The hypocrisy of public financing of the Church

USL MP Remus Cernea’s proposal of financing the religious denominations by having each taxpayer earmark a part of the income tax to the denomination he or she belongs to has scandalized both the Orthodox Church and most of the political class.

Apart from the hysterical reactions that some religious representatives and politicians have had (“Remus Cernea is an idiot… I’ll break his legs,” Radu Mazare said), maybe it’s time for us, as a secular society that seeks to be modern and European to hold an honest and transparent debate on the current relation between state and church. And, in the most democratic way, maybe to put this initiative up for popular consultation through a referendum. The most correct way in which we could separate Church and state for good would be by clearly circumscribing the relations between politics and religion and this could be done very clearly by eliminating the financing of the Church from public funds managed by politicians.

Cernea’s proposal, as long as it would be correctly given media coverage and explained to the public in its wholeness not in the alarmist fashion it was presented by the tabloid media, as a project that does not attack the Church but that offers a transparent financing mechanism based on individual and voluntary contributions (not imposed unilaterally as happens now), would stand a chance if not of being successful in the first stage then at least of changing the Romanians’ retarded mentalities towards their relations with the Church.

In today’s Romania, a country in which the large majority of the population is Orthodox Christian, priests have the same influence on churchgoers as they had one hundred years ago. This is due to the fact that many people confuse religion with the bureaucratic institution of the Church but particularly to the lack of education. And this is the reason why politicians don’t want to jeopardise their relations with the very influential clergy. A hand washes another, as they say…As a trade-off, most educated Romanians who declare themselves religious agree with giving up the financing of the Church from public funds. And both politicians and priests would be surprised to find out that a significant percentage of elderly persons, considered the most religious, embrace this idea. Romania is a backward country from many points of view, as shown by most statistics on living standards, education, population’s health, life expectation and infant mortality. As a coincidence, in the issue we published yesterday we presented a UNICEF study that placed Romania at the bottom of a 29-country table in which austerity policies affect children. The poverty caused by the previous governments’ chaotic and inhumane policies has seriously affected children and has led to a 40 per cent hike in the cases of desertion of children. While it showed ruthlessness towards Romanians, cutting the public sector employees’ salaries by a quarter and the social benefits, the Basescu – Boc right-wing government showed a lot of generosity towards the Church, hiking the salaries of clerical employees, priests and auxiliary personnel alike. The precarious conditions in which numerous families are living in Romania, where the poverty rate approaches 50 per cent (46 per cent in June 2012, the highest rate in the EU), especially in rural areas, do not seem to represent such a big concern, neither for politicians nor for the heads of the Orthodox Church. According to a survey conducted last year by the National Trade Union Bloc, children are worst affected by poverty and social exclusion, 48.7 per cent of them being in this situation, compared to 39 per cent of the working-age population and 39.9 per cent of the 65+ age group. In 2011, while 1,500 mothers were abandoning their children because of the dire poverty, the PDL government was hiking the state’s contribution to the clerical employees’ salaries by no less than 30 per cent. Nevertheless, Romanian Patriarchy representatives claim that the priests have “the lowest” salaries in Romania. “A debutant priest has a salary of RON 1,100, while the salary of a priest that has all professional degrees reaches RON 1,800 – 1,900, which is very little,” the Patriarchy stated last year. But there are 35,000 priests and the auxiliary personnel totals another 15,000. To that one has to add the salaries of bishops, which vary from RON 6,200 in the case of substitute bishops to RON 7,567 in the case of metropolitan bishops. The Patriarch earns RON 8,200, more than the Romanian President. In contrast, a resident physician has a salary of RON 700 per month, a little over the minimum salary. The third-world salaries paid in the health system are the main cause of the generalized corruption there and of the mass exodus of physicians. If we are to compare the financial situation of a debutant physician to that of a debutant priest the latter would be the net winner. According to the College of Physicians, most resident medics cannot afford a house and still live in students’ hostels, while priests not only have free “work” homes but also a multitude of privileges and extra revenues which are undeclared, untaxed and greatly profitable. Romania has more churches than schools and hospitals and churches continue to be built (take for example the Pharaonic construction of the National Cathedral, which costs EUR 120 M). While the number of physicians has dropped to 39,000, clerical employees total over 55,000. This is the reality. The Patriarchy’s argument for the financing of religious denominations from the state budget is that the state owes the Church as a result of the secularization of the monasteries’ properties in 1863. However, is that a valid argument? This calls for a debate between historians, clerics and, last but not least, financial experts. It would be very useful for a financial expert to calculate how many times the Orthodox Church’s properties were paid back during the 150 years in which the state financed the Church. In my opinion they were paid back at least several times their worth. Nevertheless, the Church claims that it has the right to be given the properties back in full in case the financing from public funds is dropped. It’s important to know that the measure adopted in 1863, four years after the Principalities united, was fundamental for the formation of the Romanian state, since one quarter of the country’s arable land belonged to monasteries that were under preponderantly Greek influence. These properties were generating annual revenues of approximately 7 million Francs, money that were taken abroad and that the Greek monks were spending without being held accountable by the authorities and without bringing a real benefit to Romanians. Hence, why does the Romanian Orthodox Church consider it would be so bad for every Romanian citizen to be given the right to choose what religious denomination to finance, or, if he is an atheist (there are around 23,000 atheists), not to be forced to pay for a denomination he does not believe in? Especially since the Orthodox Church would be the net winner, considering that 86 per cent of the citizens are Orthodox. Moreover, as shown by a GfK survey, 29 per cent of taxpayers that redirect 2 per cent of their income tax for charitable purposes prefer the Church and its various foundations (SMURD is next with 10 per cent, Save the Children with 9 per cent, Children in Need with 6 per cent, Red Cross with 6 per cent). The Patriarchy is showing that Remus Cernea’s draft law is “unrealistic and inadequate” for the “current” Romanian context, being of the opinion that it would not solve the economic crisis but would on the contrary create “a crisis in the relation between the state and religious denominations.” Priesthood should be a profession of faith, a spiritual calling. However, in today’s Romania priesthood has become a trade, and a profitable one at that, and the priests, well aware of this, are reluctant to give up any of their privileges. With all due respect for the priests that have the calling and values of Orthodoxy, it’s clear that the Church is going through a crisis of morality and is proving to be hypocritical when it opposes rendering its finances transparent.

The Orthodox Church’s worth is estimated at some EU4 billion euros and to continue to ask for money from all taxpayers, irrespective of their religious affiliation, is proof of hypocrisy.

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