Czechs losing religion

Unlike neighbors, nation not built around church
Los Angeles Times, via the Arizona Republic, July 27, 2003
http://www.azcentral.com/
Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Saints peek out from alleys. Angels fleck the skyline. In stone and marble, God’s mysteries reside in this city’s baroque architecture. But try finding him in the Czech soul.

“People don’t know about God anymore,” said Olga Kopecka-Valeska, a writer and former religious radio broadcaster. “They don’t know what Christmas is about. They are lost in art galleries when they see paintings of Jesus Christ.

“One girl looked at a picture of the Crucifixion and asked, ‘Who did that to him?’ Her friend responded, ‘The Communists.’ “

People are anti-religion

Recalcitrant and suspicious, Czechs are not entirely godless. They just don’t much care for organized religion. Unlike its neighbor Poland, where Roman Catholicism and nationalism are inseparable, the Czech Republic never forged its identity around a church. Czechs are aloof when it comes to matters of the divine and many view Catholicism, the predominant religion, as a centuries-old oppressor that was muffled by Communism and then further diminished by capitalism.

Stir in a little surrealism from novelist Franz Kafka. Add a bit of musing by playwright and former President Vaclav Havel. Count the Buddhists on Wenceslas Square, or visit the sun worshipers of Bohemia. And it becomes even more apparent that the spiritual landscape in this nation of 10.2 million is not rooted in stained-glass sanctity.

“There’s a hostility toward what religion did to them in the past,” said Lawrence Cada, a Marianist brother from Cleveland who is on a scouting mission to determine whether the Catholic order should expand here. “The Czechs say they’re the most atheist country in Europe, and they say it with some pride . . . This is how Western civilization may look in 50 years, because people here believe they live a full life without any religion.”

A poll done by the European Values Study, a Netherlands-based organization that tracks religious and moral attitudes, found that fewer Czechs claim allegiance to organized religion than any other people in Europe except Estonians, who are still trying to move beyond their Soviet past. Only 33.6 percent of Czechs belong to a religious denomination and only 11.7 percent attend services once a month or more.

The Czech Roman Catholic Church has about 3 million followers and the next largest, the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, has about 200,000.

“I don’t have confidence in the church. What can it do for me?” said Daniel Petrzilka, an Internet programmer.

“I don’t need a church for God. I believe in bits and pieces of different religions. I believe in reincarnation, Christmas and nature. It’s more liberalized.”

“The churches don’t know how to get closer to the daily lives of the people,” said Monsignor Daniel Herman, spokesman for the nation’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference. “After so long of being separated from the people, the church became a kind of ghetto. After the persecution and brainwashing of Communism they live a horizontal life. There’s no vertical dimension of spirituality.”

Historically, spiritual tumult has raged generation after generation among Czech people. Czechs came to regard the Catholic Church as a proxy for the Austrian Hapsburgs who crushed their rebellions. When the Hapsburg Empire collapsed after World War I, an anti-Catholic backlash swept the nation. This became overshadowed by World War II and 40 years of Soviet domination.

‘Spiritual . . . hangover’

Czechs remain divided on the Catholic Church’s role during Communism: Some say the church resisted Communist attempts to weaken it; others say they allowed it to be manipulated by Communist leaders.

“After all that history,” said Jirina Siklova, a sociologist and former dissident, “the Czechs are now in . . . a spiritual and moral hangover.”

Moored neither to religious fervor nor national pride, the Czech, according to many here, is adrift. There is a sense of emptiness but not despair. Brooding is leavened with keen satirical humor. One minister with a fondness for metaphor said the Czechs have pedestals, but they’re searching for the ideals to place on them.

“Society has gotten to the point where it believes in nothing,” Siklova said. “The Czechs even stopped identifying with their government and their army. The invisible hand of the capitalist market has taken over. There’s an aggressive drive for the accumulation of capital and not a lot of ethics.”

On the Charles Bridge, one of Prague’s architectural splendors, huge blackened statues, twisting in torment and ecstasy, rise like sentinels in the morning light and fog. Saints, angels, the Crucifixion, all reminders of how Christianity swept across a continent. Choral hymns drift out of the city’s churches; their facades carved with apostles and bishops, whose golden staffs glint in the afternoon sun. The tourists may be inspired.

Suspicion a pastime

Suspicion of the church’s intentions is a pastime here. In a bid to reclaim properties stripped from it over the generations, the Catholic Church is attempting to win control of St. Vitus Cathedral, the Gothic centerpiece of Hradcany Castle, which towers over the city. This has aroused even more Czech cynicism and some off-the-wall, cloak-and-dagger conjecture over the fate of the crown jewels that are housed in the cathedral.

“The church wants it back, but the state views the cathedral as a museum,” Kopecka-Valeska said. “Some people believe if the church gets all the keys, they’ll take the crown jewels and bring them to the Vatican, where they’ll be sold.”

More than most Czechs, Kopecka-Valeska is perplexed and troubled by the spiritual state of things.

“What’s lacking here is the aura of Christian morals,” she said. “People have forgotten that right and wrong stem from Christianity. These days, if you’re caught being naughty, there’s no one to answer to. People cheat on their employers. They cheat on each other. The egoism is unbelievable. It’s me, me, me.”

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