Emancipation of Czech Political Catholicism, 1890-1914

By Marek, Pavel | East European Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Emancipation of Czech Political Catholicism, 1890-1914


Marek, Pavel, East European Quarterly


Before World War I, Czech political Catholicism had gone through a process of establishing independent political parties (in the 1890s) that subsequently became a constituent part of the Czech--and Austrian--political system. As their organizational structures were becoming more and more sophisticated in the early 1900s, the onetime loose societies of notables turned into modern mass parties. Indeed, political Catholicism was in the ascendant after 1907 even though the Czech society was turning broad-minded and secular at the same time. In Moravia, (1) the Catholic party (or, rather, "dual" party) even emerged as a prominent political body among Czech political parties. In Bohemia, however, the situation was different: Catholic parties were less successful, partly due to lack of unity and to discord of political elites.

All that was said above suggests that Czech political Catholicism, at least in the stage of establishing its own political structures based on a specific social milieu and becoming one of "pillars" of the Czech society, (2) represented a crucial factor in the shaping of the Czech nation's modern public life. (3) Regrettably, Czech historians have hitherto neglected this subject, namely developments of political Catholicism before World War I. (4) Our study therefore aims to outline the structural development of Czech Catholic parties in Bohemia and Moravia, thus shedding light on an issue that keeps landing our historians (especially authors of synthetic and analytic papers on the Catholicism in the Czech Lands) in trouble. It is based on seminal research of sources, archives, and Catholic periodicals--both nationwide and local.

The Catholic political movement originated in the 1840s. In that period, the first not-exclusively-religious Catholic societies were established; beside activities aimed at the deepening and consolidating of the Christian faith, they were also active in the field of education, reciprocal aid, welfare, charity and--still more--in the public and political life. After the curbs of the neo-absolutist policy enforced by Bach's Ministry had been abolished, new societies started to emerge, namely, Catholic political associations, unions of Catholic journeymen, "St. Joseph's clubs" of men and youth, etc. Local Catholic societies, even though lacking a joint central office, played an important role in the process of political Catholicism's shaping and gestation. Many drew inspiration from abroad, responded positively to papal encyclicals and recommendations of Church authorities, and followed in the footsteps of advanced precursors, especially Austrian and German ones. Until the early 1890s, the Catholic societies and associations in general inclined to two major political organizations: the National Party, namely, to its right wing, and the Catholic-Political Union of the Czech Kingdom (founded in Prague, 1871). (5) The latter was closely linked with conservative owners of large estates. A new impetus came in the early 1890s, as Return Novarum, a papal encyclical (published

1891), revived the traditional Christian Social feeling of Czech Catholics. Consequently, the Catholic political movement remained split into two main streams--conservative and pro-social--until the end of the First World War; hence, two parties--Catholic-National and Christian Social--emerged simultaneously both in Moravia and in Bohemia. The latter was to suffer from repeated splits and fusions.

A Catholic faction within the Old Czech Party consisted, for the most part, of clergymen gathered round Canon Vaclav Stulc (1814-1887). (6) Though not numerous, it was influential due to its contacts with the Czech Catholic nobility and big landowners and so the Party leadership could not ignore it. Leaders of the faction considered drifting apart or transforming the Party on purely conservative lines more than once by the late 1880s, but kept declaring their adherence to the all-national Party and never really tried to establish a new confessional party. …

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