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TOMÁŠ HALÍK: "MANY CZECHS MISTAKENLY CONSIDER THEMSELVES ATHEISTS”
What is it like to be a priest in a country where the vast majority of the population does not subscribe to any faith?
It is an enormous, fascinating opportunity, a splendid task, a tremendous challenge. Christianity in our country lost its self-evidence, as a tradition, the collective sharing of opinions, customs and rituals. It can again become what it was initially and that which it is supposed to be – faith, an act of free will, the call of the Gospels, the inspired search for one’s own path following Christ. Today, when someone in the Czech Republic decides to become a Christian, it is a supremely personal, emancipated act. No one, not even public opinion, forces, praises or supports such a step. A person must swim against the current of conformity, constantly responding to criticism and often self-doubt, which chastens faith and compels him or her to delve deeper and deliver authentic witness. That is why there are very few places where faith and the priesthood, as a service to the faith of others, meet such tremendous and very demanding conditions as in the “atheistic” Czech Republic today.
So you aren’t one to complain of a lack of “sheep”?
I don’t complain at all. I wouldn’t want to be a priest in a traditional enviroment where the majority of people are Christian and probably wouldn’t be capable of it. The typical role of a priest, who only looks after the religious needs of his parishioners, and to a degree the role of a missionary or hunter of souls, is completely foreign to me. Even though, or perhaps because, I have been able to arouse interest in the Gospels, baptize and bring the church into the families of many, many people.
How do you now view your role as a cleric?
As a priest in contemporary Czech Republic I feel a shared accountability for all of society and its spiritual condition. Primarily through my books, I try to serve those people who don’t have any intention of becoming a “regular sheep of the church”, but who are not spiritually blind and or completely deaf to religion. The church, in contrast to a sect, should not think only about its hard core, but also about those, who, like the majority of Czech society, inhabit a gray area between confident atheists and practicing Christians. Even there, the church should have associates and sympathizers who are able to go at least a little bit of the way with us. Surprisingly, Czech society needs these types of people much more than it needs the 100-percent Christians, who have always been and will likely always be in the minority. But even this minority is as necessary as salt, of which there shouldn’t be too much or too little, but without which, any meal is inedible.
How do you account for such a large number of people without religious belief?
For the majority of people, it isn’t actually about atheism, but rather an unwillingness to identify with the traditional Christian church. This condition has, as I have said in the past, clear advantages, particularly for those who unexpectedly rediscover faith, Christianity and the church for themselves. For society as a whole however, it has rather large disadvantages. When a society isn’t brought up in the Christian tradition, it has an effect on its moral climate as well as its credulity, and then it becomes vulnerable to a variety of hollow religions and sects.
So then Czech society isn’t as purely atheistic as it is often presented?
Many people mistakenly consider themselves to be atheists. They are actually rejecting the caricature image of God, which makes me as a Christian and theologian rather happy and I completely agree with them on this point. They mistakenly see such ideas as faith. Still, they subscribe to a certain type of agnosticism or vague spirituality, which has not been refined by tradition and religious education. Or they simply aren’t interested in such questions.
Apart from forty years of communism, are there any other reasons for this condition?
Part of it is due to forty years of complete state atheism and many phrases and formulas from that era are still around in the minds of people today, even though they may have never identified themselves with communism. Soviet communism chose Czechoslovakia as an area to experiment with a totally atheistic society. Nowhere else in the entire Soviet bloc – with the exception of Albania – was religion so drastically displaced from the public arena as it was here. Existing historical and sociological factors ensured good conditions. Anti-clerical and anti-Catholic sentiment bloomed here even during the First Republic, a leftover of the anti-Habsburg national ideology and the one-sided interpretation of clearly complex and tragic Czech religious events. Society was markedly secularized as a result of industrialization and the disappearance of village culture and its folk piety. Today we see that this experiment was even more successful than was originally thought. Even after 1989, the church remained very passive. Because of its difficulties and inexperience, it was not very successful in filling the void left by the communists. And the good works it was responsible for, such as hospices, high schools, services in prison, hospitals, in the army, aid in Czech-German reconciliation, etc., were not given coverage in the media. As a result, the church practically didn’t exist for society.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church is still the strongest principal church in the Czech Republic. In your view, how is it perceived by Czech society?
