The Example of Hungary: Christian Roots Coming Alive

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My dearest son, if you desire to honor the royal crown, I advise, I counsel, I urge you above all things to maintain the Catholic and apostolic faith with such diligence and care that you may be an example for all those placed under you by God and that all the clergy may rightly call you a man of true Christian profession.  Failing to do this, you may be sure that you will not be called a Christian or a son of the Church. Indeed, in the royal palace after the faith itself, the Church holds second place, first propagated as she was by our head, Christ; then transplanted, firmly constituted and spread through the whole world by his members, the apostles and holy fathers. And though she always produced fresh offspring, nevertheless in certain places she is regarded as ancient.


However, dearest son, even now in our kingdom the Church is proclaimed as young and newly planted; and for that reason she needs more prudent and trustworthy guardians lest a benefit which the divine mercy bestowed on us undeservedly should be destroyed and annihilated through your idleness, indolence or neglect.


My beloved son, delight of my heart, hope of your posterity, I pray, I command, that at every time and in everything, strengthened by your devotion to me, you may show favor not only to relations and kin, or to the most eminent, be they leaders or rich men or neighbors or fellow-countrymen, but also to foreigners and to all who come to you. By fulfilling your duty in this way you will reach the highest state of happiness. Be merciful to all who are suffering violence, keeping always in your heart the example of the Lord who said: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. Be patient with everyone, not only with the powerful, but also with the weak.


Finally be strong lest prosperity lift you up too much or adversity cast you down. Be humble in this life, that God may raise you up in the next. Be truly moderate and do not punish or condemn anyone immoderately. Be gentle so that you may never oppose justice. Be honorable so that you may never voluntarily bring disgrace upon anyone. Be chaste so that you may avoid all the foulness of lust like the pangs of death.


All these virtues I have noted above make up the royal crown and without them no one is fit to rule here on earth or attain the heavenly kingdom.

(From admonitions to his son by Saint Stephen, Office of Readings for August 16, the Memorial of St. Stephen of Hungary.)

With the election of John Paul II many eyes turned towards Poland, a nation that was persecuted under both the Nazi’s and the Communists during much of the last century.  Both of the persecutions sought to destroy not only the state of Poland, but also the nation and the culture.  While Poland has a unique place in the geography of Europe, its story of occupation and persecution is played out in several other neighboring regions, one of the most prominent is Hungary.  While it is not my intent to give a full history of this nation, some details from the twentieth century can help set the stage.

In 1918, Mihaly Karolyi came to power as the Prime Minister, eventually becoming the president of the first republic of Hungary.  Unfortunately, he ordered the disarmament of the Hungarian army, which essentially left the nation without any viable defense.  This led to the occupation of various regions of Hungary: Romania took control of much of the eastern regions, Czechoslovakia occupies the north, and both Serbia and France took over the south.  All of this led to the significant decrease of the sovereign land.

In March of 1919 the Communists took power in Hungary, which was declared the “Hungarian Soviet Republic” just a month later.  The communist leader, Bela Kun, was ousted from power in June of that year, and new borders were set under the Treaty of Trianon in which Hungary lost 71% of its territory and 66% of its population.  The ethnic Hungarian population became minorities in the neighboring countries that were awarded Hungarian land under the terms of the treaty.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Hungary joined the effort and formally joined the side of the Axis Powers.  However, the friendship would not last very long.  When Hungary suffered major losses in 1943, it sought to negotiate a surrender with the Allies.  In opposition to the proposed surrender, the German army occupied Hungary in 1944.  At this point, Hungary finds itself between a rock and a hard place.  When they tried to withdraw from the war, the Germans replaced their government with a mock government, essentially any functioning government in the country and making them a puppet for the Nazi regime.  Later in 1944 the Soviets invaded Budapest, with Hungary suffering devastating losses.  The loss of life was not the only result of the war.  Hungary also lost nearly 60% of its economy.  On February 13, 1945, Budapest surrendered unconditionally.

As in Poland, when the Nazis withdrew, the communist troops occupied all of the country.  The Hungarian Revolution, a heroic response to the post-was government, occurred in 1956.  By October 30 of that year, the Soviet Army withdrew from Budapest, but not before inflicting a severe loss of life on the revolutionaries, many of whom were peaceful demonstrators.  The Soviets did not withdraw for long.  They returned on November 4, 1956, and with a vengeance, sending troops numbering in the 100,000 – 200,000 range.  An estimated 20,000 people were killed, and 250,000 people left the country.

