Sunday 9 December 2018

Romania is the most religious country in Europe

The Pew Research Center revealed in a report published on Wednesday that Romania is the most religious nation in Europe, judged by four criteria: the importance people ascribe to religion in their lives, regular religious practice, prayer life, and certainty of belief.

I have known this for a long time although, as Eugene Ionesco said, religion in Romania means something completely different from what it does in Catholic or Protestant countries. It is about the other world and about contemplative prayer. It is makes Romania to a Westerner so beautiful and strange.

According to the Pew Report, 64% of Romanians believe in God with absolute certainty and 50% say religion is very important in their lives. 50% also say they attend services at least monthly, but can this last be true?

Based on these figures, Pew classed 55% of Romanians as “highly religious". By contrast 11% of people in the UK are highly religious (Northern Ireland doubtless lifted the percentage, as surely did Muslims, Hindus and East Europeans) while the figure in Belgium and Sweden is 10%. Many of the very religious in both those countries are Muslims. 

I came over years to see that the mysticism of Romanian religion is the single biggest reason why this country is the most enchanting in Europe. It is part of the reason why I am tempted to call Romania the last European country, even if it is at the gates of the orient and even if Romanians told me back in the 1990s, when I asked them if Romania were in Europe, replied that they were somewhere else really.

Religiosity is not a particularly Balkan thing. Bulgaria is very much less religious. Serbs and Croats have only enough religion to kill each other, which is the easy part. Nor is it about having been Communist. The Czechs are one of the least religious peoples in the world.

The Orthodox, in the eyes of Catholics, are schismatics, not heretics like the Protestants, and little divides the two Churches in theory, but Orthodoxy is very far from Catholicism in cultural terms. 

The split in the Church in 1054 between Orthodox and Catholics was over the filioque clause. The Orthodox believe that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father. The Catholics add the words 'and from the Son'. You may think, as I did, that this is a theological quibble is not important - that it is presumptuous and almost blasphemous when faced with the incomprehensibility of Almighty God. In fact, it has huge consequences. Western Christians put much more emphasis on the Incarnation and Eastern ones on the Holy Spirit, which in hugely simplistic terms and mixing the sacred with the profane makes Orthodoxy slightly comparable to Buddhism.

Many Catholics converted to Orthodoxy because of the changes wrought by the Second Vatican Council, including Mass in the vernacular with the priest addressing the congregation. They have my sympathy. American writer Rod Dreher and others left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy because of the horrible and widespread sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. 

Such people praise the fact that the Orthodox is free from heresy and modernism. Catholics respond, as Father Richard Munkelt did recently, that this is so because the Orthodox Church is moribund.

I imagine that this true and it is a huge argument for Catholicism. On the other hand, moribundity has certain attractions, for me at least. 

You must remember that in the Orthodox countries, including Romania, the middle ages continued until well into the 19th century and in some respects in Romania they still do. The Orthodox Church exists in a space where the Reformation never happened and represents a refuge from enlightenment values and modernity, as the Catholic Church did before the 1960s but assuredly no longer does. 

The Orthodox Church reminds me of the Kraken in Lord Tennyson's poem, which some have imagined might be about the pre-Newman Church of England:

Below the thunders of the upper deep,

Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,

His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep

The Kraken sleepeth.

Most Romanians I meet believe in God and consider themselves Orthodox (unless Catholic, Protestant or Jewish) but only a few go to Mass each week. The bishops are not generally much respected but the Church is the most respected Romanian institution and the only one that reaches back before the 19th century.

The Orthodox bishops condemned things like the stage show of the American singer Madonna  when she came to Bucharest in a way that bishops in the West no longer seem to do. Orthodox priests, in  a word, are not trendy. They are, however, regularly accused of corruption and traditionally believe in the Byzantine tradition of complete submission to the temporal power which led them to cooperate with Communism (in some cases revealing secrets from the confessional). In politics nowadays they tend to back the post-Communist Social Democrats.

The big question facing Europe now and for the foreseeable future is whether it wants to be conservative and predominantly Christian or to be liberal and multicultural. 

This is increasingly the division in politics these days and there are small signs that a parallel divide is opening up between conservative and liberal Catholics, with Pope Francis and many cardinals in the latter camp. 