It is the same view that frustrated German society had towards Jews at the beginning of the war or that Muslim extremists have about the West: For the most part a caricature, a one-sided picture of an enemy, an encounter of prejudice, targeted propaganda and an exaggeration or generalization of actual faults. Unfortunately that is how the Catholic church is viewed by a large part of Czech society today.
What has that view been influenced by?
For forty years people were systematically brainwashed to associate the church with those disgusting prelates from Vávrova’s film “Hussite Trilogy”, bloodthirsty connivers who condemned national artist Zdenìk Štìpánek to a long death. Most of us did not have a chance to come into contact with the real church while we were growing up. At that time thousands of priests were in prison or in concentration camps. Religion was totally displaced from publicly available culture. Even today, when people talk about the church, they don’t talk about what they know but what they were told in suitably modified history books.
Then you feel that people have certain stereotypes about the Catholic church.
Even now it is normal to associate today’s Catholics together with the inquisition of the Middle Ages, the Crusades, etc. And it doesn’t occur to anyone that it is equally absurd to accuse Jews or Romans today of crucifying Christ. Moreover, few institutions have come to terms with their past like the Catholic church has. I am thinking particularly of the important achievements to “heal the scars of the past” that occurred during the papacy of John Paul II.
Still, opinion of the Catholic church is influenced today by such cases as the restitution of church property.
We are talking primarily about the image of the church in the media; primarily scandals and disputes over property. The church here – as in many liberal societies – is a favorite whipping boy of the media. It is interesting that that the Catholic church today provokes and even awakens such anxiety among many. Even as it is still holed up in a corner, rather than somehow aggressively promoting itself. In fact, even in these well publicized property disputes, it is the media and politicians that cause far greater noise than church representatives.
Judging by your answers, it seems that the Catholic church doesn’t have a very good reputation. Does it still have a chance of arousing interest?
Even though it is seen poorly in the eyes of a large part of society, this can still be a chance for the church. Even on my own journey to the church, I was surprised to find out how terrible the difference was between this imaginary bogeyman and the real church, without any doubt. I came into contact with a number of wonderful priests, the majority of whom were imprisoned for many years during communism because of their faith. Today a priest gains sympathy on account of the fact that he is normal. People who know priests primarily from caricatures in films are shocked and very much surprised. It isn’t bad if the church is provocative. It is a good sign when people outside of the church get angry about what the pope says or what the church teaches. It shows that they aren’t indifferent to what the church or the pope says. It isn’t just because of the influence of the media so many people listen to the pope so attentively today, despite the papacy having lostall its worldly power long ago. And despite all criticism and discord, the papal office still has much moral authority in our times. It was never before so in all of history.
What can the Catholic church offer people today?
The same thing it has been offering for two thousand years. The annunciation of the Gospels, the forgiveness of sins, the sacraments, company on a spiritual journey, shared celebrations, a spiritual family the world over and thousands of years of experience with the human heart. It isn’t much?
Still, shouldn’t the church concern itself a little more with contemporary issues?
I don’t think that the church should change at any cost according to the latest trends in order to win over “people today”. That can easily be left to the sects. Anyone waiting for the church to eventually modernize and thoughtlessly and passively repeat the opinions of the majority of society so as to be “normal” and correct on issues such as abortion, cloning, divorce and homosexual marriage, shouldn’t hold their breath. Of course I warmly agree that the church shouldn’t only speak about such issues. It would do better to reason and help more, with single mothers and divorced women for example, rather than only lecture. Such a compliant church, one that doesn’t provoke public opinion, would be for nothing. The church is also obliged to continue repeating the unpopular responsibilities of the Ten Commandments. Even when it knows that it will not gain any points. Even when it knows that that the majority will not follow them and that it had, has and always will have many problems upholding that which it is obliged to proclaim. To paraphrase the title of a film, the church isn’t made up of angels, instead it is doing their work. That means proclaiming God’s word, whether it’s easy or not.
