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In the exciting days of November 1989, during the occupation strike at Charles University in Prague, the students initiated a cycle of lectures under the rubric of “what they did not teach us at school.” Philosophers, economists, and historians who for political reasons had not been allowed to teach—often working as stokers or night porters—met at last with eager students to discuss banned authors and tabooed themes.

Among the forbidden fruits on which the students feasted, theology and the philosophy of religion were prominent. Every ironic comment about state-enforced atheism filled the students’ hall with a thunder of laughter and applause. In the audience were many recent converts who had been holding secret prayer meetings and distributing illegal literature. But even among the nonbelievers, there was a conspicuous sympathy and solidarity—a joy in recognizing that “everything was now different,” that another of the things demonized by communism was now available for them.

Five years later, I was invited by a student club to discuss religion in the same building in which we had met during the “Velvet Revolution.” But religion had lost its aura of forbidden fruit. During those five years, my listeners had seen mass assemblies of Jehovah’s Witnesses and evangelical TV programs by American-style Pentecostal preachers. They had read polemics about church property restitution, they had met Hari Krishnas in saffron robes, they could find Rushdie’s Satanic Verses sitting beside Discussions with Cardinal Ratzinger in bookstores.

“Do you really believe that you have been bought by the blood of Jesus Christ?” asked the first student questioner at the end of my lecture. “You speak of the necessity for interreligious dialogue and tolerance. Do you believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that whoever does not believe in Him will be condemned?”

“I object to your partiality to Christianity,” said a second questioner. “In the Age of Aquarius, no single religion dominates any more. All religions give the same account. They’re merely ships to convey us to the coast of spiritual knowledge, where faith is no longer required.”

“There exists no absolute understanding and no eternal Truth,” declared a third. “All claims of truth and binding morality must be deconstructed. Everything is relative. In a pluralist system of political and economic democracy, each and every one may enter into the free competition of ideas, but he who claims an absolute truth threatens the foundations of the very system: he is a potential fascist.”

I answered, as best I could, in the spirit of post-Vatican II Catholicism, which assumes and relies upon secular humanism to be its dialogue partner. But I fear my words were somewhat lost, for my required partner did not show up. I stood instead in a postmodern scene, facing the three living heirs of dead modernism: fundamentalism, with its attempt to return to the premodern; syncretism, with its New Age and neo-gnosticism; and deconstruction, with its skeptical nihilism and moral relativism.

Though I could sympathize with portions of what each of my questioners had to say, the fact that modernism—the modernism which theologians assume they must address—could disappear so completely in five short years signals grave dangers for the post-Communist societies of Eastern Europe. Fundamentalists warn us against the godless West. Polls show, however, that the majority of post-Communist countries (especially the Czech Republic) are far more de-Christianized than America and Western Europe.

The result of the Communists’ forty-year atheistic propaganda effort was not a convinced atheist, the new socialist man, possessing all the divine attributes. For a long time, in fact, the divine attributes were not owned by any kind of man but by the State and Party. The Marxist regime, having squeezed religion out of public life, immediately became a pseudo-religious and pseudo-ecclesiastical system in its own right.

The base of socialism was an unwritten contract: the citizen was not to attempt to interfere in public life, and the State would guarantee a problem—free vegetation (neither poor nor rich). To this end, the State would tolerate almost everything: a poor work ethic, petty theft of communal property, irresponsible and inconsiderate behavior toward nature and neighbor. This contract logically led to a moral corruption and disintegration of values on a scale previously unknown. Marxism did in fact cultivate a new man, but one about as far from the superman of the socialist realism novels as Sancho Panza was from Don Quixote. Homo Sovieticus was the ultimate conformer, lacking all creativity, responsibility, and initiative.

The Soviet Man may have seemed the ideal contractual partner for the Soviet State. But though he gave up his claim to conscience, he by no means gave up his claim to material wealth; Homo Sovieticus was on average much poorer than Western man, but certainly no less consumption-oriented. Socialism predictably began to fall behind the West in practically all respects, but most conspicuously economically. And quite naturally the system began meeting with opposition not only from the few moral critics who refused to suppress their consciences, but also from the masses whose consumerism could not be satisfied by the system.

The Polish Catholic Church deserves enormous recognition for providing intellectual dissidents a place to meet with each other and with unsatisfied workers. The Solidarity movement, born in the wake of John Paul II’s first visit to his homeland, brought to the history of dissent against communism a new and decisive quality. The Czech “Velvet Revolution” was also stimulated to a certain extent by a religious event: a pilgrimage of ten thousand Czechs and Slovaks to Rome for the sanctification of Agnes of Bohemia.

Although all the Communist states fought religion in remarkably similar ways, the tactics of the Church varied considerably from country to country. A decisive factor was the type of inculturation of faith in the society, an aspect of long-term historical development. The most conspicuously diverse are Poland and the Czech Republic. In Poland, the Church relied on its traditional role as bearer of national identity. Cardinal Wyszynski was the archetype of moral leader and societal focal point at a time when the nation had no legitimate political leader. The Polish Church managed to link the popular religion of the masses with the advanced thought of the Catholic intellectual elites, influenced by French personalism, Thomism, and phenomenology: This was the environment that produced Karol Wojtyla. Poland has always been drawn to its Church at times of national threat. The rise of Stalinism reawakened this instinct and the Church became a power that even the Polish Communist regime had to respect.

