In the Maelstrom of Secularization, Collaboration and Persecution: Roman Catholicism in Modern Czech Society and the State

By Manderfield, Bradford | New Oxford Review, January/February 2016 | Go to article overview

In the Maelstrom of Secularization, Collaboration and Persecution: Roman Catholicism in Modern Czech Society and the State


Manderfield, Bradford, New Oxford Review


BRIEFLY REVIEWED

In the Maelstrom of Secularization, Collaboration and Persecution: Roman Catholicism in Modern Czech Society and the State. By Tomás Petrácek. EL-Press (downloadable via author's name at academia.edu). 126 pages. No charge.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams's Faith in the Public Square (2005) and philosopher Charles Taylor's palatial A Secular Age (2007) offered macroscopic and speculative views of secularism, from its origins to its current state. Tomás Petrácek, faculty member at the University of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic, offers a concise study of the rise of secularism in one country, with remote and recent history in compelling detail. In the Maelstrom of Secularization examines how the Czech Republic came to be "the most atheist country not just in Europe but in the whole world." Indeed, this small Central European nation quickly and antagonistically dismissed its religious past and identity in "a mere 150 years," says Petrácek, "almost no time from a historical point of view." Atheism became "a sign of modern Czech identity."

History shows the Bohemian lands to be ahead of the curve in Christian religious conflicts. The Hussite Revolution (14191434), often referred to by historians as the "reformation before the Reformation," was sparked by priest and scholar Jan Hus, who promoted the reformist ideas of English theologian John Wycliffe. The extended revolt makes for a complicated story, with early Protestant-style factions and five defeated papal crusades. At the time, the Church owned about two-thirds of Bohemia, and her influence and power led the nobility to support "radical Hussitism as a conceptual instrument to be used to seize Church property." Petrácek is far from hasty in drawing conclusions about contemporary secularity from historical premises: "I would point out that we have no evidence of the causes [of secularism] in the years of Hussitism or the Counter-Reformation," he writes. In recent Czech history, both the Church and the noble or aristocratic classes come under suspicion.

Contemporary secularism, for Petrácek, cannot be attributed to a rift between the Church and nobility but rather results from tension between Catholic identity and national identity. A citizen's sense of "belonging to the Czech nation" and "belonging to the Catholic Church" split in the mid19th century. Petrácek points out the influence of historian Frantisek Palacky, leader of the Czech National Revival and "Father of the Nation," who portrayed the Catholic Church as "a vehicle of undemocratic, unpatriotic principles." Other historians followed suit, "presenting membership in the nation and the Church as something like schizophrenia." Catholicism did not have a corresponding historian to provide a positive perception of the Church. Nationalism succeeded at the expense of the Church, indeed of all religion, as Czechs "tended to find a substitute religion in nationalism and political activism."

Over time, Catholicism would sprout anew. Between the two world wars, Petrácek says, "the process of re-integration of the Catholic tradition into the core of the Czech national identity continued. …

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