The Catholic church no longer has a traditional spiritual monopoly. Is interest in alternative spiritual systems, healing, mysticism, growing? How do you explain this interest?
It is clear proof that man and society are incurably religious. No society ever existed without religion and will likely never exist. In places where traditional religious culture was for whatever reason disrupted, suppressed or discredited, people understandably looked elsewhere.
To the East for example…
I greatly respect the spirituality of the Far East; I have spent weeks in Japanese Buddhist monasteries; I have completed exercises with Zen masters; I have practiced the benefits of yoga; I have a personal friendship of many years with the Dali lama of Tibet. And that is why I see current western mysticism, which is attracted to the East, as both a funny and damaging caricature. I don’t want to demonize these things, as Christian fundamentalists do, although I am very critical of these surrogate religions. Of course it is also a positive challenge for Christians – we cannot just offer people dogma and religion as a set of prohibitions and commands, but must also reveal the treasures of Christian mysticism, which isn’t any less that that of the East.
You are also a psychologist. Is belief a necessary aspect of the human psyche?
Yes, man is “incurably religious”, and I agree on this point with C.G. Jung, Viktor Frankl and many other classical physiologists. If a human being were to completely repress the religious dimension of his personality, he would be committing a spiritual lobotomy, self-castration. Of course, that need can be fulfilled by a variety of other things of diverse quality – from real travels of wisdom and the sacraments evident in many religions to destructive forms of religion and pseudo religion, which can also be seen in many religions, both traditional and atheistic, such as the beliefs of the Nazis or communists. Pure atheism does not exist; what does exists is developed or, to an extent, repressed or deformed forms of human openness that transcend man.
How does psychology view the phenomenon of faith?
As I just said, I have many psychologists on my side, and a new current direction is transpersonal psychology. However, there isn’t a completely unified opinion in psychology.
Czechs are increasingly seeking help from psychologists and psychiatrists. Do you believe that this is due to the high percentage of non-believers, respectively a certain deviation from the traditional values associated with the church?
Of course it is related. Not only would Jung back me up here, but also the old atheist Freud with his theory of “collective neurosis”. But what is also evident here are other forms of stress and illnesses in civilizations. And this isn’t only the case with Czechs, but also with the West as a whole.
Then religion can have a positive effect on the psychic balance of a human being?
A healthy spirituality and belief in God help a person to be “normal”, balanced and healthy. Pathological forms of religion damage and even kill people. Healthy and pathological forms of devotion occur in practically every religion. In untraditional forms, in what we sometimes call sects, these pathological forms are more likely and more frequently to occur than in traditional religions that have thousands of years of experience.
Can a psychologist somewhat replace the traditional role of a priest?
Less that we would think. The work of a priest and a psychologist only overlap in narrow, but nevertheless important areas. Namely in offering advice in crisis situations. Still, a priest, in contrast to a psychologist, offers a broader range of more effective therapeutic resources, such as the sacraments, the liturgy, prayer and meditation and even discourse, interpreted from the Bible. A priest who wisely and zealously employs these fiduciary values with faith, and who doesn’t attempt to take on the role of social worker, cannot be replaced by any psychologist or someone from any other profession. Unfortunately, it is also true that more than a few priests manipulate these values, discredit themselves and cause harm to people. For example, through foolish sermons, mechanical ritualism during mass or injudicious pressure in the confession booth.
Do you blend these two roles, which are generally considered exclusive of one another, in your own personality – as scientist and cleric? Is it at all possible to combine the two roles?
The greatest feat of the mind is to know one’s own limits and to submit to the paradoxes and mysteries of the Inconceivable. This was noted even as early as the 17th century by the brilliant scientist and religious thinker Blaise Pascal. The era of conflict between science and faith is already behind us. The current struggle between “creationists” and radical Darwinists such as Dawkins is only an awkward relic of the past. Thankfully, the sometimes compromising association of religion and power is long since gone. Unfortunately dangerous ties between a certain type of scientific research and powerful financial interests is still growing.
Therefore rationalism and faith go hand in hand?
