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Priest, professor -- now president?

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Prague, Czech Republic

Christendom seems close at hand in this nation in the heart of Central Europe. Shrines along the roadways hold small crucifixes or statues of the Virgin Mary. Statues of saints perch on the roofs of baroque buildings or stand in niches in the walls. Religious art and architecture aren’t isolated in museums but are everywhere you turn. The nation’s capital possesses so many churches Prague has been called the city of a hundred spires.

Those churches frequently sit empty. Though a Catholic country by tradition, the Czech Republic is sometimes called the most atheistic nation in Europe. According to a survey by the polling agency STEM, 35 percent of all Czechs say they definitely do not believe in God. Another 29 percent say mostly they do not. Of the 40 percent of the population that is Catholic, only about 6 percent practice their faith and attend weekly Mass, as compared to about 41 percent in the United States.

The collapse of communism in 1989 meant restoration of religious freedom in Czechoslovakia, which had suffered greater persecution than any other eastern-bloc country with the exception of Albania. Religious orders, repressed for decades, are active again. Barriers to educational and career advancement that Christians faced have fallen. The Catholic church has regained much of its property, though not all. But unlike neighboring Poland and Slovakia, two very Catholic countries where the church exerts a major influence, Czech society remains suspicious, even antagonistic to organized religion. Anti-Catholicism runs deep here, rooted in 600 years of Czech history in which the Catholic church came to be identified with foreign domination.

It’s something of a phenomenon then that one of the names bruited about as a possible successor to Czech President Václav Havel is that of Tomás Halík, a Catholic priest and professor of religion and sociology at Charles University in Prague. Ordained secretly in 1978, Halík was an underground priest during the communist era. Since the fall of communism, he has emerged as a leading moral spokesman in his country, candidly addressing both the shortcomings of Czech democracy today and the public’s complicity in 40 years of communist dictatorship.

A critic of the governing political coalition and the culture of corruption that’s been spawned in the last 10 years, Halík took part in last year’s Impulse 99 movement, which called for a new direction in Czech politics. As founder and president of the Czech Christian Academy, an ecumenical civic association that promotes conferences and lectures for the public on a wide range of issues from theology and history to psychology and the natural sciences, he’s been a tireless promoter of dialogue between the public and the political and intellectual elites.

The Czech Republic needs a new kind of political culture, he says. Today the political structures of democracy are in place, but the mentality necessary for democracy is missing.

Forthright style

Halík’s forthright style is unlikely to have won him points with Václav Klaus, a frequent target of Halík’s criticism. The leader of the rightist ODS Party -- now in a government coalition with the left-leaning CSSD Party -- Klaus is no longer prime minister but he remains a formidable personality and power on the political scene. In the transition to a free market and democracy, Klaus and his ministers overemphasized economics, Halík says, giving too little attention to the moral and judicial context of the transformation.

“Democracy needs some moral biosphere. Some culture of law and respect for law is important and this is missing here,” Halík says.

A high-profile priest actively engaged in public life is an anomaly in the Czech Republic, as Halík knows. “I’m an exotic,” he acknowledges. But if being a priest has helped make him something of a celebrity in the country, or at least a curiosity, he says it’s more often been a handicap.

“I must always struggle with these anti-Catholic, anti-clerical stereotypes. To many people it’s a surprise that you’re a priest and you’re normal.”

With a considerable number of people, Halík has succeeded in that struggle. A year ago a poll by the Czech newspaper Lidové Noviny placed Halík as the sixth-greatest living Czech after President Václav Havel and former Prime Minister Václav Klaus.

Ptal jsem se cest (I Asked the Way), an autobiographical book containing Halík’s reflections on his life and the personalities he has met, from the Dalai Lama to Pope John Paul II, has run through seven editions and sold more than 30,000 copies.

Particularly for educated Czechs, Halík has become a voice of reason articulating their concern over corruption at every level and bickering politicians more concerned with power than with public good.

“He’s very bright, tolerant, well educated,” Eva Novaková, a former student of Halík’s, said, explaining his popularity.

Citing Halík’s experience as a drug counselor and psychotherapist under communism and his popularity with students, Fr. Daniel Herman, spokesman for the Czech Bishops’ Conference, says that Halík has the common touch. “He’s able to formulate the message of the gospel in a very easy style that can be accepted and understood by students,” Herman says. “It’s very important that he doesn’t live in a virtual reality. He knows normal daily life.”

