For the first time since installation of a communist regime following World War II, Hungarian teen-agers will soon be able to study the Bible in School. It won't feature in the syllabus as a "holy book," but as literature and what the Ministry of Education in Budapest calls a "profound" cultural work.
Even with this carefully defined boundary, it marks a unique step in Eastern Europe and the Soviet bloc at large. Educators, writers, and academicians (including Marxists), as well as the clergy have been pressing it on the goverment for some years.
The "Bible as literature" is being introduced at the next semester of Hungary's lycee-type secondary schools.
The concession obviously came about after much debate among the party's ideological mentors. The stereotyped communist argument against religious teaching -- and the Bible -- as promoting an idealistic and dangerous philosophy contrary to Marxism seems at last to have been outweighed by more sophisticated views -- at least to some extent.
Writing in the Education Ministry's weekly journal, educationist Gyorgy Versenyi described the Bible as one of the greatest masterpieces of Occidental culture in ancient times, and knowledge of it, he said, was essential to understanding much great world literature, including some of Hungary's best poetic works.
For a start, classes apparently will be confined to some 80,000 14-to-17 -year-old lycee students. The intention seems to be to take it further as the innovation is worked into the curriculum.
Finding competent tutors may be a problem. Mr. Versenyi, in fact, commented that many of today's teachers were educated in the ultra-Stalinist period when textbooks were used to combat religious and Biblical influences.
He also described the Bible classes as a compromise in which the church accepts that the holy book will be taught as literature rather than as the Christian "source of faith." In return, the state, he says, will refrain from mixing literary presentation with the teaching of an atheistic outlook.
Both sides may be operating in a delicate no man's land. But the move was welcomed by the authoritative Catholic weekly Uj Ember as positive despite the secular background.
In 1962, eight years after the traumatic 1956 uprising, the communist leadership embarked on a new church-state relationship when it entered into the first postwar accord with the Vatican on the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops.
In 1971, after the withdrawal to Rome of the late Josef Cardinal Mindszenty from his long asylum in the US Embassy in Budapest, progress accelerated. Hungary gained its first active primate for 30 years when Bishop Laszlo Lekai succeeded Cardinal Mindszenty as Archbishop of Estergom. Appointments to other long-vacant archishoprics and bishops' sees followed.
Hungary's churches generally have benefited as the regime has become more interested in reaching as modus vivendi. The Calvinist and Lutheran faiths, as well as Roman Catholics, are permitted a much more active place in society than are their counterparts elsewhere in Eastern Europe -- although East Germany recently has relaxed many of the constraints on the Protestant churches.
Even in Poland it took the choice of a Polish Pope to end two decades of near-confrontation between the Catholic Church and the state. Now the church's hopes to enlarge or resume old activities at present proscribed are still being grudgingly -- and nervously -- reviewed by the government.
Hungarian clerics may travel freely to churches abroad, and more are doing so. Cardina Lekai was recently in the US.
Again without a bloc precedent, he has been allowed to set up three-year study courses for Catholic laity at the budapest Theological Academy, a facility of considerable importance to the church.
Some Catholic "hard-liners" have accused Cardinal Lekai of being too accomodating. His answer -- and presumably the Vatican's -- is that, although each concession in itself is only a small step, the aggregate is meaningful, indeed.
For the Kadar regime, too, its tolerance suggests an internal political stability not present in other bloc states.