Pope Leo XIII’s Lesson for Hungary’s Failed Family Policies: Mold Society to God Not the Economy

Pope Leo XIII’s Lesson for Hungary’s Failed Family Policies: Mold Society to God Not the Economy
Pope Leo XIII’s Lesson for Hungary’s Failed Family Policies: Mold Society to God Not the Economy
Photo:  © Marie-Lan Nguyen, CC BY 2.5

A society can only truly flourish when centered upon the law of God. It must be guided by the principles of Christian morality and encourage family life as a good in itself. This scenario of a truly Christian society is all too sadly not the goal of so many nations that think only of economic prosperity.

In recent times some advocates of tradition and family have looked to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as someone who proposes policies and laws which support the family. While Mr. Orbán’s program does have positive pro-family elements, it lacks the means to regenerate the country. It fails because its emphasis is on the very real fiscal advantages of the family. The real focus should be rooted in and adhere to the moral law, the Catholic faith and the consequent promotion of family life.

 Hungary’s Family Policies: Pro-family or Pro-economy?

National Review’s Lyman Stone recently presented an analysis of Mr. Orbán’s family policies that have been praised as supporting family life and encouraging birth rates. Mr. Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, came to the surprising conclusion that these policies have failed. Despite huge incentives, the government has not been able to reverse population decline.

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“Far from being proof that a new conservative interventionism can succeed, Mr. Stone writes, “Hungary is a warning about the limits of such an approach, and a reminder that politics remains, as it always has been, downstream from culture.”

Such a condemnation is jarring at first sight, yet not unfounded. Orbán served his first term as Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002, as part of a coalition government, in a premiership marked by a focus on building the economy. He was then elected to three terms as Prime Minister in 2014, 2018, and now in 2022. However, during this period, the Hungarian population has been steadily declining.

Pope Leo XIII’s Lesson for Hungary’s Failed Family Policies: Mold Society to God Not the Economy
Hungary’s population trend. Credit: Macrotrends.

Using data from 2017, Mr. Stone wrote that Hungary’s declining population served as a catalyst for “rolling out a suite of pro-family initiatives,” notably CSOK, a program that “subsidized credit for home loans” for couples having three children. The policies provided tax breaks, loans and financial incentives for couples to have children. Yet these initial policies were a “flop,” wrote Stone.

The reason for this failure is Mr. Orbán’s priorities. The economic focus of his first premiership appears to have remained a guiding theme for his successive terms.

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Indeed, as Mr. Stone notes, Orbán’s CSOK policy was not pro-family per se but rather pro-economy first and foremost. It sought to encourage the growing construction trade in Hungary by providing loans that had to be used on these new properties, thus simultaneously propping up the country’s economy. “So what began as a program to support the finance and construction sectors went through a metamorphosis and became a ‘family policy.’”

Policies Divorced from Religion are Doomed to Fail

One of Hungary’s new pro-family policies in particular—by which newly married Hungarian couples can apply for an extended loan of up to $35,000 depending on the number of children they have—has proved more successful in slowing the country’s declining population.

“Births in Hungary jumped upwards nine months after this program rolled out, Mr. Stone writes, “and throughout the global ‘Covid baby bust,’ Hungary’s births have remained at or above pre-Covid levels, an extremely rare accomplishment.”

In terms of a way to address a declining population, this policy proved more successful than CSOK, and this prompted Mr. Stone to ask: “Why didn’t Hungary take this obvious step earlier?”

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“The answer again seems simple,” he writes. “Throwing piles of unconditional cash at families has a budgetary cost, and Fidesz wanted to cut spending. It is only as Fidesz’s family policies have grown to become enormously popular and a valuable lifeline of good press abroad that Hungary’s conservatives have finally been dragged towards accepting that cash-for-kids was their only option.”

This observation highlights the core problem with Hungary’s family policies. Namely, the economic motivation of self-interest can never replace a culture of self-sacrifice that promotes the family, especially when motivated by religion. A purely economic approach will always be doomed to fail.

A country needs a young, healthy demographic to be alive and prosperous. Thus, the future of a national economy demands the safeguarding of the family. However, if policies are oriented to the economy alone, they end up being no better than elaborate forms of bribery to couples. Such policies will not promote the traditional family values needed to build a culture centered upon Christ and His Church.

Bribing People into Imitating a Healthy Society

For any society to be prosperous, it must be first focused on following God and advocating the spread of the Faith, and then family life and a flourishing economy will both flow.Indeed, the National Review article noted this link between the role of religion in implementing a true birth-rate revival in Georgia. Stone wrote: “the largest fertility rebound in the world was a religious campaign supported by government measures during Georgia’s nationalist revival after its 2008 invasion by and war with Russia.”

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Modern governments and states have become godless, as Our Lady of Fatima warned. Consequently, the actions of such governments are not directed towards the pursuit of God and the common good, which is the salvation of man, but rather towards materialism and money.

Hungary also falls into this category to some degree. Mr. Orbán’s wife is a Catholic, but the leader of the Fidesz party is himself a Calvinist. While he has taken some stands against the LGBTQ agenda and other matters, his policies to promote family life have not changed the culture but rather work inside the materialist mindset.

By bribing people into imitating a healthy society, governments cannot build a virtuous or stable nation but simply a country filled with people concerned only with the greatest perceived good of this world—wealth.

 Lessons from Pope Leo XIII

In contrast to the materialistic view of building a society, which is so predominant in many countries, including Hungary, Pope Leo XIII proposes an authentic manner to build a society that is ordered to God.

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His 1878 encyclical Inscrutabili Dei deals with the “evils of society,” highlighting a key issue that is still true today. Pope Leo XIII wrote thus:

“The source of these evils lies chiefly, We are convinced, in this, that the holy and venerable authority of the Church, which in God’s name rules mankind, upholding and defending all lawful authority, has been despised and set aside.”

If this analysis was true in 1878, it rings more true 144 years later. Indeed, far more than this, the evils of which Pope Leo warned have only increased, to the point that Our Lady of Fatima called for prayer, penance, and Russia’s consecration to prevent the evils of that particular nation from spreading throughout the world and the Church.

For Pope Leo XIII, the key to safeguarding society’s adherence to God and His Church lies in promoting holy families. But he notes that the promotion of family life is only possible when supported by Catholic laws, not the materialistic financial motives that Hungary employs.

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Indeed, Pope Leo outlines precisely how morality is taught in the family, and family life cannot flourish unless supported by true Catholic laws. He writes:

“Now, the training of youth most conducive to the defense of true faith and religion and to the preservation of morality must find its beginning from an early stage within the circle of home life; and this family Christian training sadly undermined in these our times, cannot possibly be restored to its due dignity, save by those laws under which it was established in the Church by her Divine Founder Himself.”

Hence, as per the teaching of the Roman Pontiff, drawn from the command of Christ in the Gospels, for society to flourish, it must be primarily focused on following God and obeying the authority of His Church. With the Church as the center of society, laws will be enacted that are chiefly concerned with moral law rather than wealth accumulation.

Family life is not promoted by alluring financial incentives but by a society that is ultimately pointed towards God. As Pope Leo teaches: “When domestic society is fashioned in the mold of Christian life, each member will gradually grow accustomed to the love of religion and piety, to the abhorrence of false and harmful teaching, to the pursuit of virtue, to obedience to elders, and to the restraint of the insatiable seeking after self-interest alone, which so spoils and weakens the character of men.”