e-mail us

Cover story

Would the Vatican allow it?

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Prague, Czech Republic

Should Tomás Halík be elected president of the Czech Republic, it’s hard to think the Vatican would allow him to serve. Rome banned priests in government in Central America during the period of the Nicaraguan revolution and forced Fr. Robert Drinan to retire from the U.S. Congress in 1981. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, recently reelected president of Haiti, left the priesthood after being forced to choose between his sacramental office and his political career.

Still, it’s not completely unprecedented for priests in the Czech Republic or former Czechoslovakia to hold political office.

In the Václav Klaus government of 1992-1996, a Catholic priest, Petr Pitha, served as minister of education. The Holy See took the position then that if the local church believed that the priest occupying the office was doing so for the prosperity and benefit of the country, it would not stand in the way, said Daniel Herman, spokesman for the Czech bishops’ conference.

Other experiences have been more negative, however. Herman points to the example of Josef Plouhar, a minister of health for the communists during the 1960s who was excommunicated by Rome, and Josef Tiso. In 1939, Tiso, a Catholic priest, became head of state of the Free Slovak Republic, which broke off from Czechslovakia in 1939 and became a German satellite state during World War II. The Free Slovak state was formed March 14, 1939, one day before Hitler’s troops marched into what was left of Czechoslovakia to occupy Bohemia and Moravia. Following the war, Tiso was executed as a collaborator.

What the Vatican would do if Halík was elected president remains to be seen, but the signals are that the Czech church at any rate would not oppose Halík’s taking office. He is said to enjoy a cordial relationship with Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, archbishop of Prague, who was also a priest during the difficult days of communism. (Vlk worked as a window washer, a common employment for Czech priests during that period.) The cardinal uses Halík as one of his advisors, and the two of them are on a first-name basis.

For now the Czech church takes a low-key approach to a situation still only a remote possibility. “It’s not the normal duty of a priest to serve in office. In extraordinary circumstances it could be allowed,” said Herman.

National Catholic Reporter, February 9, 2001