The last part of the 1980’s brought a fundamental shift in the structure and governance of Hungary.  Due to a series of protests and a changing global political climate, the country began a shift towards a multi-party systems, a free market economy, and a change of political power.  By May of 1989, Hungary began taking down the barbed wire fence along the Austrian border, the first hole in the Iron Curtain.  The events accelerate at this point.  East German refugees are allowed to go to the West (the exodus of which had no small part to play in the fall of the Berlin Wall), Hungary is declared a republic, free elections return, and the conservative party wins big in 1990.  By 1991 the last Soviet troops quietly withdrew.  With the new economic conservatism, there was a decrease in the standard of living as the government subsidies were removed, so for a brief time, the Socialist party was restored in the election of 1994.   Currently, however, the President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of the National assembly are all members of Fidesz, the national conservative political party.

All of this is a millennium after the letter of St. Stephen of Hungary, who ascended to the throne in 1000 AD with a crown sent by Pope Sylvester II.  Stephen embodies the character of the Hungarian nation, which somehow survived, much like Poland, despite the non-existence of the Hungarian state through much of the last century.  St. Stephen remains one of history’s rare monarchs who combined energy, holiness, and practicality.  Because of this, he was largely responsible for the conversion of the native tribes to Catholicism.  In a recent article by Christopher Gawley in New Oxford Review, the king-saint is described as follows: “Imagine Charlemagne’s administrative brilliance combined with St. Louis IX’s sanctity.”

While the challenges of Hungary are not a few, most pressing being the dismal population replacement rate of 1.25, this small a formidable nation still has something great to offer the world.  Countries that were founded on Christian principles have rapidly been losing their Christian identity in the last half a century.  There are new attempts every day to remove words like “God” and “Creator” from national mottoes, anthems, and founding documents.  Despite this unfortunate tendency, the small nation of Hungary managed something quite remarkable in its new Constitution that took effect on January 1, 2012.  In not only imbued the document with a Christian character, but it also codified many of the human dignity issues that continue to suffer under bad interpretations of constitutions in other nations of the modern West.  Said more forthrightly, the abortion and marriage debates that are raging through our country and much of Europe (though in many places the “debates” seem disastrously more settled than in others) would be far easier to defend constitutionally had the founders written them directly in to the Constitution itself.  While I firmly believe that honest Constitutional arguments will come down on the Christian side on most every issue, the presence of any ambiguity whatsoever gives the left an opportunity to highjack the “intent” of the codified law.  Perhaps after watching this process play out in much of the developed world, the hindsight Hungary enjoys has allowed them to “do things differently.”

Right under the title of the Constitution we read, “God bless the Hungarians.”  Immediately following is the “National Avowal.”  In writing this, I tried unsuccessfully to cut it down.  While long in print, it is succinct on content, and the remarkableness it enjoys deserves to be quoted in its entirety.  I will put the more impressive parts in bold.

 WE, THE MEMBERS OF THE HUNGARIAN NATION, at the beginning of the new millennium, with a sense of responsibility for every Hungarian, hereby proclaim the following:


We are proud that our king Saint Stephen built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago.  We are proud of our forebears who fought for the survival, freedom and independence of our country.  We are proud of the outstanding intellectual achievements of the Hungarian people.  We are proud that our people has over the centuries defended Europe in a series of struggles and enriched Europe’s common values with its talent and diligence.  We recognize the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood. We value the various religious traditions of our country.  We promise to preserve the intellectual and spiritual unity of our nation torn apart in the storms of the last century. The nationalities living with us form part of the Hungarian political community and are constituent parts of the State.  We commit to promoting and safeguarding our heritage, our unique language, Hungarian culture, the languages and cultures of nationalities living in Hungary, along with all man-made and natural assets of the Carpathian Basin. We bear responsibility for our descendants; therefore we shall protect the living conditions of future generations by making prudent use of our material, intellectual and natural resources.  We believe that our national culture is a rich contribution to the diversity of European unity.  We respect the freedom and culture of other nations, and shall strive to cooperate with every nation of the world.  We hold that human existence is based on human dignity.  We hold that individual freedom can only be complete in cooperation with others.  We hold that the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence, and that our fundamental cohesive values are fidelity, faith and love.  We hold that the strength of community and the honor of each person are based on labour, an achievement of the human mind.  We hold that we have a general duty to help the vulnerable and the poor.  We hold that the common goal of citizens and the State is to achieve the highest possible measure of well-being, safety, order, justice and liberty.  We hold that democracy is only possible where the State serves its citizens and administers their affairs in an equitable manner, without prejudice or abuse.  We honor the achievements of our historical constitution and we honor the Holy Crown, which embodies the constitutional continuity of Hungary’s statehood and the unity of the nation.  We do not recognize the suspension of our historical constitution due to foreign occupations. We deny any statute of limitations for the inhuman crimes committed against the Hungarian nation and its citizens under the national socialist and communist dictatorships.  We do not recognize the communist constitution of 1949, since it was the basis for tyrannical rule; therefore we proclaim it to be invalid.  We agree with the members of the first free Parliament, which proclaimed as its first decision that our current liberty was born of our 1956 Revolution.  We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.  We hold that after the decades of the twentieth century which led to a state of moral decay, we have an abiding need for spiritual and intellectual renewal.  We trust in a jointly-shaped future and the commitment of younger generations. We believe that our children and grandchildren will make Hungary great again with their talent, persistence and moral strength.  Our Fundamental Law shall be the basis of our legal order: it shall be a covenant among Hungarians past, present and future; a living framework which expresses the nation’s will and the form in which we want to live.  We, the citizens of Hungary, are ready to found the order of our country upon the common endeavors of the nation.

There is explicit mention of the Christian character of the nation, and the character is demonstrated in the subsequent statements.  There is also a national pride that comes through loud and clear.  Yet the “Avowal” is only the beginning.  The Christian principles are codified in the rest of the document.  Foundation, Article L reads, “Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the nation’s survival.  Hungary shall encourage the commitment to have children.  The protection of families shall be regulated by a cardinal Act.”

Freedom and Responsibility, Article II reads, “Human dignity shall be inviolable. Every human being shall have the right to life and human dignity; embryonic and fetal life shall be subject to protection from the moment of conception.”

Article VII says, “Every person shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include the freedom to choose or change religion or any other persuasion, and the freedom for every person to proclaim, refrain from proclaiming, profess or teach his or her religion or any other persuasion by performing religious acts, ceremonies or in any other way, whether individually or jointly with others, in the public domain or in his or her private life.”

Article XVI reads, “Every child shall have the right to the protection and care required for his or her proper physical, mental and moral development.  Parents shall have the right to choose the type of upbringing they deem fit for their children.  Parents shall be obliged to look after their children. This obligation shall include the provision of schooling for their children.  Adult children shall be obliged to look after their parents if they are in need.”

The document is credited in large part to the leadership of prime minister Viktor Orban, who correctly recognized that the current economic and social crises of Europe are due entirely to the loss of Christian identity and commitment to Christian values.  He recently said, “A Europe governed according to Christian values would regenerate.  The European crisis has not come by chance but by leaders who have questioned precisely those Christian roots” (quoted in Gawley’s article).

It is no surprise that the Hungarian Constitution has caused much consternation among the political left in both Europe and the United States.  For me, it is a sign of great hope (both the Constitution and the liberal response).  While the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Cardinal Peter Erdo, has some work cut out for it, the adoption of the Constitution demonstrates that a significant number of people are hungering (“Hungary-ing”?) for an end to the failed experiment of liberal permissiveness, hollow multiculturalism, and an inorganic break from the past.  The “National Avowal” demonstrates that a nation committed to moral renewal, beauty, national pride, the dignity of human life, authentic culture, freedom for excellence, honor for God, a conscious connection with heritage and history, children, family, virtue, and dare I say it, faith, is still not only possible, but is actively sought out and welcomed.  I’m not claiming that the United States is anywhere close to something like this, but I am saying that there is a substantial portion of our population that would rejoice over such ideas.  Maybe it is not out of the question.  Maybe with enough efforts, sweat, tears, and most importantly prayer, the ideas enshrined in the Hungarian Constitution can take root in nations across the world, nations that already have the historical roots necessary for such change.

Until that day comes, we plead, St. Stephen of Hungary, ora pro nobis.

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  1. Maybe we’ve finally found a potential refuge for observant Catholics if things get really bad over here? How easy, or hard, is it to emigrate to Hungary?