But it’s Halík’s standing as an intellectual that may constitute one of his most important credentials for the office of president. Historically, the intelligentsia has played a prominent role in Czech society. Czechoslovakia’s first president, T.G. Masaryk, was an intellectual, as is Václav Havel, perhaps Europe’s most distinguished chief of state.

By tradition, the Czech president is not a party politician but a moral authority and thinker. Political power is largely vested in the prime minister while the president serves as a symbol and a unifying force.

Halík’s intellectual depth and breadth are undisputed. He’s the author of several books on topics ranging from mysticism to the spiritual and psychological dimensions of health and illness. His current work in progress is a book on atheism. Active in interfaith movements, he has studied and lectured on different faiths around the world. A dynamic speaker, he’s a frequent guest on Czech radio and television news programs.

Still, the question remains, can a priest in as secular a country as the Czech Republic become the president? And does he want to be?

Havel’s suggestions

It was Václav Havel who started the speculation about Halík. Two years ago, the dissident playwright-turned-president mentioned several people he thought would be worthy candidates for the office. One person was then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Prague. Another was Tomás Halík.

“It will never happen,” says Noel O’Brien, an Irishman living in Prague who contributes political commentary to The Prague Post and has spent seven years researching a book on Czech history. Most Czechs agree.

“A priest could never become president,” says Jan Sokol, a professor of philosophy at Charles University who was minister of education during the late 1990s. “There’s a strong feeling that church and politics should be as separate as possible and a general distrust and even hostility to the Catholic church.”

Suspicion of the Catholic church goes back centuries. Czech lands were the cradle of Protestantism. Jan Hus, a forerunner of the Protestant reformers, was a priest and rector of Charles University. He condemned corruption in the church and advocated Communion in both species, preaching in the vernacular, and translation of the Bible into Czech. In 1415 he was condemned by a General Council of the church at Constance and burned at the stake as a heretic. The Hussite movement he spawned, a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, turned Prague and all of Bohemia into a center of anti-Catholic activity.

The Czechs lost their independence when the Hapsburgs came to power in the 16th century. The Hapsburgs forcibly re-Catholicized the Czech lands; and distrust of the Catholic church has lingered ever since.

“From 1526 to 1918 there was a German-speaking dynasty that used religion as one way of asserting supremacy over Czechs. The church was the state church of the Hapsburg empire. The Czechs were ruled by foreign-speaking bishops, who were often aristocrats who did not speak Czech,” says Fr. William Faix, a historian and pastor of St. Thomas Church in Prague.

Resentment over the Austrian monopoly in the church, industrialization and urbanization that in the 19th century led to an exodus from villages to the more secular cities, the radical ideas of the French Revolution -- add them all up and you get a large and growing estrangement between Czechs and institutionalized religion, Faix says.

Communism made further inroads on religious belief. Church attendance dropped dramatically during the communist era.

“We’re going into a second generation of an unchurched population who have no understanding of the basic elements of religion,” Faix says.

Some suggest Czechs are less atheistic than is commonly supposed. “Basically what you have is a country of closet theists. They’re atheists by habit but not by conviction,” says Richard Smith, a professor of religion and philosophy and now interim president of the Anglo-American College in Prague.

“For many people it’s a vague smorgasbord spirituality,” Smith says. “It doesn’t have much function in their lives. You don’t see any influence on public life or personal morality.”

Still, the interest in Eastern religions, New Age thinking and superstition shows that Czechs are not unconcerned with religion, Smith contends. Daniel Herman notes that interest among young people in particular is growing. “Two generations ago, in the time of the communist regime, they heard in the schools only lies about the church, about religion. Now they see that that was wrong. I think they are very open for this vertical dimension of life, and it’s a very positive development.”

If Czechs see themselves as a nation of atheists, Herman says in part it’s because their grasp of religion is so primitive. “They do not understand what it means to believe in God because their imaginations are infantile. They think that God is a good Daddy in the sky.”

Paradoxically, communism, while it persecuted believers, also helped rehabilitate the reputation of the Catholic church. “During this period of hard persecution, this experiment of total atheization of the country, there was quite an important movement, especially among young and educated people, toward sympathy with the church. Particularly during the last 10 years of the communist regime, the church became a symbol as an alternative to the communist regime,” says Halík.

