Capital Zagreb
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Major Religion Roman Catholicism

Developments in the Croatian Catholic Church under Pope Francis Editor’s note: the following article, which documents structural developments in the post-conflict Catholic Church in Croatia, compliments other 2014 pieces concerning Pope Francis’ visit to Albania, and his more recent trip to Turkey.

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By Lana Pasic

Official relations between the Republic of Croatia and Holy Sea were established in January 1992, when the Catholic Church recognized Croatia’s independence. This decision of Pope John Paul II, one of the first such recognitions, was followed by a flurry of relations from European states. A year later, the Dioceses and Croatian Bishop Conference (HBK) were instituted. All of this activity was somewhat controversial at the time, considering the violent nature of Croatia’s secession from Yugoslavia, and the ultra-nationalist HDZ government of the time, and the Church’s checkered history during the WWII period, when Croatia’s fascist Ustase regime ruled.

This historical context has some significance still; as shall be seen, some of the policies Pope Francis is taking now seem to be in order to diminish the influence of Church figures that are or were close to the right-wing HDZ governments that dominated the political scene during the 1990s conflict period.

The Croatian Church: Organization and Policy Shifts

The Croatian Bishop’s Conference (HBK) was first led by Archbishop Josip Bozanić, who had close ties with the then-ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). In 2007 Marin Srakic was appointed to replace him at the post.

Since establishing relations with Croatia, the Catholic Church has had three heads- Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. John Paul II was the head of the Catholic Church when Croatia achieved independence. He visited it three times- in 1994, 1998 and in 2003, and gave his support to its international standing and European path. Neoconservatives within the church in Croatia very much supported Pope Benedict XVI. Both of them were well liked in the country, and there are even Croatian Facebook fan pages for the two Popes.

In recent years, however, there has been a move by the Catholic Church in Croatia to distance itself from the political regime. Since the appointment of Pope Francis, this depoliticization has also been supported by Holy See’s representatives in Zagreb. It is likely that this new policy, on the national level, has something to do with Pope Francis’ stated goal of developing ecumenical relations worldwide with other Christian churches. Thus a step back from Croatian nationalism in religion may also help the Vatican to improve relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The Restructuring of the Catholic Church in Croatia

In 2008, dioceses in Croatia were restructured; the former Diocese of Djakovo, Bosnia et Srijem was split into two, with Djakovo gaining a status of Archdiocese.

The Diocese of Djakovo and Srijem previously were joined in 1773, and the separation now follows the border of the Republic of Croatia.

Croatian media and citizens at the time were curious as to why the restructuring was suddenly occurring, and what it might mean. However, the representatives of the Holy See in Belgrade announced that there was no political reason behind the split. The Catholic Church in Croatia has stated that the separation is for practical reasons only, with the purpose of strengthening the institution. They have also emphasized that the administrative borders of the Diocese of Srem should now be upheld.

Croatian Catholic Church Officials

This diocese separation took place when Marin Srakić, at the time Bishop of Djakovo (1997-2008), was appointed as the President of the Croatian Bishop Conference. He became the Archbishop of Djakovo, a position which he held until 2013, when he retired.

Srakić was controversial for his criticism of the government. He had a significant role in moving the Church away from the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and diminished the influence of Cardinal Bozanić, a former head of the HBK. He was the first Croatian Archbishop to visit Jasenovac, a WWII concentration camp where hundreds of thousands of Srebs were killed, and he also criticised the policies of the Ustase’s Nazi-linked Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during WWII. However, at the same time he also supported Branimir Glavaš, a Croat general and a convicted war criminal.

Srakić’s successor, Đuro Hranić, was the Auxiliary Bishop for the area and was also the President of the Council for Religious Education. So far, it seems that he is continuing Srakić’s ideas, policies and relations with the state.

Conclusions: A Turn from Nationalism in Religion

The restructuring of the Catholic Church in Croatia has defined the territorial borders of the dioceses within the state, and has strengthened the institution; not only that, it also seems to have increased the influence of the Djakovo Diocese.

A gradual separation of the Church from the state seems to be motivated by both, internal forces within Croatia and also others within the Holy See itself. At the beginning of this year, an announcement was made that the Pope will retire four right-wing bishops in Croatia, all of which are nearing the age of 75- a normal time for retirement. But Pope Francis, it is believed, will not be replacing these bishops with similarly nationalistic clerics. It thus seems that the Catholic Church in Croatia is now also moving towards more sensible policies and the adoption of Pope Francis’ rhetoric regarding a moderate and depoliticized Church.

This reflects the changing of not only personalities, but national and ecclesiastical challenges. Croatia, now an EU and NATO member, is far from the days of war, when religious nationalism was marshalled against a perceived existential threat. Nowadays, the threats are different. For while Croatia is still among Europe’s most devout Catholic countries, mass attendance is falling, and the Church would like to address this issue as well as poverty, drug abuse, secularization and youth outreach.

The focus on these challenges, which is clearly visible in an examination of statements and programs from the Church and related NGOs and charities, would seem to indicate that the Vatican now regards Croatia as a country in ‘developed Europe,’ where the Church has similar problems, and no longer in the ‘developing Balkans.’