Today Christian faith, especially Catholic theology, and science are important allies and co-defenders of rationality in the face of a flood of esoteric, fashionable and irrational beliefs and fundamentalism of all kinds. This has been emphasized by the current pope and many philosophers and scientists as well as non-Christians, such as Habermas. I agree with John Paul II that faith without reason would be dangerous. Just as rationality without spirituality and the ethical dimensions that stem from faith, would be similarly one-sided and consequently dangerous. I think that there are many scientists today who agree with us and who acknowledge the immense danger of the abuse of science in ignoring ethical rules.
What then brought you to combine the work of a scientist and priest?
For me the decision to combine the priesthood with a civilian profession as a scientist was inspired by the example of the great Jesuit religious thinker and exceptional natural scientist, Teilharda de Chardin. When I read his phrase that in addition needing “priests/workers”, to the French church would also need priests to work in a scientific environment, I exclaimed: That’s it! In those years of illegality, a priest was obliged to have a civilian profession; I continue this voluntarily today.
You decided to become a priest rather late and moreover during the years of “illegality”, as you say, which were very complicated for the church. Was it a long process?
It was really a long journey. First from atheism to philosophic faith. Then from prejudices against the church to personal experience with wonderful Christians, especially with wise, educated and courageous priests. Yes, I wanted to be like those who I got to know up close. Fathers Reinsberg, Mandl, Mádr, Dvoøák, Bouše and Josef Zvìøina, who was imprisoned by both the Nazis and the communists. A charter member of the Civic forum, a great theologian and an intrepid fighter for civil freedom. I became a priest in a church removed of all property and social influence. A church that was persecuted. Of course I was never paid for my priestly duties and I could never imagine it otherwise. I didn’t think that I would one day see a free church; instead I had to consider that sooner or later the secret police would be after me or liquidate me. I only prayed that it wouldn’t be too soon so that I could still be able to finish whatever it was that I was working on.
How did the regime carry out this persecution?
During the era of normalization, when I was active in the underground church, the communists had already learned that the drastic persecution of fifties, such as the imprisonment of thousands of believers, the execution of priests or concentration camps, would not break the church. That is why they shifted to more moderate, but at the same time, more refined means. You could also be charged with “obstructing state control over the church” and it could happened to anyone, anywhere, for any reason.
Did the state secret police ever use violent means?
There were murders of secretly ordained priests that are still unexplained today, masked as suicides – the case of Coufal, etc. When a friend of Dr. Kašparù came to tell me of Coufal’s death and asked me if I was afraid that something similar could happen to me, I answered: “You know I am scared. But to hell with them”. Fortunately, our underground group upheld a strict code of conspiracy and no Judas was found among us. That is why, apart from the usual annoyances – questioning, opened mail and tapped telephones, prohibitions from working in the university and traveling abroad – I never experience anything especially dramatic. The archives suggest that the STB (the secret police in Communist Czechoslovakia - ed.) knew something about my relations with the underground church and with dissidents including Václav Havel, but apparently they had no proof of my priesthood.
To what extent did a revolt again the communist regime have in your decision to become a priest?
Of course an utter loathing of obstructive communist atheism helped me in the search for God and the church. But it wasn’t the only thing.
In your view, what is the worst thing about life under a totalitarian system?
It breaks the character, it is always necessary to wear a disguise, to live life with a mask. It tempts weaker characters to increasingly larger moral compromises until it reaches the death of ethical conscience, which persists.
How did you feel when the communist regime eventually fell?
I recall the instant when during mass in the cathedral and just before a decisive demonstration on Letná, Cardinal Tomášek said, , “In this crucial moment of our history I stand with the entire Catholic church on the side of the people!” At that moment I felt that an old wish came true for me, that finally the wall of prejudice, enmity and old accusations between the church and the people had fallen. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for very long. After the demonstration at Letná, when I understood that communism would fall, I felt a fantastic dizziness from the joy of freedom. But also sadness that my parents and millions of others, the lives of whom were ruined by communism, did not live to see the end of it. I also felt an enormous curiosity about what would happen next now that we were loaded with the gift of freedom. This curiosity – in spite of all temptations for pessimism – has never left me.
October 02, 2008, Martin Babic, www.czech.cz