Jan Sokol agrees. “In my youth, we [Catholics] were generally laughed at, which is not the case today. Partly it was perhaps due to the atheistic propaganda of the communists that people would be ashamed of this. If I compare the present situation with 40 years ago, people take religion more or less seriously, particularly educated people. This is a very pregnant and deep change.”

Unfortunately, Sokol notes, high expectations of the church after ’89 were disappointed both because the church was not able to say something to the people as a whole and because restitution issues between the church and state became politicized by the media and by politicians who saw political advantage in expressing mistrust of the church.

Such high expectations of the church after ’89 were unrealistic, Halík contends. Most of the clergy were old people and tired after years of communism. Unfortunately, the church had been so suppressed for 40 years it wasn’t able to take advantage of the new opportunity presented it.

“For many priests it was really a shock to be confronted with the contemporary problems of the Catholic church,” he adds.

Today Czech Catholics struggle with a new set of problems, not those imposed by communist repression but by freedom and materialism. Eva Novaková converted to Catholicism in 1985 when she was 18. Because her father was a member of the Communist Party and an official in the Ministry of the Interior, she kept her baptism secret. She borrowed a prayer book and typed her own copy of it at home. She remembers the communist past, not with a sense of nostalgia so much as with a measured appreciation of both what was good and bad about that era in comparison with the present.

“Today there is no problem to get a book, to go to a meeting of young religious people. It’s very easy. It doesn’t have any more the flavor of some mysterious, forbidden thing,” Novaková says. “At the same time society and the young people are more and more materialistic. In my own time, I met a lot of converts. They were searching for some meaning. They could not travel to any foreign country. The possibilities were more restricted. Maybe it wasn’t bad. I wasn’t disturbed by the great offer on the shelves. I don’t praise the poor economic system. Not at all. But maybe there was more space for more thinking, for searching for some deepness of life.”

Living without an enemy

“Under attack, the Catholic church was very unified,” says Halík. “But for many Catholics, it’s very complicated to live without an enemy. For some Catholics they’ve created from this liberal society an enemy. It’s difficult to struggle against liberal society with the same tactics used against communism. To have a critical discussion, but to be able to find some common points. A strategy of critical partnership and alliance with others is important.”

Ministering to the need for dialogue both within the church and within the larger Czech society perhaps defines Halík’s mission. He speaks frequently, constantly even, of the need for “communication” within society, comparing the Czech Republic to a body with all its organs intact but suffering from poor circulation of the blood. It was in order to promote communication that Halík founded the Czech Christian Academy. It reflects his view that public life is too important to be left solely in the hands of politicians, that intellectuals, too, should be involved in shaping public opinion.

The academy organizes international research into the status of religion in post-communist nations, offers an ongoing interreligious dialogue with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, and sponsors visits from well-known thinkers around the world. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Michael Novak are among the speakers the Czech Christian Academy has brought to town.

The academy also holds seminars for journalists and teachers as well as deputies from parliament. During the war in Kosovo, for example, the academy brought in well-regarded historians of the region to talk to senators and deputies about the conflict.

Halík is just as concerned with developing the art of communication within the church. “We must have a culture of communication and also a culture of conflict. It’s normal to have pluralism inside the church,” he says.

Dynamic, open-minded, passionate about freedom (“I love democracy. I love pluralism,” he declares ebulliently), and eager to build bridges to those holding different beliefs and values, Halík may be less quixotic a choice as president than he initially appears.

After Václav Havel retires, Czechs will have to decide whether they want their next president to be a party politician or another thinker. If the latter, Halík doesn’t reject out of hand the idea of becoming president. It’s unlikely, he says. He’s absolutely happy in his position as professor and says the role of president is much more apt to go to a layman than to him.

The Czech president is elected by both chambers of parliament. Halík has no power base behind him and no financial power. Then there’s the problem that he’s a priest. Given canonical law, it would be difficult for him to hold political office as a priest. He would have to get from the church a special dispensation from his priestly duties.

Still, he says if an exceptional circumstance came along, he would consider what he could contribute as president.

“I’m not dreaming about it, but I think if there were some extraordinary situation I would not say absolutely not.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001