Marxists from Eastern Europe and Roman Catholic officials are sitting down today for an unprecedented ``Catholic-Communist summit.'' The focus of discussion at the three-day meeting in Budapest, which ends Friday, will be the role of religion in East European Communist societies, where religion has been suppressed for some 40 years.
``The Communists are beginning to question certain of their principles,'' says a Vatican official who follows Eastern European affairs. ``They began with the principle that when they came to power religion would die. Some 60 years after they came, religion is still here.
``The point of the meeting,'' he continues, ``is how the church and how the regime can fill the vacuum of a loss of values in society. Many young people have grown up with no religious values, but are not becoming good Communists.''
As Vatican officials see it, Hungarian and other Communist leaders are turning to their traditional foe, the church, for help in curing this ``spiritual illness.''
In Hungary, high rates of drug use and suicide among young people have preoccupied officials. Divorce, abortion, and cramped housing conditions have caused family life to suffer and birth rates to plummet, prompting new attention to family values among Communist leaders.
A related concern is the unexplained decline in life span in many East-bloc countries. In the Soviet Union, for example, life expectancy dropped by more than four years between 1965 and 1980, according to a study by Jean-Claude Chesnais of the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris. This suggests a lack of desire to continue living, according to some experts.
Other observers see a more cynical and manipulative purpose behind the meeting.
They say Hungary's main interest in sponsoring the symposium is to gain credit in Western eyes as a ``liberal'' country while, as one Vatican official put it, ``providing a forum to call for peace ``as they understand it'' and to attack ``racist and authoritarian regimes around the world.'' A recent article in the Italian Communist Party daily L'Unit`a sketched a similar scenario.
``The Communists aren't seeking to convert the Christians to atheism, they are seeking to use them for their political objectives and to exploit their moral commitment in the spirit of the `popular front,' '' said Leszek Kolakowski, an ex-Marxist who teaches philosophy at Oxford University.
For the Vatican the meeting marks a major step forward in its patient Ostpolitik (Eastern politics).
``Starting from the principle that one cannot set up a clandestine hierarchy [attempts in the past led to the immediate discovery and imprisonment of secret bishops], the new Vatican Ostpolitik seeks to benefit from the new climate of international relations to obtain the authorization from communist governments to nominate bishops,'' says Hanjakob Stehle, perhaps the most authoritative student of the Vatican's Ostpolitik.
Church-state relations in Hungary have reached a critical moment.
The primate of Hungary, Laszlo Cardinal Lekai, who led the Hungarian Catholic Church since 1976, died this summer. A successor, who must be approved by the government, has yet to be appointed. Moreover, age has enfeebled the entire Hungarian Catholic hierarchy, leaving some bishoprics vacant and others on the verge of vacancy.
The Vatican's commitment to better relations appears to stem from Catholic doctrine, which holds the view of the bishop as an essential element the life of the Catholic believer.
``Without bishops, there are no priests,'' notes Stehle. ``Without priests, there are no sacraments. Without sacraments, there is no salvation. If the Catholic church had a different structure, less centered on the figure of the bishop, it would be less exposed to the difficult conditions in the Communist countries.''
But religious thinkers in the West are careful to concede the limits of dialogue with the Communists. There will be no attempt to forge a theoretical marriage of Christianity and Marxism, they say.
``There absolutely will not be a search for an accord on the level of doctrine, which could only be illusory,'' said Georges Cottier, a Swiss Catholic theologian who will participate at the symposium.
Instead, the meeting, co-sponsored by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the Vatican, will try to lay a basis for ``further dialogue and common efforts'' by noting where Marxists and Catholics share convictions about ``the value of man and the destiny of humanity,'' participants say.
The 15 Catholic experts and their 15 Communist counterparts will focus on the respective views of the Christian and Marxist philosophies with regard to the nature of man, interpersonal relations, personal autonomy and responsibility, ethical values, and work.
Except for the inaugural session, the symposium will be closed to the press, but symposium organizers have promised to provide detailed daily press briefings.
The Communist representatives are from Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union, and Catholic delegates are from Austria, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and Yugoslavia. Fidel Castro will send a delegate from Cuba, and reportedly has said he will consider playing host for the next such Marxist-Catholic symposium.
``No official dialogue on this high level has ever been held before,'' said Monsignor Franc Rod'e of the Vatican's Secretariat for Nonbelievers.