[LINK] "The most Catholic country in Europe? Croatia and the Catholic church"
As Croatia is set to become the 28th member-state of the European Union, Alex Sakalis' Open Democracy essay describing the role of that other transnational institution in post-Second World War Croatia, the Roman Catholic Church. In Sakalis' telling, the Roman Catholic Church in Croatia has definitely capitalized on its historical status as institutional guardian of Croat national identity, to the exclusion of alternative narratives as described below (or, for that matter, as demonstrated by the protests against sex education). How long this will continue to be viable is another question: Ireland, Spain, Portugal all ended up opting for secularization, after all.
One of the first actions of the Church was to attempt to reclaim land and property that had been nationalised during the communist period. This was part of a broader policy of privatisation that Tudjman enacted and which is blamed for much of the corruption and inequality that plagues Croatia today. Some notable church figures, such as Cardinal Bozanić, the Archbishop of Zagreb, criticised this swathe of privatisation measures as being harmful to the social renewal of the country. However, that has not prevented the church from asking for over €100 million-worth of nationalised land property to be returned to their ownership. A 2004 report estimated that the Catholic church received a stipend of around 180 million kuna per year from the state budget. The best paid Catholic clerics could earn up to 9,000 kuna a year (compare to the average of 10,000 kuna a Croatian doctor would earn in 2004), plus additional earnings from various pastoral services. Ordinary parish priests receive around 4,000 kuna. While these sums are not colossal, they do make being a cleric one of the more economically viable professions in Croatia. Overall, the results of privatisation and state privileges are clear to see – in 2005, the Catholic church was ranked among the five wealthiest entities in Croatia, comparable to oil and communications corporations.
Following the visit of Pope John Paul II to Croatia in 1998, the government and the Holy See signed a treaty which regulated issues between state and church. One of the most controversial parts was the introduction of the Catholic catechism into schools, effectively requiring the Croatian taxpayer to fund the Catholic church, regardless of their beliefs. The Law on Religious Communities, passed in 2002, went some way to rectifying the situation, although the Catholic church continues to be criticised for overtly trying to influence politics and society, with the BTI Development Index accusing it of trying to “incorporate its norms and values into a secular state.”
The role of the Catholic church in Croatia today is more than just that of a religious institution. It is, as the eminent Croat historian Vjekoslav Perica writes, an institution whose “agendas of spiritual awakening and nation-construction have required a suitable past that glorifies success and emphasises Croatia’s western European character and its suffering at the hands of godless communism”. This has consequently involved much amnesia about infamous episodes in its history, such as that of the Ustaše.
The reimagining of history has been an important part of the Church’s development in post-communist Yugoslavia as they have sought to balance the stigma of the Ustaše regime with the suffering of the church under communism. Archbishop Stepinac is no longer a controversial churchman but a blessed martyr (with a Cardinal Stepinac Day celebrated in many schools), and the red star is on a par with the swastika in terms of offensiveness.
Coupled with this has been the systematic defacement and removal of numerous anti-fascist monuments that were erected during the communist era. Around 3,000 of these memorials in Croatia have been vandalised or removed by local authorities, with little or no attempt made to restore them. Many of these monuments were of artistic or historical value, commemorating the mass murder of Serbs and Jews by the Ustaše, or the Croat anti-fascists who died during the liberation of their land. Their place has been taken by memorials to Ustaše criminals such as Mile Budak (a monument to him in Lika was later taken down to facilitate EU accession negotiations). At the centre of all this has been the Catholic church, which has welcomed the removal of partisan monuments and tacitly supported the erection of monuments and instituted debates which revise Croatia’s WW2 history.