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Hungary’s teachers say ‘Enough’

25 November 2022

Church support for strikes is fracturing relations with the government, says Alexander Faludy

Válász Online/ Tamás Andrónyi

Noémi Tóth, a teacher, speaks at a rally in Budapest, on 8 November

Noémi Tóth, a teacher, speaks at a rally in Budapest, on 8 November

“A TEACHER not only teaches, but also comforts, praises, and passes on the faith,” Noémi Tóth told a crowd of more than 1000 outside St Stephen’s Basilica, in Budapest, on 8 November. Outside the classroom, she supplements her low pay with two part-time jobs — yet she perseveres, she explained, because she has been called by God to teach: “I ask for the Lord’s grace to keep me in the profession.”

Ms Tóth was addressing a demonstration for teachers from 34 church schools around Hungary, which drew attention to the dire state of the country’s public education system. Salaries for new teachers are as low as €450 (net) per month, and have been frozen for a decade. Meanwhile, food-price inflation is 43 per cent.

Not surprisingly, the teaching profession is now haemorrhaging members and failing to attract new recruits: teachers are quitting for better-paid service-sector jobs. Ms Tóth reports that her own favourite high-school literature teacher now works aboard as a cleaner.

While the Hungarian government has focused on “keeping LGBT+ activists out of classrooms”, and “protecting children’s Christian identity” — the foci of a referendum in April — it has neglected to ensure that anyone remains to teach children in Hungary’s schools.

A legal amendment enacted in February, using Covid-emergency decree powers, deprived teachers of their right to strike. Since September, a growing number have gone on strike anyway, and been dismissed from their jobs as a result, worsening already acute staff shortages in Hungary’s schools.

THE demonstration in front of the Basilica, however, represents something more threatening to Hungary’s self-described “Christian National” Fidesz-KDNP government: a fracture in its previously strong relations with Hungary’s Churches.

The event had a decidedly liturgical feel. Participants gathered outside Budapest’s main Lutheran church at Deák Ferenc Square at 5 p.m., before proceeding by torchlight to the steps of St Stephen’s. There protesters heard speeches, sang, and joined in prayers led by the Chaplain to Budapest’s Fasori Lutheran Grammar School, Pastor András Csepregi. Before dispersing, people shared a “sign of thanks”, echoing the eucharistic Peace.

Independent media in Hungary reported on the demonstration, as did Magyar Kurír, the news service of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops’ Conference. But the event was ignored by Hungary’s mainstream news outlets, which are controlled by the Fidesz Party.

These outlets have, so far, provided limited coverage of the wave of teacher protests, presenting them as “leftist agitation” orchestrated by opposition parties. Such a message is undermined, however, by the participation of teachers and students from church schools, who tend to be politically conservative.

Válász Online/ Tamás AndrónyiTeachers applaud during an event in Budapest, on 8 November, at which they protested about low pay

Church schools’ involvement in the wider pay dispute is the clearest example of emerging tension between the administration of the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and Hungary’s Christian communities. But it is not unique.

In October, Fidesz introduced a parliamentary Bill that sought, effectively, to transfer social care from the state to families and charities. It drew strong and unusually public criticism from the Bishop of Szombathelyi, Dr János Székely, who is the Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s lead bishop on social affairs.

In a statement carried by Magyar Kurír, he warned that, in the midst of economic crisis, the Bill risked violating the constitutional provision that “we affirm the duty to help the needy and the poor.”

PROMINENT laypeople in Hungary are also showing increasing willingness to criticise the government and church leaders on the record, having traditionally been reluctant to do so. György Heidl, Professor of Early Christian Studies at Pécs University, did both in a recent interview with Válasz Online.

Using Catholic Social Thought (CST) to critique Fidesz misrule, Professor Heidl observed: “CST’s basic premise is that the worker deserves his wages — a teaching deriving from the dignity of the human person. If one thing is really, constantly, being violated here, it is teachers’ dignity. They don’t receive the wages they’re owed, and solidarity towards them, another basic CST concept, is completely absent.”

Professor Heidl was blunt about both the Catholic hierarchy’s failure to enunciate these principles and the hollowness of Fidesz’s prominent rhetorical appeals about “defending Christian values”.

“I’ve not seen a single official statement on this [the teachers’ situation] from the Catholic Church,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say there’s been an omission.” He pointed to a culture of “submission by the Church”, fostered by excessive reliance on government cash to sustain operations.

Regarding Fidesz’s claims to promote Christian values, he said: “I’m a Patristics scholar. This is probably why I’m so disturbed by use of ‘Christian values’ as a political rallying cry. . . This is political Christianity: Christianity without Christ.

“Yet Christianity’s essence is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became man, died, rose again, and is the Saviour.”

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest

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