Rod Dreher, an American ex-Catholic Orthodox, enthuses about what he calls the Benedict Option.

Steve Bannon is making overtures to some of the traditionalists. Thus does populism tie in with religion. There are Italian Catholics who prefer the divorced Matteo Salvini to Pope Francis. 

Where does Romania fit in here? The answer is that it does not. At least for now. 

Migration, for example, concerns Romanians only as onlookers, since few migrants come here and if they do decamp for Germany immediately.

The Romanian Orthodox Church is, paradoxically, extremely other worldly and very worldly at the same time. As an organisation she is not friendly to Catholics or Protestants of any stamp but would fit into the conservative side if a religious culture war happens. 

The Orthodox Church generally tries to avoid controversy but was dragged into the recent debate on a constitutional amendment to prevent single sex marriage ever being enacted and instructed her adherents to vote for the amendment. Despite which, the amendment did not win enough votes to pass. 

But this political activity was unusual and the initiative for the amendment did not come from the Church. The Church had rarely spoken about homosexuality before the amendment was proposed, which was her way of being tolerant, as had she spoken she would have had to condemn it. Essentially the Romanian Orthodox Church is about prayer and not social activism. 

More than half Romania's 18,000 churches were built after Communism and the Government has paid a high proportion of the cost of building them and of the new and huge Cathedral of the Redeemer, built next to Ceausescu's Palace of the People in Bucharest. Meanwhile the Church has very many financial and sexual scandals and these are less hidden than formerly.

The opinions of theologians in our day are not very important but theology underlies everything. As Belloc said, all historical questions are at base theological and so it is today. Liberalism for example is a religion, as is Marxism. 

Religious traditions influence countries more than any other factor, even when the countries no longer believe in God. In Northern Ireland if you say you are an atheist they ask: but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist? There is a huge difference.

Swedish atheists are Lutheran atheists, English ones Anglican atheists, and so on. Muslim and Jewish atheists are something else again. The Orthodox Church, without saying a word, colours everything in Romania, a country where atheists are rather few and the existence of God is mostly taken for granted.


  1. "Religiosity is not a particularly Balkan thing. Bulgaria is very much less religious. Serbs and Croats have only enough religion to kill each other, which is the easy part". Wonderful line!

  2. The atheist community is however pretty vocal in Romania

    1. @Marian
      They are everywhere except in Muslim countries ;).

  3. This is very good!

  4. "We are not involved in actually helping people because we piously devote ourselves to contemplation. We do, however, have time for money-grubbing, land grabs, and toadying to the powerful."

  5. "Official data show Romania has some 18,000 churches, compared with 4,700 schools and 425 hospitals."

  6. That's what happens when you allow religion, education, and healthcare to be owned by the state. Of course all governments will invest the people's money into the most popular things, which happen to be churches. If you care about education and health care, privatize them. But if you do that, a lot of politicians who skim money from these fruitful enterprises will have to give up their swimming pools.

  7. David in Belgrade14 December 2018 at 16:37

    Having worked and lived in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia, since 2002, I long ago came to the conclusion that Romanians are the most religious people of SEE.

    When I worked in Romania from 2002 to 2004, I frequently saw nuns and monks hitching along DN1 from Bucharest towards Southern Bucovina. I have memories of large numbers of visitors - family members, friends, pilgrims and sightseers- in the medieval monasteries and churches of Southern Bucovina, that my Romanian landlord so kindly showed me on a lightening-like pilgrimage one autumn weekend.

    I have seen no similar sights in the other SEE countries I have lived although they too have many churches and monasteries of similar antiquity.

    My Romanian friends and colleagues, seemed to have a closer connection with and attachment towards their church and took religious traditions and observances much more seriously, than the Bulgarians and Serbians I have known.

    Perhaps Romanians, because of their love of partying, celebrating, and generally enjoying life as much as they can, are greater sinners than their neighbours and consequently appreciate their church more :). But in this regard, I am certainly not one who could could cast the first stone ;).

    "Serbs and Croats have only enough religion to kill each other, which is the easy part."
    Witty and cruel but inaccurate to blame the enmity between these peoples on religious differences.