Cardinal Miloslav Vlk: Changes take generations
Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Archbishop of Prague, is the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Czech Republic. Under the previous regime, he clashed repeatedly with the communist authorities, who for many years denied him authorization to exercise his ministry. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, who is 75, has led the Czech Catholic Church since 1991, in what has been a period of transition – and coming to terms with its actions under the totalitarian regime. He has engaged in many disputes with the Czech state over a number of problems, most notably the church’s property restitution claims. For this special Christmas programme, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk spoke to Radio Prague about this and other issues.
Another significant change involved lay people and their role in the everyday life of the Church.
“The other change that was needed was to get lay people more involved in the life of the Church. Under communism, the role of laymen in the Church was marginalized. Only priests who were granted so-called state approval could do active work, and lay people could not do anything. This wasn’t easy to do, either, because after 40 years of communism, people were used to being inactive and being guided all the time. This transformation, this revival, was very important.”
The Czechs have a reputation of being perhaps the most atheist nation in Europe, if not in the world. How deep do the roots of Czech secularity go?
“Secularization in our country follows a long history of spiritual division in our nation. Our country was among the first in Europe where the Reformation started. The Hussite movement was the first Reformation phenomenon in Europe, and that was the moment when the single spiritual stream in our nation split in two. Since that period of the 15th century this has been present in our nation to this day. After WWI, the motto was 'Away from Vienna', meaning away from the Habsburgs; another motto said 'Away from Rome'. The Church was blamed for allying itself with the Monarchy, which was in fact not true. The intelligentsia during the First Republic had socialist inclinations and was very left-wing. This perfectly prepared the ground for communism. To sum it up, when you look at our spiritual history, and especially that of the last century, the secularization is perfectly understandable.
One of the controversies between the state and the Czech Catholic Church has erupted over the issue of charities and other organizations established by churches. Currently they need to be approved by the Culture Ministry which is something Cardinal Vlk strongly rejects.
“After the fall of communism, an act was adopted on relations between the Church and the state. This act from 1991 was very broad; it was designed in the euphoria of the time, and it suited us well. But in 2001, the post of the Culture Minister was held by Pavel Dostal, and he was, together with some of his colleagues, a real enemy of the Church. They worked to narrow the freedom of the Church. They prepared this amendment which meant that every organization established by any church had to be approved by the Culture Ministry. We appealed to the Constitutional Court immediately in 2001, and the Court did away with the passages of the act in question. But the government made a new amendment with basically had the same content. This time the Constitutional Court did not cancel anything and denied us our constitutional rights. This is a sign that Czech courts base their judgements on ideology, that they do not respect the law and the constitution. The Constitutional Court not respecting the constitution is a scandal.”
“I don't think many of them understand that. Around Europe, various cathedrals are run by the state, that’s not the issue. Here the problem is that the communist state 'nationalized' the cathedral. This was done in contrary even to the communist laws of the time. After 1989, courts in Prague confirmed three times that the cathedral belonged to the state. Regarding this issue, we are going to take further steps, and even take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. Because this is a flagrant breach of the constitution and of our rights, and we are going to defend them.”
On the other hand, the Catholic Church has scored one milestone success. This year, a property restitution settlement deal was signed between the Church and the state.
“The proposition was designed by the state and the individual churches, working together. It entails physical restitution of property for Catholic orders and congregations, while our dioceses gave up their claims and will receive financial compensation. The details are still being worked out, but it seems that after 18 years of absence of political will, it might happen in the end.”
Is the Catholic Church ready to stand on its own, independent of the state?
“This is a matter of justice, you know. If something was stolen, it has to be given back. Partially, this will be settled by physical restitution, the other part will be settled by financial compensation. And we would like to use that compensation to establish economic models that will sustain us.”
Czech Catholics, headed by Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, have had to deal with the legacy of their life under the communist regime. The authorities put the Church under constant pressure not to stand up against their rule. One of the tools communists applied was an informal organization of Catholic priests called Pacem in Terris, or Peace on Earth.
“Pacem in Terris was an organization without application forms. Under communism, the head of the district 'National Committee', as the local authorities were called, would summon the priests from his or her district once a year. Everybody who attended was considered to be in. The whole thing was in fact done just to make an impression, and for the media. It was a sort of psychological pressure on everybody who disagreed with the regime – look, even the Catholic Church is in line with the regime. That was the meaning of it. I would not take this cause too seriously because it was all arranged by the state. “
Perhaps more sinister is the fact that some priests collaborated with the communist secret police, known, as the StB, and provided information on their fellow clergymen. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk says the Church has dealt with this issue, too.
Christmas, a time of commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, has in modern times turned into a festival of shopping and a celebration of consumption. Does Miloslav Vlk see any sings of the times changing?
“Things don’t change with a swing of a magic wand. It is a matter of a change of the spiritual climate in the society. Such an organic change takes generations. To make it happen, the state and the Church and other institutions have to work together. The lack of a spiritual dimension in society has a very anti-social impact, and the state itself should be interested in helping bring the change about. The outlook for any society without such a spiritual dimension is indeed very problematic.”
And finally, where does Cardinal Vlk go to shop for Christmas presents?
“Of course I don't put on my cassock and go shopping for Christmas presents in the supermarket. That's obvious. My co-workers here help me and they know where to get things.”