The religion class preserved its de facto status. It is still a special class, both considering the stakes of it being taught in schools and the institutional endorsement granted by various religious denominations. Churches, especially the Orthodox one, embraced by most Romanians, preserve this gate of entrance to the hearts and minds of children and teenagers. Discussions that appeared with the recent change – parents must submit a request whether they agree that their child should attend religion classes and not the other way around – tried to answer the question: is it good or bad that the religion is taught in public schools? If the question is put this way, the answer is “yes”, because there are no cultural premises to favour a negative answer at the time being.
It is interesting to analyse though why the Orthodox Church – which is, undoubtedly and unavoidably the most visible of all – enjoys this level of prestige in today’s Romanian society, and is able to influence strategic pedagogic decisions. First, the Church overtook part of the paternalist role played by the old Communist state: it represents a coherent anxiolytic order, that diminishes fears, especially in times of transition, provides emotional comfort, provides support (psychologically and even materially) to issues in life, inhibits a social aggressiveness that is difficult to manage. It is not “opium to the people”, as Marx had stated, but its role in mass psychological therapy is hard to deny. Many people visit churches because they are more vulnerable than they seem. Moreover, the Church provides the most functional alternative – perfected throughout centuries – to a civil society dispersed, contorted and frequently inefficient. In front of multiple social pressure – state bureaucracy, owners’ interests, political clientelism, class discriminations – the Church provides a refuge.
Moreover, the Church preserved its privilege as the sole institution able to reunite spirituality and materiality, eternity and temporariness, the essential and the circumstantial. At least in the vision of regular people. The religious dimension of life is the one providing legitimacy to churches and not the other way around. Therefore, religious education is natural, because it answers a reality. A reality that, nonetheless, is filled with imaginary facts. This duality is a source of massive ambiguity, that also fuels situations that are sufficiently deleterious to cause contradictions that are difficult to solve. Even if it has no institutional competition, The Church is in no way the exclusive representative of the spiritual dimension of life. We might even say that most people today have other spiritual resources than the ones collected by the culture of the Church. First of all, it is because of the fact that religious culture itself is much wider than the “official one” and, frequently, the sermons of priests, confessional catechisms and theology books are less influential than other sources: writers, essayists, journalists, painters – frequently more trustworthy and more seductive.
Nonetheless, the Church remains an organized society, providing the confort of some stable and, most of all, comforting connections (even if they are extremely superficial). And, most of all, it remains a place of negotiation with the conscience of guilt – that remains a definitive tool in the authority strategy of the clergy.
All of these nevralgic points have an equivalent, unfortunately, in religious education. How is guilt managed? Terribly, in most cases, cultivating complexes that may last for decades. The child is a vulnerable being by definition and prematurely giving him strong “medicine” may lead to terrible results. Let us not deceive ourselves: in most cases, the Church is unable to attract people, using the weapon of fear instead. On the other hand, the embellished image used frequently by the official religious stories is similar to a certain teenage idealism. Caught in this game of almost romantic religious ideals, people become vulnerable to ulterior disappointments, that may compromise for a very long time the individual’s openness to religion. Not even the relation with the ecclesiastic space itself is free of potential trauma: there are premature confessions, mostly imposed by parents, or by the classmates’ emulations, the culture of non-critical submission in an environment dominated by the imminently authoritarian figure of the priest and a confusing competition of values in the minds of young disciples of faith – a fact caused mostly by the narrow mentality of preachers, reflected by a similar mentality of religion teachers.
The quality of religious education is not a secondary topic. It is actually the heart of the debate, considering that we are talking about a message, not about its variations. Why are school books and class material so bad though? Because the Church – especially the Orthodox one – is in a serious moral crisis. It is a fact, as shown by TV spots launched lately to persuade parents to submit their children to religion classes. The respective personalities do not represent, by themselves, a culture devoted to religion and worth being promoted. They are mere people with an affinity to religion, which is irrelevant if compared to the structured message a responsible religious education may be based on. Actually, this is the pattern promoted by religion: the values you structure your life on do not matter; the only thing that counts is preserving some of your interest to religion as well. The Church is no longer an influential cultural actor, but a political one – and this is why it relies so much on special relations to the political class. As the Church no longer has intelectuals able to propose coherent perspectives or, more precisely, the Church is unable to tolerate them, as they would unavoidably question some of its bases. In other words, they would ask for reform, which is highly unlikely in the case of an institution that shows a strong conservative direction. The intellectuals supporting the Church ones – not the ones employed by the Church who are serving it anyway – lead lives that are usually based on completely different sets of values than the ones circulated by the Church and add, without the scruple of contradicting the essential – a religious facet. Neglecting the fact that most people seek in religion a bit of coherence for their lives. This attitude of intellectual mash-up exhibited by the respective defenders of the Church equals a certain form of populism.
As correctly observed by former Education Minister Mircea Miclea, religion as a school discipline benefits of an enviable status: 13 years of study. Why this obvious discrepancy to other disciplines, similarly honourable? Unfortunately, today’s religion survives mostly by such artificial methods, which contributes to its cultural weakness. Religious education is not the stake, the stake is represented by the values promoted by the church. Are they quality values? And there is another much more concerning question: how genuinely Christian are they?