The Romanian National Cathedral: The Voice of a People Freed
The recent dedication of the Romanian National Cathedral has been seen by many as the symbol of modern Romania’s centennial celebration. Having been designated as a goal by the authorities over a century ago, Romanian historical figures have referenced it in terms which imbue it with a special symbolism for the newly unified and hopeful country and as a symbol for the unity sought over the ages.
There are, of course, those who believe that whatever role the Romanian state has played in funding parts of the construction would have been put to better use by building hospitals or resolving other issues in the country. The Romanian state could no doubt make do with a better budgeting and implementation strategy. However, as it has shown in the past, it is not very willing to better itself in order to tend to society’s issues in an effective and efficient manner. One needs to consider several factors before drawing any conclusions on the cathedral project.
The nominally Orthodox population is estimated to be around 88% and a National Cathedral was desired for both religious and cultural reasons by a great many of them.
Firstly, yes, the Romanian government could have used the money spent on parts of the construction of the cathedral (as it did not fund the entire construction) for building or maintaining hospitals or schools. Realistically speaking, however, out of a budget designated for the health department of over 8 billion RON (Romanian leu) for 2018, the state has not been efficient in maintaining or modernizing its healthcare system. The education system had over 23 billion RON, and there was still little done with the money.
The problem with the “we want schools/hospitals, not cathedrals” argument, which has been made by those who oppose the building of the cathedral, is that it creates a false dilemma, which dictates that one can only have either hospitals/schools or churches/ this cathedral. This pseudo-dilemma is especially evident when one considers that the cathedral’s surrounding building complex plan includes a medical center as well. The state budgets for healthcare/ education have been growing for years and an improvement in the quality of state facilities can barely be seen. The budget that came from the state for the building of the National Cathedral so far was a little over 500 million RON over its entire duration and, however much the donations from other sources amounted to, one can clearly see the result of this funding. Since billions did not fix the healthcare or education system, year after year for decades now, it is not probable that the millions used for the cathedral would either have fixed the system or would have even been allocated to the state hospital/ school budget at all. The Church simply seems to be a better economic manager than the state. It also seems to be better at finishing what it starts.
Secondly, it is not the responsibility of the Orthodox Church to govern the Romanian state from a legal or financial perspective, levy taxes, or manage projects the government cannot handle. Even so, it provides the citizens with hundreds of social and medical institutions. This is not a fact known or made public by those opposing church funding.
Many cite the democratically acclaimed and often misunderstood principle of separation of church and state as a reason for cutting church funding and help from the state in all ways. This is a fact nearly unheard of in the Western world, where faith based institutions are almost always offered some type of help in order to have religious freedom function better in society.
Most members of the Christian churches throughout the Western world (Austria, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, the US etc.) pay a tithe to the church they belong to either through a state or church levied tax (usually from 1 to 10% of their income, the percentage varying by country and church).
A closer look at the “separation of church and state” indicates that, when Thomas Jefferson used this expression in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, he did not mean that the church or Christians in general should not have a free say in the direction the moral compass of the nation turns, but rather that the state should not force any one religion on people. The principle was meant to give people freedom to worship, or not worship, a superior power as they pleased. Many who were fleeing to America in the early days of its formation were trying to escape religious persecution, and, as such, the US Founding Fathers believed it was right to protect people from such attacks on personal liberty in the US. The Christian principles which those figures stood by were understood as guiding forces for the development of society. And, as far as one can tell, the US has done well by them, since it became a prosperous and free country. Thus, if one examines the principle, they can see that the separation of church and state is there to promote religious freedom, not to ban religion from society and government. It upholds the freedom of religion, it does not impose “freedom” from religion. This is a liberty the US treasures to this day, despite the fact that many attack it. Freedom of religion, present even in government, while protected from government interference, is also the reason the US capital has its own National Cathedral and why the dollar bill has “in God we trust” written on it. In other words, the principle of the separation of church and state makes the case for a country’s obligation to support the freedom of religion, and not for governments attempting to undermine it.
In Romania, the situation is simple. The nominally Orthodox population is estimated to be around 88% and a National Cathedral was desired for both religious and cultural reasons by a great many of them. Democracy provided them with one. And, while most in Romania compare themselves to other Western countries and think that it is unfair to give any government financial aid to the church, they do not seem to be taking into consideration what those states are in fact doing for their churches. Most members of the Christian churches throughout the Western world (Austria, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland, the US etc.) pay a tithe to the church they belong to either through a state or church levied tax (usually from 1 to 10% of their income, the percentage varying by country and church). Sometimes, as it is in Finland, money is divided from taxes levied on private companies and given to state churches. Presently, in the US for instance, instead of a state tax, individuals pay the tithe to the church of their choice directly. As well, most churches are exempt from paying taxes, and, while this may not sound like much, not paying taxes in the US is in fact quite a substantial money saver, as the progressive taxation laws of the US can have a significant impact. It is obvious that in these Western countries, the church and other religious institutions will be helped financially in some way or another by the state, as a way of promoting religious freedom. For the Romanian Orthodox Church, this can mean financial help, or, as it had been discussed in the past, perhaps the restitution of the properties nationalized in 1863 by Alexandru Ioan Cuza, the elected monarch of the recently unified principalities of Moldova and Wallachia (a proposal which the government opposes).
Of course, the Romanian National Cathedral, now the tallest Orthodox cathedral in the world, and one of the largest, will be bringing in revenue not just for the Church but for the local economy as well, as it is in general such sites that pilgrims and tourists want to visit. Saint Peter’ s Basilica in Rome, the Notre Dame de Paris, Sagrada Familia (unfinished as it is) in Barcelona, the cathedrals in Milan and Cologne, the San Marco Basilica in Venice, Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, and many others, can all attest to the spiritual, historical and financial importance of such monuments. After all, man cannot fashion mountains and build fjords, he cannot create the wonders of nature, but he can make monuments that encapsulate the history and spirit of a people. And such structures keep the legacy of those who built them for future generations.
It stands taller than the building formerly known as the House of the People, now more truthfully dubbed the Palace of Parliament, a beautiful yet tragic symbol of an oppressive regime whose strategy for controlling its people relied heavily on ridiculing and punishing the practice of religion.
Perhaps the most significant part of the Romanian National Cathedral story, however, is that it is a symbol of freedom’s victory over despotism. It stands taller than the building formerly known as the House of the People, now more truthfully dubbed the Palace of Parliament, a beautiful yet tragic symbol of an oppressive regime whose strategy for controlling its people relied heavily on ridiculing and punishing the practice of religion. Next to the idol of a Communist state, there is now the symbol of generational justice and victorious freedom. In a world that espouses the need for diversity, tolerance and liberty, such an accomplishment ought to be celebrated as an end to a chapter of sorrow and subjugation. The experience of communism comes as a warning to the modern secular world from the people who have had Atheism forced on them and have felt the consequences.
Today, in Bucharest, no longer is the House of the People, an image of a grey and heavy time, the only guardian to stand watch over the city. The Communist building now sits in the shadow of the new cathedral’s golden domes born out a people’s desire to banish the tragedy of their past. The world should stop and ponder the significance of this historic moment, for out of the mist of forbiddance and secrecy comes to light, not timidly or tremulously but boldly and clearly, the voice of a nation finally free to say to the world: “In God we trust!”