The most Catholic country in Europe? Croatia and the Catholic church

2013 is set to be an important year for both the Catholic Church, which elects a new pope, and Croatia, which will become the 28th member of the EU. These two entities share a long history, with the former wielding significant, yet often ignored, influence on political life in the latter.

A nativity scene in Osijek, Croatia. Demotix/Alen Gurović. All rights reserved.A nativity scene in Osijek, Croatia. Demotix/Alen Gurović. All rights reserved.

On 5 June, Croatia will officially be inaugurated as the 28th member of the European Union. None are more enthusiastic about this than the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Croatia, for whom it will be the culmination of a decades-long push to have Croatia recognised as the advanced, western-orientated country they believe it deserves to be.

A brief history of the Croatian Catholic church under Tito

The years following the Partisan victory in World War II were taken up with dealing with the Ustaše – the fascist, ultra-Catholic regime that had ruled the Independent State of Croatia between 1941 and 1943. Those Ustaše who were captured were tried for crimes related to the mass murder of Croatia’s Jewish and Serb Orthodox populations. Aloysius Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb at the time, was found guilty of collaborating with the Ustaše. Whether Stepinac was wholly guilty of the charges against him, or whether he was the victim of an over-zealous Communist kangaroo court continues to be disputed. But he remains a controversial figure, generally despised by Serbs and beloved by Croats, who view him as a martyr and figurehead for the Croat nation.

Croatia was, of course, part of the former multi-national Yugoslavia, which was freed from Nazi occupation by a Communist partisan movement headed by Josip Tito, started to fracture especially after his death in 1980 and broke up into warring states after 1989. From the 1950s, following an initial crackdown on religious organisations in Yugoslavia, Tito began to take a more conciliatory approach towards religion. The Law on Religious Communities, passed in 1953, made the Catholic Church de jure independent, and with the 'Belgrade Protocol' of 1967, relations between the Holy See and Yugoslavia were normalised. During the Cold War, Yugoslavia was the only ‘communist’ country to maintain relations with the Vatican, and freedom of religion was respected to a far greater degree than in other communist regimes.

One of the more significant developments for the Croatian Catholic church during the Tito years was the Croatian National Movement. It was triggered by the Serbo-Croatian Language Dispute in 1967, an attempt by Croat nationalists to push for the recognition and advancement of an independent Croatian language, rather than the official Serbo-Croatian language promoted by the Yugoslav government, which they felt was biased in favour of the Serbian variant. This demand gradually evolved into a wider movement encompassing political, economic, social and educational ideas all related to the broad idea of greater autonomy for Croatia. The Croatian Catholic church as “carrier of the national idea and fighter for greater religious liberty” was inevitably involved in the protests and civil disobedience that defined the movement. The “Croatian Spring”, as it was known affectionately to its supporters, effectively ended in 1972 with the central government’s crackdown on protests and the jailing of a large number of the movement’s leaders and activists – a move which effectively brought an end to Yugoslavia’s “liberal era”. Nonetheless, many of the movement’s demands were later incorporated into the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution, which granted more autonomy to the country’s six republics in economic and social affairs.

During this time, the Vatican made a number of concessions to Croatian nationalism. The renaming of the Rome-based Illyrian Institute and Church of St Girolamo to the Croatian Institute of St Girolamo drew considerable anger from the Yugoslav government and the Serb Orthodox Church as the institute was linked with the escape of numerous Ustaše war criminals during and after the Second World War. 1970 also saw the canonisation of the first native Croatian saint, Nikola Tavelić.

In 1975, the Great Novena - a celebration of thirteen centuries of Christianity among the Croat people – began with great enthusiasm. It effectively synchronised Catholicism and Croatian nationalism and was watched closely by the regime in Belgrade. Among its goals were the promotion of the Croatian language as a means of self-determination, the revival of the Catholic church as the foundation of the Croat nation, and the reinvention of Croatia as a 100% western nation. Archbishop Stepinac was portrayed as a martyr and a victim of a conspiracy brought about by the enemies of the Catholic church, crowds waved Croatian national flags - without the red star - and chanted nationalist songs, and although the communist press attacked them, no attempt was made to halt the celebrations. However, by the time the Novena had concluded in 1984, eighty five people had been jailed on account of Croatian nationalism, including seven Catholic priests.

The election of the first Slavic Pope, in 1978, engendered considerable excitement among the Croat people. From 1989, the Pope was in contact with Croatian nationalist, Franjo Tudjman, a major player in the Great Novena celebrations, who had founded the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in 1989. The same year he published a book, Horrors of War, which argued that Ustaše war crimes had been greatly exaggerated, and that Stepinac was a pious man whose downfall was the result of a Serb-communist joint conspiracy. In 1990, he was elected President of Croatia, in the country’s first free, post-communist elections.

