Morality pact boosts Vatican's power in Slovakia

Slovakia is planning to seal a pact with the Vatican on conscientious objection, vastly increasing the influence of Roman Catholicism in the country's schools, hospitals, courts, and security structures.

The law on freedom of conscience would be the first such pact between a European state and the papacy. It would allow doctors to refuse abortions on religious grounds, judges to throw out divorce applications because of their faith, and teachers to decline to take part in sex education classes because they offend their beliefs, as well as allowing conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds.

The small central European country is expected to pass the law next month, well ahead of a visit by Pope John Paul II scheduled for September.

Under the first Slav pope, the Vatican has worked relentlessly to increase its influence in eastern Europe since the fall of communism. It has concluded concordats governing relations between the east European countries and the Catholic church in countries from Latvia to Croatia.

In Slovakia, a concordat agreed just over two years ago has been followed by more detailed treaties with the Vatican on Catholic education in schools, state financing of Catholic schools, and Catholic chaplains in the police and army. The new law on conscientious objection goes much further in entrenching church influence in areas from Sunday working to contraception.

Given the prevailing secularism of western Europe, the Pope's strategy has been to "re-evangelise" Europe by concentrating primarily on the eastern half of the continent, where religion was repressed for half a century under the communists.

In the current debate over a European Union constitution, the Vatican is pressing the future members from eastern Europe to insist on a reference to a Christian God.

The Slovak parliament has just instructed the government to support the reference to the divine and, like Roman Catholic Poland, is demanding opt-out clauses in its EU membership on cultural and ethical issues which, for example, would enable it to proscribe equal rights for gays.

Critics contend that the series of agreements with the Vatican contravenes notions of the separation of church and state, while other denominations in Slovakia complain that the Catholic church enjoys a privileged position.