Priest, Professor -- Now President?

Article excerpt

In a nation suspicious of church, Fr. Halik gains political favor

Christendom seems close at hand in this nation in the heart of Central Europe. Shrines along the roadways hold small crucifixes or statues of the Virgin Mary. Statues of saints perch on the roofs of baroque buildings or stand in niches in the walls. Religious art and architecture aren't isolated in museums but are everywhere you turn. The nation's capital possesses so many churches Prague has been called the city of a hundred spires.

Those churches frequently sit empty. Though a Catholic country by tradition, the Czech Republic is sometimes called the most atheistic nation in Europe. According to a survey by the polling agency STEM, 35 percent of all Czechs say they definitely do not believe in God. Another 29 percent say mostly they do not. Of the 40 percent of the population that is Catholic, only about 6 percent practice their faith and attend weekly Mass, as compared to about 41 percent in the United States.

The collapse of communism in 1989 meant restoration of religious freedom in Czechoslovakia, which had suffered greater persecution than any other eastern-bloc country with the exception of Albania. Religious orders, repressed for decades, are active again. Barriers to educational and career advancement that Christians faced have fallen. The Catholic church has regained much of its property, though not all. But unlike neighboring Poland and Slovakia, two very Catholic countries where the church exerts a major influence, Czech society remains suspicious, even antagonistic to organized religion. Anti-Catholicism runs deep here, rooted in 600 years of Czech history in which the Catholic church came to be identified with foreign domination.

It's something of a phenomenon then that one of the names bruited about as a possible successor to Czech President Vaclav Havel is that of Tomas Halik, a Catholic priest and professor of religion and sociology at Charles University in Prague. Ordained secretly in 1978, Halik was an underground priest during the communist era. Since the fall of communism, he has emerged as a leading moral spokesman in his country, candidly addressing both the shortcomings of Czech democracy today and the public's complicity in 40 years of communist dictatorship.

A critic of the governing political coalition and the culture of corruption that's been spawned in the last 10 years, Halik took part in last year's Impulse 99 movement, which called for a new direction in Czech politics. As founder and president of the Czech Christian Academy, an ecumenical civic association that promotes conferences and lectures for the public on a wide range of issues from theology and history to psychology and the natural sciences, he's been a tireless promoter of dialogue between the public and the political and intellectual elites.

The Czech Republic needs a new kind of political culture, he says. Today the political structures of democracy are in place, but the mentality necessary for democracy is missing.

Forthright style

Halik's forthright style is unlikely to have won him points with Vaclav Klaus, a frequent target of Halik's criticism. The leader of the rightist ODS Party -- now in a government coalition with the left-leaning CSSD Party -- Klaus is no longer prime minister but he remains a formidable personality and power on the political scene. In the transition to a free market and democracy, Klaus and his ministers overemphasized economics, Halik says, giving too little attention to the moral and judicial context of the transformation.

"Democracy needs some moral biosphere. Some culture of law and respect for law is important and this is missing here," Halik says.

A high-profile priest actively engaged in public life is an anomaly in the Czech Republic, as Halik knows. "I'm an exotic," he acknowledges. But if being a priest has helped make him something of a celebrity in the country, or at least a curiosity, he says it's more often been a handicap. …