A fairly large portion of the Slovak public believes that an inordinately important concern of churches — especially the dominant Roman Catholic Church — is to pursue their economic interest and extend political influence. As a result, Slovak churches face a serious challenge: In the process of negotiations with the government concerning economic security, the decline of trust could turn into a full-blown crisis of confidence, with possibly irreversible consequences for churches.
Under the current system, the state pays the wages of the clergy, even though it does not regulate the number of clergy hired each year. Over the last decade, state expenditures for registered churches that have exercised their legal right to receive funding (13 out of 18) have more than doubled. Yet, in order not to be viewed as interfering with the church’s internal affairs and thus compromising religious freedom, the state has not tried to influence policies regarding the church and its clergy.
Changing the system of direct state financing of churches and religious societies is currently the most pertinent and widely discussed issue concerning state-church relations in Slovakia. The present system of financing of churches and religious societies is problematic and untenable in the long run, but the absence of social consensus and political will has precluded its replacement with a more appropriate model. The law that governs the financing — passed shortly after the forced nationalization of church property by the Communist Party — has been in effect since 1949, though the model of direct state support of churches stretches back to the eighteenth century. This long history indicates that any fundamental change in the financing model, which would be derived from the doctrine of strict separation of church and state, is unrealistic and, to many Slovaks, also undesirable.
In February 2011, Daniel Krajcer, the Minister of Culture of the Slovak Republic, met with representatives of the registered churches, taking the first step toward fulfilling the government’s commitment, in cooperation with the churches, to “open an all-society dialogue on the problematic issues of funding the churches.” This meeting represents an official attempt to identify and implement a mutually suitable financing model. Although there is no guarantee that this effort will prove more successful than previous attempts, both the state and the churches are better equipped to bring this task to fruition than ever before. Considering the social, religious, and political contexts surrounding the debate, it may be several years before a sufficiently broad consensus is reached and a new model of financing takes effect.
Recent discussions indicate that Slovakia will not indiscriminately copy foreign financing models, even though these models — especially the European ones — are being carefully considered. Most likely, the state will continue to subsidize religious schools, restoration and preservation of church buildings that represent national cultural heritage, wages of clergy serving in the armed forces, and various public benefit activities for the foreseeable future.
The new model will probably affect the two most controversial aspects of the current system of financing: clergy salaries and financial support for the operational costs of denominational headquarters. Undoubtedly, Slovak churches will have to rely more heavily on self-financing, but their revenue will likely continue to be indirectly supplemented by the state through a church tax or tax assignation.
Since the model of financing churches through a church tax (i.e., an additional tax imposed by the state on believers) is unpopular in Slovakia, its establishment would almost certainly lead to an outflow of members from traditional churches, as recently witnessed in Germany and Austria. Thus, the most feasible model appears to be tax assignation. In this case, every citizen would be required to designate a specific percentage of their income tax to one of the recognized churches or other previously approved cultural or charitable organizations.
Though the Slovaks’ trust of the institutional church seems to be gradually declining, they are not withdrawing their church affiliation, as has happened in some Western European countries. However, the Slovak churches must now realize that the challenge is not only economic but also ethical.
About the image: The Catholic church tower in Bratislava, Slovakia. (photo: Riviera Kid/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.