Catholic Church and state end 18-year-long legal battle over St. Vitus’ Cathedral

Prague’s famous St. Vitus’ Cathedral, home to the country’s coronation jewels and the final resting place of Czech kings, has long been an issue of contention between the Catholic Church and the state. On Monday President Václav Klaus and Archbishop Dominik Duka announced that they had agreed to end the 18-year-long legal battle over ownership rights and signed an amicable agreement on joint administration of the cathedral.

Václav Klaus,  Dominik Duka  (right),  photo: CTK
The battle over St. Vitus’ Cathedral, one of the country’s most famous landmarks, has raged on since 1992 when the Czech Catholic Church laid claim to property confiscated by the communists. For close to two decades the church and state were locked in an ownership dispute that went from one court to another. On Monday the president and archbishop announced that the fight was over. In the presence of state representatives, church dignitaries and the press, they signed an agreement outlining the rules for joint administration. President Klaus said the arrangement stemmed from the cathedral’s historic significance as a prominent national symbol.

“The state and the Catholic Church will work together to administer and maintain the cathedral as they have done for centuries. The Church will continue to use the cathedral as a metropolitan church and the state will secure the necessary funds for its maintenance.”

St. Vitus’ Cathedral
The agreement envisages the creation of a board of administrators – made up of the country’ leading representatives –the holders of the seven keys to the chamber where the coronation jewels are kept. In future this board will meet once or twice a year to discuss issues related to the cathedral’s maintenance and use. The Catholic Church will be allowed to use two adjoining buildings, which are part of the Prague Castle compound, free of charge.

The compromise deal, is the work of the new Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka who took over as head of the Czech Catholic Church in April of this year. His predecessor, Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, who launched the protracted court battle soon after the fall of communism, was determined to win ownership rights and was ready to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The new archbishop said the ownership battle, which swayed one way and the other for close to two decades, was pointless.

“ It is clear that this particular property cannot be judged on purely legal grounds. This cathedral is a historical, spiritual, national and cultural symbol dear to the heart of all Czechs – regardless of their faith.”

Václav Klaus,  Dominik Duka  (right),  photo: CTK
Although the understanding is that the cathedral – as a shrine of God – belongs to itself –and the people, lawyers have a different interpretation. The Church and state have merely ended their ownership dispute, meaning that under the last court verdict the cathedral is in state ownership.

The archbishop’s decision to end the long-standing dispute is seen by many as a constructive approach which may help improve the lukewarm relations between the Church and state in the largely secular Czech Republic. But there are also murmurs of discontent within the church that the new archbishop had sold out the church’s interests and that the concession he made on St. Vitus’ Cathedral would merely set an unwelcome precedent in other restitution battles over church property confiscated by the communists.