Church--state relations in post-communist Romania. Real deprivatization or the way back to Byzantine Symphonia?

Author:Alexandru, Felicia


This paper starts from the belief that the realities of post-communist world, including the relations between Church and State, should benefit from an appropriate theoretical delineation, which is currently missing. This is more relevant if one bears in mind the relevance of Orthodox Church in Romania due to its high legitimacy among Romanian population, in a more general context described by an increasing relevance of religious issues, here being also included the European Union and the internal debates about its Christian roots, about the potential role of a catholic Poland or the eventuality of admitting a Muslim country within its borders.

Key words: secularization, deprivatization, Romanian Orthodox Church, Central and Eastern Europe, post-communism, Church--State relations


This paper starts from the belief that the realities of post-communist world, including the relations between Church and State, would benefit from an appropriate theoretical delineation that is currently missing. This is especially the case concerning the Orthodox Church of Romania, which enjoys high levels of legitimacy among the Romanian population. This is an increasingly relevant issue both within the country and the European Union, particularly as the latter debates its Christian roots, as well as the potential role of a Catholic Poland, and the eventuality of admitting a Muslim country within its borders

Beginning with the assumption that in every society religion is inherently an expression and reinforcement of social solidarity (1), it is essential to keep in mind the Durkheimian conception that religion serves as a marker for any community of believers, and indicates the sacred nature of both permanent social obligations and social practices to induce social cohesion (2). Moreover, an analysis of the relationship between the Church and the state should concede that such an analysis describes the historical outcome of the process of nation-building, in which a legitimized leadership attempts to consolidate their position.

The resurgence of religion in the contemporary world is a highly debated subject, and is constantly linked to its importance in the collapse of the Communist bloc. (3) Generally, it is admitted that Churches emerged as powerful actors in the post-communist era, as they were highly legitimized by their suppression under communism. Yet this issue has become very controversial, as religion has turned from a private matter to a politically divisive issue. (4) Studies on the role of religion in East Central Europe have looked at the role of Churches in the democratization process in terms of the institutional space they created and by their symbolic resources, yet in doing so often neglect the substantive content of religion, and limit their research to an "empty vessel" approach. (5)

The relationship between the State and Church is often addressed within the dichotomy of Western and Eastern Christianity, since they prescribe different connections to nationality and ethnicity. Specifically, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which is the focus of this paper, is considered to relate to the Christian ecclesiastical identity of ethnic identity and secular power (6). It is generally assumed that the Orthodox Church was not part of the process of modernization, but that it first become involved as an alternative existential project (7) Additionally, while it is a generally acknowledged that during communism the Orthodox was politically passive, through analyzing the case of the Romanian Orthodox Church this paper will argue that this particular institution has clear political objectives consistent with a process of post-communist deprivatization.

According to the last census, Romania is one of the most religious European states, with a level of 87,5% self-declared Christian Orthodox and a constant level of confidence in the Orthodox Church of around 80 percent (8). Generally, it is acknowledged that the Romanian Orthodox Church has always had special connections with the state, even during communist times, in which, according to the principle of "economy" that presupposed the Church's adaptability, the state subjected religious institutions (9). This "economy principle" was subsumed under the Byzantine symphonia principle, which presupposed a close alliance between the emperor and the patriarch, with the potential to legitimize a different state of affairs. (10)

One may obviously wonder about the sources of the current religious revival in post-communist Eastern Europe. Is it a consequence of religious persecution during communism, or is it a component of the general process of the worldwide 'return of religion'? Additionally, can we, as some authors assume, attribute a real role to the Church in promoting the social and economic rebirth in specific countries? (11)

For the purpose of this paper we will look at the Romanian Orthodox Church as a formal organization in the post-communist period, and specifically analyze its involvement in public debates around the issue of State-Church relations. Before delving into this question we begin with a theoretical background based on secularization and deprivatization studies, which attempted to explain the resurgence of religion in the second half of the twentieth century.

Secularization, deprivatization and the relationship between Church and State

Secularization theories argue that a reduction in the social significance of religious institutions, actions, and consciousness, when it occurrs simultaneously with a greater societalization process, is due to the fact that "religion [...] was the ideology of the community, (12) and that the fundamental difference between the two historical stages places the opposition between a community's moral sense and society's rational order (13). Thus, going beyond the simplistic definition of secularism as the separation of religion from secular institutions, Asad explains that the essence of secularism as a political doctrine is the establishment of new concepts of "religion", "ethics" and "politics." This in turn changes the entire conceptual base of our world, and changes particular identities by introducing the idea of citizenship into the modern state. (14) Ashis Nandy, on the other hand, refers to the split religion has suffered between faith and ideology. In defining ideology Nandy treats religion as instrumental at the subnational, national and cross-national level, and as a phenomenon that serves the purpose of legitimizing political and socioeconomic acts. While it may appear so on the surface, these treatments of religion are in fact non-contradictory, and complement each other by more fully describing the present condition of religion. (15)

A large body of the literature has developed against these theories...

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