Catholic Church loses St Vitus case but vows to fight on

La cathédrale Saint-Guy

It’s instantly recognisable on Prague’s horizon, and has been subject to legal battles for several years. St Vitus Cathedral, the gothic masterpiece that towers over Prague Castle, does not belong to the Roman Catholic Church – that was the verdict reached on Thursday by the country’s Supreme Court.

St Vitus Cathedral
A cathedral has stood on the site of St Vitus for more than 1,000 years. The first church dedicated to the saint was an early Romanesque rotunda, founded by Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia, in 925. Today’s gothic cathedral – the biggest in the country – was founded in 1344 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, although wasn’t completed until 1929. It contains the remains of many important rulers, including the cathedral’s founder St Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia.

St Vitus cathedral in Prague
In 1954 the communists declared that the cathedral was the property of all citizens, and transferred it into the hands of the President’s Office, whose official seat is Prague Castle. After the fall of communism in 1989, the church launched legal proceedings to regain control of St Vitus from the state. Thursday’s defeat for the church was just the latest verdict in a long and complex legal battle. The Supreme Court upheld a verdict by a lower court that St Vitus belonged to the people, not the Roman Catholic Church, and should remain in the hands of the state.

The court recognised two of the state’s key arguments – first, that the Roman Catholic Church was not the sole owner of St Vitus Cathedral during its 700-year-history. And second, in complex legal terms, that the Church should have used a suit of restitution, and not declaratory action, when it filed its legal case.

But the church isn’t giving up, and says it will now appeal to the Constitutional Court. If this fails, it will use the final legal avenue open to it – international arbitration. Until then, the status quo from an agreement signed last year remains in force – the Roman Catholic Church has the right to use St Vitus Cathedral for religious services; but it belongs to the state, which must pay to maintain it.