The Czech Republic and the Vatican sign cautious friendship treaty

Monsignor Ender and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, photo: CTK

Prague's Cernin Palace witnessed a historic ceremony on Thursday when for the first time in history a treaty was signed between the Czech Republic and the Vatican, defining their relations. The event was so much the more historic given the long years when communist Czechoslovakia was officially an atheist state. But even today, Czechs have an ambivalent relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, and the talks leading up to the signing were long and difficult. David Vaughan attended the ceremony.

Monsignor Ender and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda,  photo: CTK
The Roman Catholic Church is by far the biggest religious organization in the Czech Republic but even so, the majority of Czechs have no religious allegiance. There is a historic mistrust of the church going back to the time of the counter-reformation, and there was often an atmosphere of suspicion during negotiations to prepare the treaty. But on Thursday the Papal Nuncio in Prague, Monsignor Josef Ender, said that the final document was satisfactory to both sides.

"Every treaty is a compromise. Everyone wants to get the best for his own intention and has to give something to come to something acceptable from the other side. Therefore I'm very content that we arrived, in spite of these difficulties, to a text which is agreed by both sides."

The difficulties Monsignor Ender refers to focused on areas where the Czech government has tried to keep a lid on the influence and above all, the autonomy of the church. There have been recent tensions over issues such as the recognition of church weddings and the independence of church charities.

In fact, the Czech-Vatican treaty does not bring any radical new solutions, but it does reinforce existing Czech legislation, defining the powers and responsibilities of the church in areas such as education, health care and social work.

The new Czech Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda, who co-signed the treaty, is a Christian Democrat, and he was not involved in negotiating the treaty as it stands:

"I'm here just due to the fact that I was appointed as minister of foreign affairs, but de facto everything has been done during the term of the cabinet of Milos Zeman."

Mr Svoboda hinted that he would have preferred a treaty more sympathetic to the church's interests. For the Vatican's part, Monsignor Ender made no secret of his pleasure that the new foreign minister is a Christian Democrat.

"I'm very glad that Dr Svoboda is here. I think it is a gift of the moment, a gift of the providence and hopefully a good sign and encouragement for the future."

The treaty probably won't bring a golden age in church-state relations in the Czech Republic. It carefully avoids the most sensitive issue of all. In pre-communist days the Catholic Church owned property worth tens of billions of crowns, most of which has not been returned. The treaty does call for the rapid resolution of the property question but only in the vaguest of terms, an issue that could lead not only to Czech-Vatican tensions, but also to rifts within country's ruling coalition.