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The Catholic Church and the Foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic

15. 3. 2018

At the beginning of the 20th century, the influences of secularization, liberalization and modernization started to affect religion in the area of the future Czechoslovak Republic. The bishops of Bohemia and Moravia had been alerted to the risks in the Encyclical Quae ad nos by Pope Leo XIII as early as in the year 1902. There were three main practical impacts of those influences.

Firstly, the drop in the number of Catholics. Between 1910 and 1921, the number of people in the Czech lands identifying themselves as members of the Catholic Church dropped by 8%. In addition, the influence of Protestant churches increased. In December 1918, The Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren was established by the unification of the Protestant churches of the Reformed and Lutheran Confessions. Today it is the largest Protestant church in the Czech Republic. Thirdly, attempts were made to reform and modernise the Roman Catholic Church, which resulted in establishing the Czechoslovak Hussite Church in January 1920. Immediately, almost half a million believers enrolled in the church. Even though it was a reformed church, it was not included in the Protestant churches. The church was founded after the Holy See had rejected reform changes required by a part of Czech clergymen. The church aspired to become the church of state but it never happened.

It is more than obvious that the Czech Catholic Church joined the independent state in adverse conditions.  It is often stated that the Anti-Catholicism related to the foundation of the independent Czechoslovak Republic has its origin in the alliance of throne and altar practised during the reign of the Habsburg dynasty. It is true that the loyalty of some bishops towards the monarchy boosted hostility. On the other hand, it is obvious that the roots of Anti-Catholicism reach further to the past. The critical attitude towards the church in Czech society had been formed as early as in the 19th century, mainly among the middle-class intellectuals, teachers especially. The Hussite movement is glorified; God is replaced by a national hero, which also helped to a great extent to create religious indifferentism. According to Radoslaw Zenderowski, the Polish political scientist, such an attitude defies trends prevailing in Central and East Europe where national tradions and religion were coming together at that time.

If we take into account the massive emotional contagion leading to the willful pulling down of the so-called Marian Column in Old Town Square in Prague on 3 November 1918, the historical background seems to be rather confusing: by a part of the mob, the column was viewed as a symbol of the Habsburg regime. The enraged crowd did not know that it had been erected to thank Virgin Mary for the defence of the city of Prague during the Thirty Years´ War. Other frequent targets of destruction were the statues of Saint John of Nepomuk, the national patron-saint, who they associated with the so-called Dark Age after the Battle of White Mountain (Bílá hora in Prague). There were also regular attacks on the Catholic Church in newspapers; the Church was labelled as the Roman Devil. Criticism towards the Church was expressed by some of the eminent people from the Czech political scene, too.

One of them was even the first president, T. G. Masaryk, who had been interested in religious issues for all his life. However, for him, Jesus was only a moral educator; he rejected his divinity. He supported the idea of search for a new nonclerical religion, and his religious opinions were often totally different from those proclaimed by the Catholic Church. He rejected dogmas, considered the cult as well as the official Church structure useless. According to him, the Hussitism and Protestantism expressed the essence of the Czech national identity. When the independent Czechoslovak state was being formed, Masaryk supported the separation of church and state, but it never happened.

On the other hand, it is important to realize that the Czech Catholics dealt with problems with the attitude towards the new republic the same way the non-Catholics did. There might have been a slight difference, though: the Catholics had to part with the monarch ruling by the grace of God. Moreover, the political representatives of the new state were clearly aware of the integrating role of the Catholic Church in the state, since most of the citizens identified themselves as the Catholics (82% of the inhabitants in 1921). The Catholic Church also united people of different nationalities both from Slovakia and from a part of the national minorities.

Immediately after the foundation of the republic, the need was to appoint new bishops. The case of Archbishop Huyn, who was not politically acceptable, was closed; he resigned and left Prague. Similarly, the Archbishop of Olomouc, Cardinal Skrbenski abdicated in 1920. The Holy See appointed the new archbishops of the two cities. The common denominator of the action was the willingness of the Church and the Czechoslovak government to deal with the controversial issues by mutual agreement and compromise.

Another element that helped to stabilise the relationship between the Church and the new state was the so-called political Catholicism. The concerns about the future of Catholic culture gave rise to political Catholic movements. In September 1918, several political parties with a Christian programme were brought together and formed the Czechoslovak People´s Party. The party did not include the words ´Catholic´ or ´Christian´ in its title and stood up in front of the public as a party open to everyone, but based on Christian values. The People´s Party did not succeed in bringing most of the Catholic voters together in their party, but it was an important political agent to tip the balance. It prevented the separation of church from state, closing church schools, and among others it also achieved the consent to preserve the compulsory religious education in primary schools. In addition, spiritual service was involved in the army.

The external problems and a certain adversity of the state made the Czech Catholic Church to focus on the development of spiritual renewal. In the days of the monarchy, the formal approach towards the spiritual life was often the darker side. But the period of the First Republic witnessed the rise of active communities practising Christianity. The Orel youth movement tried to build the body for God and soul; Catholic Student Centre, Catholic Action (lay Catholics movement) and the Czech Catholic Charity network came into being. A number of new religious magazines were launched, new communities of believers were founded and activities in the religious orders and congregations were revitalised.

In other words, the period of establishing the independent Czechoslovak Republic shows, as Pope Benedict XVI says, that  the Church, ´is not the prisoner of political, race or cultural dividing lines.´