Martin C. Putna, director of the Václav Havel Library

Martin C. Putna

Czechs are reputed to be one of Europe’s most atheist nations. Yet in the course of its history, the nation has produced many outstanding religious thinkers, philosophers, writers and other personalities who left their mark on the development of theology and religion. In this edition of One on One, we talk to one of the country’s leading Catholic intellectuals, Martin C. Putna, a literary historian, specializing in Czech Catholic literature, who has recently become the head of the Václav Havel library. He recently hosted a popular TV show which combined religion – and cooking.

“Human beings have certain physical and certain spiritual needs. In history, we see that these often come together, or have a lot in common. There are many so-called religious recipes. Every religion has periods of feasts and periods of fasting. In this TV show, we tried to show both, and that religion and food work together, so to speak. In Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. – even in atheism – we find a special connection between food and religion, and we tried to demonstrate it, not only in theory, but practically. We spoke to representatives of various religious streams and movements who can cook, or at least comment on cooking. Sometimes, it was demanding to eat everything they prepared for us, but at least it was exciting.”

If you were to pick one of the world’s religions on purely culinary basis, which one would it be?

“You know, I am biased because I’m a Catholic. And I deeply believe that in Catholicism, we can find everything – there are very strict rules about fasting, and we can also find very sophisticated recipes from monastery cuisines. For example, meat is prohibited during fasting periods. The monks therefore invented very sophisticated recipes how to prepare for instance frogs, snails – everything that is not the classical meat like pork, chicken, etc. So I cannot definitely say that Catholicism is the best religion in the culinary way, but during its history, it has developed way of satisfying both needs –spiritual as well as culinary.”

Most Czech families have carp and potato salad on Christmas Eve, which is a fasting meal. Yet out of roughly ten million Czechs, only about one third declare themselves to be believers. Why is that?

“This is part of the tradition. Many people live in the tradition without knowing exactly that the roots of this specific tradition, of this specific custom, are originally religious. They do it because their mother did, and their grandmother did it, and so on. But the roots are usually religious; carp and potato salad is a fasting meal.”

This suggests that Czechs were not always atheists – as you said, they stick to the tradition of fasting on Christmas Eve. When did it happen that Czechs became one of Europe’s most atheist nations?

“I think the Czech history is to blame here. I think the basic problem is that during this long history, Czechs changed – deliberately or less deliberately – their religion. Until the 15th century, the only religion was Catholicism. Then a majority of the nation chose Reformation, or pre-Reformation. In the 17th century, they again converted back to Catholicism, less deliberately, we have to say. And then, in the 19th century, during the National Revival, Czechs sided with Protestantism once again, but without becoming real Protestants. Protestantism became something of a national ideology but without real religious understanding and without converting to it. So I think this is the reason – that there were too many changes. And then finally, in the 20th century, Czechs decided, well, we had enough of all religion, and the communists were very successful in sticking to this tradition of Czech liberalism, so to speak.”

Many were hoping that after the fall of communism, there would be some kind of a religious revival in the country, but it never happened. Did the Catholic Church make any mistake there?

“The Church was absolutely not prepared for that. The Church lived either underground, or in this semi-official situation of being controlled by the state, by the police and so on, and they were not prepared. There was a group of Catholic intellectuals working underground – Tomáš Halík for instance, and some other wonderful priests – but the majority was not ready. And there was a short period of revival but it only lasted for some five or six moths after the revolution, as part of the general euphoria. Everything that had been prohibited became popular and fashionable. But it only lasted for a few months and then the Czechs lost their enthusiasm for religion in general, not only for the Catholic Church – when they saw the reality of the church.”

In your research and teaching, you specialize in Czech Catholic literature. Who are your favourite writers?

“For a broader public, probably the most attractive Catholic author is Jakub Deml. He was a Catholic priest with a very controversial lifestyle. In his work, we can find elements of expressionism, of surrealism, of avant-garde in many ways, and yet, at the same time, there is a deep religious feeling and observance of the tradition in his work. His favourite authors are Medieval mystics, and he combined elements of the Medieval Latin mysticism with avant-garde literary methods, which makes his work so original and provocative. If there is one author who broader audience should know, it’s definitely Jakub Deml.”

Last year, you became the head of the Václav Havel Library. We met last month at a launch of an exhibition you put together about Václav Havel as a source of inspiration for Czechoslovakia’s underground poets. What kind of response have you had?

Benedict XVI,  photo: CTK
“The response to the exhibition has been wonderful, and I’m especially pleased that young people come there, read the poems and laugh. This was basically the goal of the exhibition. And as for the library itself, the Václav Havel Library is an attempt to build an institution similar to the presidential libraries in the United States. However, there is no tradition of presidential libraries, and people sometimes don’t know what to expect. In my opinion, the library should not only be a centre for the documentation of Havel’s work, not only an archive – though archive is the core of the library, but it should be some kind of a think-tank, a centre in the society where Havel’s way of thinking about the society is further developed.”

The Pope is set to visit the Czech Republic in September. Do you think he’ll have a special message for the Czechs?

“I’d rather the Pope not to have any special messages because in my opinion, the basic role of the pope should be the symbolic head of the Church; the person who symbolically connects Catholics in all continents and countries, Catholics of all languages. But as I observe the pontificate of Benedict XVI, whenever he has something new to say, it’s usually something very conservative, something absolutely opposite to the tendencies which should be supported. He should speak about the eternal truths, like we shall love our neighbour like ourselves, and we shall not steal, and we shall not murder and we shall not lie. But he’d better not attempt to address specific issues of this time; it would be better for him, and for us.”