  2. Like Poland, Hungary found itself taken over by an outside power and made part of an empire for a very long time. Hungary was long ruled by the Hapsburgs, who are looked upon by some rad-Trad Catholics ad the ideal Catholic monarchy. Hungary was off the map of Europe longer than Poland was, only to emerge after the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918.

    I do not think that Poland has such a statement in its Constitution as does Hungary, but the Catholic faith has not disappeared there, either. If things got rough enough, I would look to go to Poland.

  3. Hungary, having achieved parity with Austria when the Dual Monarchy was established in 1867, held out against attempts to grant similar status to the Slavs, which might have stabilized the Habsburg Empire whose break-up was a calamity for Europe (although it is unlikely that the Empire would have survived defeat in 1918)

    Hungary was in effect an empire within an empire, and so lost a lot of territory as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. After WW II the Soviet-imposed regime was the most repressive in central Europe. In 1956 the Hungarians were on a hiding to nothing; it is sometimes said that the West was preoccupied with Suez, but in reality they wouldn’t have intervened in any case.

    When I visited Hungary in 1994, staying in Budapest and Esztergom, I found a country which seemed fully recovered from the socialist nightmare. The capital had reverted to its pre-war street names and the crown of St Stephen was everywhere in evidence. It wasn’t difficult to find a Latin Mass, either. In the space of two years I visited the Habsburg capitals – Prague (where everyone still spoke German; twenty years on and sadly English is everywhere), Vienna, Cracow and Budapest. Budapest impressed me the most. Vivat Hungaria!

  4. Any chance that its new constitution will allow a right of return to its expelled German population and stop the Magyarisartion of its Slovak, Croatian, Romanian, Bunjevac and Šokac, Serbian and Slovene minorities. Reparations to its former Jewish population would not hurt either.

  5. Hungary, like Poland, is nowadays ethnically more or less homogeneous, which is an advantage. Poland achieved this at the expense of Germany, but war is war and you can’t rewrite history. Hungary’s minorities are relatively insignificant and if they don’t like Magyar culture, tough. The interwar history of Europe was bedevilled with aggrieved minorities on the wrong side of borders; it was one of the causes of WW II. Hungary is right not to pander to them.

  6. “Hungary’s minorities are relatively insignificant and if they don’t like Magyar culture, tough.”

    How does that correspond with the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Hungary is a signatory? Or with the UN’s Universal Declination of Rights?

    That they are “few” is irrelevant, especially given the right of return, guaranteed in international treaties

    When will Hungary face up to its fascist past and repudiate it, especially the murder of peace-loving workers and peasants by fascist forces in 1956?

  7. Central and Eastern Europe’s history is full of ethnic minorities being pushed around by the dominant ethnic majority. Poland was nasty to Lemkos and Ukranians, and Banderas lashed back at ethnic Poles in 1944. The Habsburgs tolerated no dissent. It can go on and on and on. Best to let it go.

  8. Michael PS

    “Especially the murder of peace-loving workers and peasants by fascist forces in 1956”. You must be the only person still living who accepts the official Soviet version of the revolt of 1956 and its suppression. An unreconstructed Stalinist talking about human rights. Don’t make me laugh.

  9. Michael Ps
    Your facts are wrong!Hungary has the biggest jewis population in east Europe.
    The minorities have parlamentery representation,and Hungary has faced up to its
    past much more than any other naibor,Hungary is a DEMOCRACY!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. I went to Hungary in 2007 for the New Evangelisation Conference. I loved it and thought it a wonderful country. There was little evidence of political correctness, they were proud of their country and their heritage. We attended a local parish of St Christina in Budapest and the Church was full. The priest was wonderful and lots of young acolytes serving. The Confessional was very busy! Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages and the priest taking pity on his New Zealand Catholics in attendance opened the Mass by saying they would switch to Latin to help us. Even then we liberalised and neglected faithful from progressive New Zealand could still not follow and contribute.

    Eastern Europe will have a large part to play in these coming years. Poland was superb.

  11. “Even then we liberalised and neglected faithful from progressive New Zealand could still not follow and contribute”. How sad is that, and what do you propose to do about it?

  12. Yes, this is my country: Hungary! I sent the link to my American fellow parishoners here in Pennsylvania. Thank you for this wonderful article! Keep up the good work about Eastern Europe!

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