The speakers of a Romance language surrounded by a sea of Slavs and Hungarians, and inhabiting a former Roman province once home to Ovid, the Romanians have always been an unusual European nation. With regards to religion, Romania is also unique: as the Old Continent, particularly its western half, is increasingly denying its religious roots, it is experiencing a revival of Orthodoxy and a turn toward conservative social norms. As such, it is a society trying to pull itself out of the abyss of a painful history while rediscovering its Christian culture.
From May 31 to June 2, Pope Francis will travel to Romania, the first pope in twenty years to visit the country. The last pope to do so was John Paul II, who in 1999 became the first pope to visit an Orthodox-majority nation.
According to the 2011 census, 81.04 percent of Romanians identify as Orthodox Christians, 6.2 percent are Protestants, and 5.1 percent are Roman and Eastern Rite Catholics.
In recent years there have been many headlines, articles, and books proclaiming the death of Christianity in Europe. While that is true in most of Western Europe, east of the Elbe there are numerous countries in which the Catholic and Orthodox Churches play a major role in social life and rates of religious practice are stable or rising.
Since the fall of communism in 1989, Orthodox-majority Romania has been experiencing a major religious revival. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center published late last year, 55 percent of Romanian adults define themselves as “highly religious”—the highest percentage among thirty-four surveyed European countries. The same study revealed that 50 percent of Romanians attend religious services at least monthly (second place in Europe), 44 percent pray daily (third place), 50 percent say religion is important in their lives (fourth place), and 64 percent believe in God with absolute certainty (fourth place).
The results of the Pew poll are not isolated: a 2010 Eurobarometer survey showed that 92 percent of Romanians believed in God, the second highest result (after Catholic Malta) among twenty-seven European Union member states.
Perhaps the most tangible symbol of the rise of Orthodoxy in post-communist Romania is the construction of the People’s Salvation Cathedral in Bucharest, which, when completed in 2024, will be the world’s tallest Orthodox church. Last fall, 50,000 believers attended the consecration ceremony. However, the construction of the church has been controversial because three-quarters of its $125 million construction budget has come from the state, which at the same time cut funding for social expenditures.
Romanian society is also socially conservative. Last year, a referendum was held to add an amendment to the country’s constitution that would define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. The “Yes” campaign received explicit support from the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, as well as Calvinist denominations. The referendum failed because turnout was a mere 21.1 percent, short of the 30 percent required for its results to be binding. The English language press twisted the results of vote to imply that Orthodoxy was on the wane in the country. For example, Reuters quoted LGBT activists who said that the poor turnout was because Romanians were sick of political polarization, the BBC wrote that the turnout marked the success of the “No” campaign’s boycott of the referendum, and the New York Times claimed that the referendum was a sign that “Romanians largely boycotted the vote” and that it was symptomatic of Orthodoxy’s declining social influence.
Tellingly, none of these three influential media cited the results of the referendum, during which 93.4 percent of Romanians voted to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage in the constitution. These results are consistent with public opinion surveys showing that Romanian society is overwhelmingly traditional on the question of marriage. Thus, contrary to the liberal media’s spin, the poor turnout is perhaps evidence not so much of the decline of the Romanian Orthodox Church as of the weakness of Romanian civil society.
The situation is more complex when it comes to abortion. Starting in 1965 and leading up to his 1989 violent execution as Romanians finally vented their frustrations with the communist regime, the Balkan country was ruled by Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu’s regime was something of a political Frankenstein’s monster that brought together neo-Stalinist style ideology, isolationism, and ethno-nationalism.
Ceausescu’s nationalism also entailed legal restrictions on abortion. Although the Soviet Union was the first nation in the world to legalize the procedure on demand, and abortion rates in communist and post-communist countries are among the world’s highest, Ceausescu reasoned that in order for Romania to be an important player in the world, as many Romanians as possible must be born.
Abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania is portrayed in the bleak, but brilliant, 2007 Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at Cannes. It tells the story of a Romanian student who has an illegal abortion in the overcast concrete prison of communist-era Bucharest. While a great work of cinema, the film’s moral message is problematic; on the one hand, the aborted fetus is graphically shown, but on the other it implies that criminalizing abortion is as bad as the procedure itself.
One of the first things that Romania’s post-Ceausescu parliament did was to make abortion legal on demand. “Abortion is seen as a human right, as overcoming the traumatic process of illegal abortions. If the teaching of the Orthodox Church has always condemned abortion, Orthodox Church didn’t make it, until recently, an important topic on this subject,” a Romanian scholar who asked to remain anonymous explained to the Catholic World Report. She notes, however, that in recent years there has been a growth of pro-life NGOs offering counseling to pregnant women and that they are increasingly Orthodox in orientation.
Whereas Ceausescu wanted Romanians to multiply rapidly, the opposite is happening today: according to the Population Reference Bureau, Romania’s population is projected to plummet by 22.5 percent by 2050, the highest rate in the world. This adds an element of urgency to the struggle against abortion in Romania.
During the years of Ceausescu’s rule, Romania’s Orthodox Church was accused of being complacent towards the regime. “Far from being the honorable opposition to communism that was the Catholic Church in Poland, the Romanian [Orthodox] Church served its temporal masters with eagerness. Religion that Karl Marx called the opium of the people did its best here to live up to its name,” said Andrei Codrescu, a Romanian-American journalist, literature professor, and poet, said in an interview for National Public Radio. In 1989, Codrescu travelled to his native country to cover the anti-communist revolution for the American media, an experience recounted in his engrossing and, despite the grim subject matter, often funny book The Hole in the Flag.
The Romanian scholar I interviewed is more charitable in her consideration of the Church’s role. “Under communism, all religious denominations were controlled by the state,” she says. “In the 1950s and 1960s, all who criticized the regime went to prison. The submission of the Church was the price of survival. Still, the Orthodox Church had its martyrs as well.” She notes that after 1989 the Orthodox Church has spoken much about its persecution under communism.
Less edifying, however, is the Romanian Orthodox Church’s role in the Second World War. Before switching sides and joining the Allied camp in the last months of the war, Romania was ruled by dictator Ion Antonescu. Antonescu’s Romania was among Nazi Germany’s nastiest allies; it adopted Nuremburg-style racist legislation and was responsible for the deaths of 400,000 Jews and Gypsies through deportations to death camps or pogroms.
The Romanian Orthodox Church was openly allied with Antonescu, who gave the Church numerous privileges. “The Orthodox dreamed of the restoration of the Byzantine harmony between Church and state,” the Romanian scholar explains. “This dream didn’t help the Church in constructing a consistent criticism of political regimes. Often, the Orthodox Church had a nationalist discourse that went well with Antonescu’s ideology; to be Romanian meant to be Orthodox and vice versa.”
The leadership of the Romanian Orthodox Church has yet to publicly apologize for its relationship to the dictatorship.
Because Romania was the first Orthodox country to be visited by the head of the Catholic Church, it would seem logical that ecumenism there should prosper. “Since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1999, relations between Orthodox and Catholics have been quite warm,” the scholar adds. “However, after the Pan-Orthodox Council of Crete in 2016 the relationship between the Catholics and Orthodox Churches has been diplomatic and formal, and they do not engage in ecumenical and theological dialogue.”
However, ethnic animosities do affect ecumenism. “Concerning the relationship with the Calvinists, they are no formal problems between the Orthodox and Calvinists or between Catholics and Calvinists, but taking into account that Calvinists are part of the Hungarian minority, there is some reserve towards them. The same thing is true even between Romanian Catholics and Hungarian Catholics, taking into account that in some regions that are only Hungarian Catholics while in others only Romanian Catholics,” she explains.
Contemporary Romania faces many of the same issues as other European countries: population decline, corruption and a lack of trust in political institutions, and ethnic tensions. Unlike other European nations, however, the Romanians have maintained their faith, which should give them optimism when tackling these troubles.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!