Desacrilization in Modern Society

It would be wrong to assume, after the Polish example, that Catholics of neighboring satellite countries would likewise rebel now as a cohesive religious front. Cardinal Mindszenty was as much, or more a Catholic symbol and charismatic personality in Hungary than Karol Wojtyla in Poland, yet the nation’s resistance in 1956 did not crystallize around him but around the writers and poets of the Petofi Circle. This is not to be explained only by the fact that Poland is almost 100% Catholic, and Hungary only some 60% (whether nominally or not, is not now the question), with vigorous Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian minorities; one other explanation is the national question of the “torn-away” territories, Transylvania, in the first place, an issue which absorbs a greater part of what remains of nation minded energies than does the religious issue.

Thus Hungarian Catholicism, in spite of some small degree of self-affirmation and the keeping up of an official facade of Church-State cooperation, is shrinking: in school, family, cultural life, and particularly in the role of national symbols and historical references. History is hardly or badly taught, the first saint kings are called simply by their names plus the Roman numeral, St. Stephen’s (now “Stephen the First”) crown, returned to Budapest by the Carter Administration, has become just another object on display in the National Museum. The holidays of the nation, traditionally intertwined with religious connotations, are so arranged by the present regime as to coincide with events of socialism’s important dates; thus the International can be played together with the Hungarian anthem, and red flags fly side by side with the flag of the nation. A subtle or not so subtle conditioning by juxtaposition.

In short, Leninist strategy is carried out: no direct confrontation with religion and Churches, but rather their undermining. What this means is “sociologically” conceived: through largely social processes, the neutralization of religion rendering it irrelevant, annoying, with unpleasant repercussions. Religious worship and practice are not frontally attacked, they are ridiculed as old-fashioned, anti-scientific, socially and economically counterproductive. In the midst of youth- cult, it is pointed out that only old people mouth these outmoded slogans and superstitions. The adolescent with religious background or convictions is doubly, triply embarrassed and isolated. Older people with religion are persecuted as suspects, rebellious souls, bad patriots, saboteurs of socialist construction.

Now this is not merely a marxist-leninist technique of neutralizing, then eliminating religion, it is also a matter of sociological evolution, as suggested above. In other words, the mechanisms making religion and Church-life irrelevant in the lives of men are active in non-Communist countries too. This is less perceptible in lands where the Protestant ethos prevails because Christianity has blended there with forms of social life. Even business activity pays its respects to Christian “values” in Protestant countries, and so do courts, politicians, public figures, and schools.

In Catholic countries this is not so. The tradition of radicalism, jacobinism, anti-clericalism and free thinking no longer has to reckon with a strong institutional Church and with the classes that have traditionally upheld religion, at least in its formal aspects and in such doctrinal positions which reverberate on politics and society. In this second half of the century, an average day’s rhythm is in no sense punctuated by the presence of religious practice, thinking or symbols. The new rhythm is dictated by the “industrial ideology”, what the French call metro-boulot-dodo (commuting-work-sleep) with, between the last two, le tele, television watching. The industrial ideology is present not only in big cities, but also in the countryside. I have had occasion regularly to observe rural and village life in Italy and Spain, also in Bavaria with the latter’s combination of Catholic lore, tradition and sentiment. Granted that people do not display all the vibrations of their personal life. but let us note that industrial-business societies tend toward a puritanical withdrawal into the self — yet the lifestyle has become so permeated by the pursuit of consumership and leisure that activities not meaningful in this context seem odd, a kind of private, tolerated endeavor.

The Catholic religion, however, is not private, the Church and its local subdivisions are corporate, and liturgy demands more than a congregation in a building. The Catholic religion is also an eminently public and participatory religion, interested in the life of community, nation, language, institutions. But, as I observed even in tiny hilltop villages in Italy, the industrial society has come to take the inhabitants’ time, energies and interests away from the Church. The life of youth is broken up between the motorcycle, the bar, and although their daily work is not very demanding, there seems to be no time left for “religion”, not even at fiesta time. (In Italy, now in France too, the communist party, understanding the so created vacuum, is organizing the equivalents of religious celebrations and feast days.)

Two conclusions may be drawn from these brief remarks. One is that industrial society and religion either do not mix or have not yet learned to co-exist. The threat here is mainly that the acts and gestures of industrial operations seem to desacralize the Christian symbols and deprive them of meaning and credibility. The second conclusion is that communist societies use the same basic methods of desacralizing as free industrial societies, only they do so consciously and according to plan. Yet it is disturbing to know that free industrial societies have the same potential for the dismantling of religion in its internal and external manifestations.

The crisis that this journal tersely spells out on its masthead is caused, to no small extent, by the values, objectives and style of industrial society which, whether it is socialist or liberal, carries in its structures high doses of excessive rationalism. One of the journal’s roles could indeed be to explore the relationship between industrial society and the requirements of the religious spirit. The central task in such an investigation is the study of symbols versus the indefinitely multipliable manufactured objects. Does our plethora of consumer objects relate to our devaluation of sacred symbols? Do overused words and images — by the media, by advertisement, by college courses — cheapen the logos and weaken its myth-making capacity? Facing such issues may lead to the clarification of the crisis which threatens all of us.


  • Thomas Molnar

    Thomas Steven Molnar (1921-2010) was born in Budapest, studied at Columbia University, and was a Catholic philosopher, historian and political theorist.

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