Hungary Makes Waves With New Constitution

Ambassador Says Document Can Promote a 'Christian Renaissance' in Europe

| 7155 hits

By Edward Pentin

ROME, APRIL 6, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Hungary’s Ambassador to the Holy See is rather perplexed by the negative reaction of some European figures and institutions to his country’s new Constitution -- a document he sees as offering a possible impetus to a "Christian renaissance" in Europe.

"We think it’s a little bit strange to hear such voices," Ambassador Gábor Győriványi told ZENIT March 27th. "The real founding fathers of the European Union planned to base the Union on Christian values, and expressed the notion that European democracy can only be viable if constructed on the Christian basis."

The preamble of the new Constitution, or "Fundamental Law," which came into force Jan. 1, contains references to God, Christianity, and traditional family values. It further stipulates that the life of a fetus be protected from the moment of conception (abortion remains legal, however, in cases where the mother’s health is threatened).

The Constitution states that it recognizes the role of Christianity "in preserving nationhood"; it requires that marriage only be between a man and a woman; it assigns parents, rather than the State, primary responsibility for protecting the rights of the child; and it holds that "the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence."

In sum, it marks a refreshing change in stark contrast to a Europe suffering from increasing secularism and a European Union that only a few years ago tried to push through its own Constitution, which conspicuously omitted references to God or Christianity. It also points to the positive contribution some former Eastern bloc countries could make to the spiritual well-being of the continent. 

"We hope that perhaps some of Europe’s new democracies -- Poland, the Baltic states, as well as Hungary -- can give an impetus to a Christian renaissance, a coming back to the original vision of the founding fathers," said Ambassador Győriványi.

And yet the new law, drafted by the ruling centre-right Fidesz party and its coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party, has drawn hyperbolic criticisms both domestically and internationally. Often these attacks are driven by liberals, greens, socialists and secularists – particularly in the European Parliament – who have labelled some of the Constitution’s laws "extremist," hard line and a threat to democracy. 

Many have explicitly taken issue with the Christian references in the preamble, while NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have voiced concerns, which they claim are backed up by UN treaties, over laws which ban same-sex marriage, allow discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, and do not "ensure respect for women's reproductive rights" (i.e. abortion rights). (International legal experts cited by C-FAM dismissed their claims, saying that no UN treaty even mentions abortion, sexual orientation, or gender identity and that the UN General Assembly has never accepted such redefinitions).

In addition to these criticisms, the mainstream media has largely misreported the Constitution’s contents, which has then been mistakenly repeated in some Catholic outlets. The mainstream media bias has led some commentators to suspect that the target of the ire and prejudice is the Fundamental Law’s generally pro-life and pro-Christian statutes rather than other supposedly contentious laws. 

True, a few new laws passed by the Hungarian government have been challenged by the European Commission and the Council of Europe. They are concerned that the new Constitution limits media freedom, threatens the independence of the judiciary and imposes political control over the central bank. But as Hungarian officials are at pains to point out, many satisfactory amendments to these have already been made and such disagreements are normal in a process like this.

In an interview last month with a German newspaper, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, noted that fewer than 50 individual contentious cases were being discussed with the European Commission whereas Germany has 100 cases of disagreement with the Commission, and France even more. "Are they now less European than we are? Of course not. [Such] discussions are commonplace in the EU," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. 

European Union interference has, however, been a thorn in the side of the government which led Orban to declare that Hungary "will not be a colony of the European Union" in an address on March 15, Hungary’s national day. In January, the European Commission launched "infringement proceedings" to see if Hungary’s new laws governing the central bank, judiciary and the data protection agency were permissible, while in December the International Monetary Fund denied urgently needed financial aid in protest against changes at the central bank. 

Yet many of the points of disagreement appear to be exaggerated or questionable. Ambassador Győriványi argues the press is freer than in most other countries; indeed, Reporters Without Borders published its "International Press Freedom Index 2011/2012" on Jan. 25 in which it ranked Hungary in 40th place, ahead of the United States, Italy, Greece, Malta, Romania, Latvia, Croatia and 132 other countries. 

Another "problematic" issue, particularly for the Council of Europe, has been Hungary's new church law which has cut the number of officially recognized religious organizations from more than 350 to 32. Before the law was enacted, religious groups only had to register with the courts to gain official status and access to state subsidies and tax advantages. Reasons given for the change were that some dubious religious institutions were claiming subsidies from the state and, given the country’s economic crisis, such a system had to be streamlined.

Some reports erroneously gave the impression that Hungary was forbidding these non-registered churches from operating in the country. But the country’s ambassador to Italy, János Balla, told ZENIT that they continue to be "free to exist", they just cannot receive government subsidies. The government also argues that the 32 that remain registered under the new law is a high number among EU nations. 

Ambassador Balla said that the country only has six or seven historical churches, which will have greater opportunities and more State support under the new Constitution. And contrary to the view that the government is intransigent in the face of opposition, he said if changes are "really justified," then the law "could be corrected in future." 

Also hardly mentioned in the media has been the widespread public backing for the new Constitution among ordinary Hungarians. Many reports have shown protests, but omit to mention that the ruling Fidesz party won a landslide victory in 2010 elections, securing 53% of the vote and two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament. After persistent poor governance by the preceding socialists and former communists, the new government saw its clear victory as an opportunity to finally complete Hungary’s new Constitution. The country is the last of the former Eastern bloc nations to do so after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Fundamental Law was passed by a vote of 262-44 last April.

The government also carried out a nine-month consultation in which it obtained answers to a survey of one million citizens asking them a dozen questions on what they felt were the most important issues to be included (interestingly, most called for a reintroduction of the death penalty, but that would have contravened international treaties).  

It has further been hardly reported that if the Hungarian people decide they want to change the Constitution in a few years’ time, they are able to do so because, being a Fundamental Law with a number of "cardinal laws," it is a basic, organic law that can be subject to amendments. "For me, the Fundamental Law is very transparent and that can be changed if the view of society is changing," said Ambassador Balla. "But now that’s not the case and it should be very solid for quite a long time."

The Hungarian government has welcomed the Holy See’s support which, according to Ambassador Győriványi, is "very happy" with the pro-life and pro-Christian clauses. He also stressed the Vatican has not been involved in any way in the Constitution process. But he would naturally like more backing from both the Catholic Church and other Christian groups. "Sometimes the Holy See is more cautious in cooperating than the present Hungarian government would like or would propose, but I think we will find a good solution to the Constitution and we have a good basis for it," he said. 

Looking to the future, Ambassadors Győriványi and Balla believe the secularist attacks will recede, and Győriványi expects greater cooperation with churches, including with the Holy See. "Now we have a few outdated agreements with the Holy See and other churches, and so in light of the new Constitution, we are starting to rebuild these structures, not just regarding this new church law but also real cooperation with churches," he said. He added that Hungary and the Holy See have just started negotiations to strengthen cooperation and reorganize judicial agreements between them.

More generally, the Hungarian government hopes to proceed with its new Fundamental Law without interference from outside groups, governments and individuals, and especially European Union institutions. 

"It’s a delicate issue but it is a norm of democracy to have strong positions," said Ambassador Balla. "Time will prove whether the Hungarian Fundamental Law is right, but what is important is to respect one another, to be open to accept critical views and approaches, but to avoid being dictatorial."

--- --- ---

Edward Pentin is a freelance journalist based in Rome. He can be reached at epentin@zenit.org