In the summer of 1991, Pope John Paul II met with Tudjman, who convinced him of the necessity of Croatian independence. The Pope accepted Tudjman’s explanation for the Yugoslav crisis and instructed the Holy See to grant recognition to the new Croatian republic. The Vatican immediately began pressuring Germany and other European countries to do the same, and shortly afterwards, Croatia had received further international recognition. In this way, the Vatican was largely responsible for gaining legitimacy for the new Croatian state, something which was reinforced by the Pope’s visit to Croatia in 1994 and again in 1998, when he canonised Aloysius Stepinac. 

The Catholic church in post-Yugoslav Croatia

During the 1990s, Croatia became one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. One poll revealed that the percentage of Croats who identified themselves as Catholic had increased from 70% in 1989 to 90% in 2004, while the percentage of those listing “no religion” dropped from 18% to just 4%. Most surprisingly, “belief in God” increased from 39% in 1989 to 75% in 1996 and to 82% in 2004 - a figure which would put it among the most religious countries in Europe. The papal nuncio to Croatia, Francisco Javier Loranzo, has described Croatia as “the most Catholic country in Europe.”

The Catholic church, which had gained a reputation during the communist era as fighting for the rights of Croats, emerged as one of the most respected and influential organisations in the country during and after independence. The Church allied itself with Franjo Tudjman and his HDZ party, and the two became close bedfellows during Tudjman’s long and increasingly corrupt and authoritarian tenure as president.

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.

The Catholic church’s future

With Croatia’s imminent accession to the EU, there have been indications which suggest that the Catholic church’s influence on society is waning. In the 2010 election, the Catholic church’s preferred candidate, Milan Bandić, was roundly defeated by the SDP candidate Ivo Josipović, a self-declared agnostic. Likewise, opinion polls show that the general public’s opinions on social issues, such as abortion, are far more liberal than those of the Catholic church at large. Abortion, which is available on request in Croatia, has been a major issue for the Catholic church since they began to lobby for its complete ban as early as 1992. Both the papal nuncio to Croatia, Francisco Javier Loranzo, and the national Bishop’s Conference have called for abortion to be banned or for Croatians not to vote for candidates who are tolerant of abortion, but their cries seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Surveys have consistently shown Croatians to be in favour of abortion rights and even the HDZ has refused to promote anti-abortion laws out of fear of upsetting the public. Furthermore, Croatia ranks highly among Eastern and Central European countries that feel that the church’s influence on the state is too strong (Flere 2001).

One unanticipated aspect of Croatia’s recent development has been a nostalgic yearning for Tito. A 2004 popular poll named the atheist leader as “the greatest Croat in history”. The reason for this can be inferred from other popular polls, which showed nearly 80% of respondents had said that they enjoyed a better life under Tito. For many Croats, Tudjman, the HDZ and the Church, are seen to have exploited patriotic feelings and ethnic tensions in order to profit from the country’s independence and acquire privileged economic and social status in the new Croatia. Post-Tudjman politicians have tried to redress this somewhat. Ivo Sanader, who has attempted to rehabilitate the HDZ, bluntly declared that he would not allow the church to make laws for the country. In a recent case, the Croatian state defied the intervention of Pope Benedict himself in order to maintain control over a monastery in the Istrian district of Dajla.

Although Croatia, for historical and cultural reasons, remains highly Catholic (with the exception of its Serb and Muslim minorities), Francisco Javier Loranzo’s pronouncement that Croatia is the most Catholic country in Europe seems somewhat naive, especially when it is compared with the bastions of Catholicism that are Ireland, Malta and Poland. The conflation of nationalism and religion in Croatia makes it hard to divorce one from the other and as a result the distinctions often become blurred. The Catholic church will always remain an important feature of the Croat identity and its role in the struggle for Croatian self-determination during the communist years and the War of Independence will always be remembered respectfully (if not always correctly). Croatia provides an especially interesting example of the role of the Catholic church in post-communist nations, however, as the country becomes the 28th member of the European Union, the church may no longer be the highly influential and powerful institution it was.

About the author

Alex Sakalis is an assistant editor of openDemocracy. He co-edits the Can Europe Make It? debate.

Read On

Bertelsmann Stiftung, BTI 2002 Croatia Country Report. Gutersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2012

Bremer, T. (2010) 'Croatian Catholic Church and its Role in SocietyReligion in Eastern Europe XXX, 3.

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Perica, V. (2002) Balkan Idols: Religion and Nationalism in Yugoslav States New York: Oxford University Press.

Perica, V. (2006) The Most Catholic Country in Europe? Church, State and Society in Contemporary Croatia Religion, State and Society, Vol. 34, No. 4, December 2006.

Vučinić, M. (ed) & Vukomanović, M. (ed) (2003) Religious Dialogue in the Balkans: The Drama of Understanding Belgrade: Belgrade Open School.