their nature, represent particular and not universal values and as such are certainly not most suitable for inclusion into educational system. After all, even the contracting parties admit that at least a part of Croatian citizens do not “belong” to the Catholic Church.
In order to avoid any possibility of mitigation of damage caused by this practice, contracting parties agreed that the Church will have the exclusive right to appoint teachers and to decide upon programs and content of religious education. The government has no influence on any of these matters, except the obligation to pay all expenses.
Although this agreement violates constitutional right on equality, with a bit of good will its implementation could have been at least less harmful. Taking into consideration that there is no alternative to Catholic education during the first three years of elementary school, the alternative for non-Catholic children is to be left in the school hallway unattended. Most schools do not have the facilities or the staff to attend to such children and, pursuant to the agreement; Catholic education is treated equally to all other subjects “especially in respect to schedule of classes”. This effectively prevents schools from scheduling these classes as first or last classes in order to accommodate everyone. The actual choice for non-Catholics is the one between unwanted Catholic education and sitting in the hallway. It would be interesting to examine how this fits into values of Christian ethics, for example: “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Mat 25:40).
What is actually being done to our little brothers and sisters who are forced to sit in school hallways while their friends are discovering secrets of Catholic faith and Christian ethics? Common sense conclusion is that they are being wronged since they are publicly displayed as different and thus harmfully affecting their self-confidence, all within a public institution whose primary task is education and upbringing of these little people. In order to reach conclusions on specific consequences of such, clearly unfair and harmful practice, UNICEF performed a research and found that children consider that „…children treat those children who do not attend religious education the worst …“.
We must not forget that today there are already generations of young adults who spent their entire education in such system and do not know any different or better practice. It is particularly important that Croatia is a country in which, historically, being a wrong kind of Christian meant being a member of a wrong nation. Being a member of a wrong nation often meant violent death, for Catholics and for others. Fortunately, these days are gone but would be forgotten much sooner if we would stop separating children on the basis of their faith or lack thereof (more precisely, their parents’ faith or lack thereof).
Croatia’s long awaited independence marked the beginning of Catholic Reconquista with Church and its numerous associations getting thoroughly involved in all public institutions, from kindergartens and schools to universities and hospitals. Needless to say, all initiatives sponsored by the Church were aimed at reversal of secular character of the state. In any society the “fog merchants”, as we call people who sell false promises, illusions and generally non-existing products, thrive along with unemployment, poverty, insecurity and ignorance. Croatia, with its struggling economy, enormous unemployment rates and not fully resolved ethnic tensions is no exception. It is a pity that a country that gave birth to so many outstanding individuals and whose generations yearned to be truly a part of the western culture is wasting this opportunity to fulfill its purpose and provide life of prosperity for its citizens.
Alan Sorić, attorney-at-law
Member and Head of the Legal Department of Center for Civil Courage