The years since the fall of communism, however, have required the Polish Church to redefine its role. Prior to 1989, it had stood as a political, cultural, and moral antagonist of the State. The success of this role at building national consensus has caused difficulty in abandoning it for the role of a social partner. The recent political offensive of the Polish neo-Communists has made it even more difficult for the Church to shed its counterculture mantle.

Unlike Polish history, Czech history has been marked by a painful tension between national identity and Catholicism. The tension, which dates back to the Hussite wars and the violent re-Catholicizing of the seventeenth century, was intensified by the nationalism of the last century. The already highly secularized Czechs seemed ideal for a radically atheistic society. The goal of communism, a town without God, seemed almost within reach in the Czech lands.

The Czech Communists yielded to the temptation of trying to accelerate the already promising process of secularization with an especially hard-line persecution of the Church. And in the psychology of the Czech national, there is a traditional tendency to identify with the oppressed. The result of the persecution was a growth in the Church’s moral prestige—to a degree unheard of in the whole of modern Czech history. Instead of a ghetto, the underground Czech Church found an intense and fruitful dialogue with the equally outlawed secular humanist intellectuals. Although the official Church in Czechoslovakia had been affected by the reforms of Vatican II only to a limited extent, a number of the Czech Catholic intelligentsia maintained strong ties to modern intellectual discourse.

Although the popular Czech Church was quite small, the number of converts and sympathizers grew—especially among youth and the intelligentsia, and in the larger towns. Several of the Catholic intelligentsia understood that to lead a democratic confrontation with the dying Communist despotism would allow the Church to fulfill two of its roles: defender of human rights and initiator of the moral renewal of society. The assumption of these roles, however, carried the requirement that the Church cooperate widely, with both nonbelievers and other denominations, in “solidarity with all those seeking truth and loving freedom.” An awareness of this requirement resulted in a program for the “Decade of Spiritual Renewal of the Nation,” open letters by Cardinal Tomasek, and the effort at a new and more positive evaluation of Jan Hus.

In November 1989, Cardinal Tomasek uttered the memorable words, “At this historic moment in our history, I stand, as does the entire Catholic Church, on the side of the people.” The Prague Cathedral, filled with both believers and nonbelievers, thundered in delight. The great hopes of the Church—that the scars of the past would heal, that the wall between Church and nation would crumble, that the sacrifices of believers in times of persecution would now bear fruit—seemed ready to be fulfilled.

But these hopes were not fulfilled in the years after communism’s fall. And the moral prestige of the Church has fallen again in the eyes of the Czech people.

The flag of moral renewal in society, which the Church had hoist during the dramatic days of November 1989, was soon lost in a forest of other (mostly political and economic) banners. The moral flag even began to appear embarrassing, not only because the time of flag-waving had passed so quickly, but also because the Church itself was unable to hold its ranks together, and its words were not followed by sufficiently tangible and credible actions.

After forty years of persecutions, the Church was in a markedly weak state when it faced the mountain of new tasks in the new society, and it was not able to establish its priorities and take advantage of its new possibilities. The believers and the sympathizers who expected inspiring personalities at key positions in the Church were disappointed by a procession of tired bureaucrats who lacked the magnanimity, vision, and creativity necessary to prepare the Church for the coming decade. A perfunctory patching-up of the institution of the Church began without any debate about the need to adapt to the changed conditions. Nor did the Church fully appreciate the role of the media in a free society, and soon—instead of a subject of inspiration or dialogue partner in the media—the Church became a curious object of marginal interest, occasional scandal, and, sometimes, a whipping boy.

The discussion surrounding the restitution of Church property in the Czech Republic has become a smoke screen obscuring the real question of the role and influence of the Church in a free society. (A similar situation has emerged in Poland with the debate over abortion.) The restitution problem—particularly the question of whether the Cathedral in Prague Castle is a national landmark or a Roman Catholic church—has been manipulated by the political parties and vulgarized by the media to such a degree that the awakened emotions and prejudices have made it impossible to address the essential question.

Sociological research on the attitudes of the Czech people indicates that in the first four years of freedom confidence in the Church fell rapidly and the number of declared Catholics declined by almost one-half. But at the same time the number of declared atheists also declined by one-third. The crisis in the Church is not a crisis in religion.

The Church should most certainly make every effort to seek out the causes of its own decline, but it should spend no less energy on the crisis of atheism. We cannot glibly interpret our own crisis only as a result of secularizing, consumer, and materialist influences from the West. We must not allow our disappointment in Post-Communist Man, who has turned his back to us, to hastily label him as godless.

My three postmodern questioners among the students at Charles University—the fundamentalist, the syncretist, and the deconstructionist—each in his own way represents a portion of post-Communist Czech society. In falling away from the Church during the years since the “Velvet Revolution,” they did not become the Communist or even pre-Communist Enlightenment atheists we theologians too often assume we are addressing. Though the model of the Church as defending the ancient truths of faith against the attacks of modern atheism may have been the correct model during the years of Communist persecution, the contemporary, post-Communist Czech Church continues to maintain the model in massively changed times. In doing so, it misses the best lesson the revolution against communism taught us, that—as John Paul II has consistently emphasized—the Christian Church is the true bulwark for modern political liberties. Beyond that, the Church also, in mistaking its situation, misses its only opportunity in centuries to reclaim the Czech people for its own.

Tomas Halik, a Catholic priest, teaches in the Faculty of Philosophy at Charles University in Prague and serves as President of the Czech Christian Academy.