Catholic faculty steps out of isolation

The Czech Republic is a predominantly secular country. However, the country's oldest Charles University has three theological faculties. One of them, the Catholic Theological Faculty, is attracting a lot of media attention at the moment. In this week's Talking Point, Pavla Horakova has spoken to the rector of Charles University and one of the students at the faculty to find out what's going on.

The Catholic Theological Faculty of Charles University is located in the Prague district of Dejvice close to a number of other colleges. At first sight the faculty looks just like another university establishment, not many people know though, that for twelve years now the faculty has existed as a world of its own. The faculty, one of the oldest faculties of Prague's Charles University, first became the focus of media attention a couple of years ago when its dean was elected for the third term in a row, while the law allows only two. Later it became apparent that the faculty ignored other regulations as well. On December 14th 2001 the Ministry of Education therefore suspended the faculty's academic rights and freedoms and transferred the management powers to the rector of Charles University, professor Ivan Wilhelm. Mr Wilhelm told us how things could have gone so far.

"In many aspects it is by chance. The main aspect is the previous history of 40, 50 years when the school was completely isolated from the university it was not part of the university up to 1990, while in this time Rome as a representative of the church was looking with some patience, we are happy that it is arranged somehow and we hope, sometime it will be changed somehow. Everybody was waiting that now it is time to change it somehow. But I think that the very beginning period to be introduced back to the university was too early for me for example. But now, 12 years is not so early and absolutely it is necessary to change it."

Professor Wilhelm has agreed with the management of the faculty and the Czech Catholic Church that he will speak on their behalf in this matter, as neither the church nor the faculty wants to comment on the issue.

Jiri Kolar is a student at the faculty and he shares professor Wilhelm's opinion on the isolation of the faculty and its cause.

"The faculty was isolated by the communists for 40 years and it was degraded to a secondary school in the town of Litomerice. For those 40 years it was isolated from new ideas, new professors. Unfortunately a voluntary isolation continued for another ten years, an isolation from the conclusions and implications of the Second Vatican Council, isolation from new professors and new ideas coming from other theological faculties, mainly in the West."

Until recently, the faculty existed as a closed community. Not only as far as theology is concerned but also in the formal aspects of academic life. Professor Wilhelm again.

"It begins with the formal questions, that is the internal legislation for the school which was necessary two years ago but they haven't got it up to now, for example. Naturally, it is not only a formal thing, because all life within the university is defined by the internal legislation, it is absolutely necessary to have it by the solution together with the university and by the Church. And it is in the interest of the church and the university to arrange that."

The issue is of course very complex. As a student, how does Jiri Kolar see it?

"The whole issue has three parts, the first is the quality and standards of the faculty, caused by the long isolation of the professors and the faculty itself. The second is the serious formal shortcomings, the non-existence of the statutes of the faculty, the academic senate or the disciplinary and entrance exams regulations. And the third part is the clash of conceptions: the Czech Catholic Church accepts the II Vatican Council and its implications, which means opening to the world, dialogue, whereas the former leadership of the faculty sees the II Vatican Council and its results negatively and tries to boycott it. And the problem is a lack of communication, fear of the world, fear of the II Vatican Council. Each side has their own truth, but neither side can claim to be the owner of the infallible truth."

Professor Wilhelm confirms that even the Czech Catholic Church is critical of the state of affairs at the theological faculty.

"They are not very happy, because it really is not in the interest of the Catholic Church for the faculty to be so closed to inside and to not be able to communicate with the public and to not communicate with the university."

Mr Wilhelm mentioned an interesting example. When a Czech nun wanted to study theology at the conservative Catholic faculty in Prague, she was refused. However, she was allowed to study theology in Rome without any problems.

"One lady, a member of a monastery tried to study theology at this faculty. The faculty was not able to accept her for the studies and wanted to have some education in theology for her life and for her orientation and finally she was accepted in Rome. She was happy to be accepted there, to fulfil all her duties there, now to have the education in theology and she tried to explain how it helps her in her life to be oriented in her duties in her responsibilities and so on. But it was not possible to arrange it here in Prague on a home university. But we are a public university, for the public and not for the church only."

Given that the nun was not allowed to study in Prague, does that mean that the faculty discriminates against women? Jiri Kolar again.

"The faculty provides full-time and part-time studies programme. The full-timers are almost exclusively future priests. The part-time students are future teachers of religion or people interested in theology as such. The full-time course was almost out of question for women and laymen. I think that during those 12 years only one nun graduated from this faculty and there are a handful of laymen, but that is unusual."

Professor Wilhelm has been trying for a long time to build a modern theological faculty and push through changes in the work of the faculty such as allowing other students than future priests to study there.

Last Saturday, rector Wilhelm, as the faculty's administrator, met the students and the staff of the faculty. At the meeting, he said that unless the Faculty implements considerable changes in its system of education and opens itself to the public, the Ministry of Education might withdraw its accreditation and the faculty would cease to exist. Wilhelm tried to persuade the students that his efforts were not aimed at harming the faculty but, on the contrary, at increasing its standards and modernising it.

Are the students afraid of future developments? Are they looking forward to the changes or are they afraid the faculty will not be able to hold exams and grant diplomas? Jiri Kolar again.

"Of course, that fear was and is justified. We want to study. But at the present time, I am not afraid. The demands will be higher, that's for sure, but most of the part-timers will welcome that. The current prevailing mood is one of cautious happiness and hope. We are happy that the long-term hidden conflict between the church and the management of the faculty is ending and we are hoping that the faculty will become an equal partner to other theological faculties in our country and abroad. And we hope this isolation will cease to exist and the fear of the world will give way to cooperation and dialogue."