The 1920 Czechoslovak National Church and Rome

The 1920 Czechoslovak

National Church

and Rome

In the eighteenth century in Europe, the Enlightenment Catholicism of the day promoted “The State Church” as a means of controlling it. Austria was the most famous.

Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) reorganized dioceses and parishes, reduced episcopal incomes and prohibited pluralism. He objected to such ‘superstitious practices’ as pilgrimages and the observance of saints days; he opposed baroque extravagances in churches and services on the grounds that simplicity had been the mark of primitive worship. Nothing was too small for Joseph’s attention and Frederick the Great is said to have referred to him as ‘my brother the sacristan of Europe’.[1]

It was a variation of what had been known for a long time in France as Gallicanism. But the model for each system required a monarch to assume the final authority over the church. What to do if you do not have a monarch?

Those who are wary about the emergence of the “American Catholic Church” with its own identity separate from papal allegiance might do well to consider that there is available another precedent, one which did not require a monarch, and was even founded in reaction to monarchy as well as to papal fidelity. State control, or any faction’s control for the sake of ideology, does not need a monarch at all. While the agenda differs today, and history may not repeat itself exactly, there may still be something to be learned.

Few remember the conditions in Bohemia and Moravia after World War I. The Catholic dynasty of the Habsburgs, while never fully friendly to the Church in either the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, was still identified with it. Czech nationalism, as indeed Slavic nationalism generally, longed to be free of the Empire. Psychologically, that nationalism resulted in the government being free of its state-supported church, the Catholic Church. Though the dynasty used the church for its own purposes, the nationalist cause was usually unable to distinguish these subtleties.

From Austria the “Los von Rom” (“Away from Rome”) Movement itself provided the pattern. As “Pan-Germanism” tended to attack the Church,[2] so forms of “Pan-Slavism” discarded anything which could be construed as a foreign influence over nationalist aspirations. There was a desire for a “patriarchate of Prague,” an autonomous church in a free state.

The Slovaks tried to rid themselves of the Magyarizing policies of the Hungarian pole of the Dual Monarchy, and the Czechs had long resisted the Germanizing pressures of Vienna. Anti-German feeling has always run strong in Bohemia, just as German influence has always been great. The Empire collapsed as a result of the war, and President Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”  included independence for many of the individual Slavic national and linguistic groups that had been within it. Finally there would be a free Poland, for one example among others. While Czecho-Slovakia seemed to us a somewhat artificial country and the fact that this amalgamated state finally split apart after Communism fell, it was a young and bold idea as the Versailles Treaty was being signed in 1919.

In addition to Czech nationalism, often rallying around the martyred and semi-mythic figure of Jan Hus,[3] were intellectual currents that had long ceased to be confined to the universities. These political ideas were action-oriented and had begun to capture the allegiance of ordinary working people. The usual names we gave them in the nineteenth century are “Liberalism” and “Socialism.” Though they may be distinguished, they also overlapped.

Liberalism originally came from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, while Socialism had evolved even beyond that. Socialism was a broad movement which, generally, called itself “progressive.” It was active in those places where industrialization had taken place. Along with England, France, and Germany, Bohemia would be included in such a description. Socialism opposed traditional religion which it linked to a feudal, class-divided world that was soon to be just as forgotten as the sick old empire itself. The individualism of “personal salvation” had been replaced, so the thinking went, with a concern for humanity itself. Trade unions were organized around the ideas of Karl Marx and others. Religion was the opium of the people. Socialist leaders therefore had an interest in the formation of a Czechoslovak National Church which would be a bridge to either atheism or at least religious indifferentism. Tactically, such a formation  would be a good first step. In destroying the power of Rome over this mostly Catholic country the ideological quest for power over the future could be satisfied. In any case, Socialists encouraged apostasies by insisting that a worker could not be a good Socialist and a Catholic at the same time. In this, the Church agreed.

After World War I a secular leader became the President of the Czechoslovak Republic in the person of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk. He was a philosopher who had renounced Catholicism in his youth. In 1920, early in his administration, the government donated a fairly large sum of money to help set up a schismatic Czechoslovak National Church.[4] Its first congress was held the next year on January 8-9 in the hotel Albergo dell’Oca in Prague. Various other churches with an anti-Roman bias attended in the hope of forming some type of coalition, or perhaps even absorbing the dissidents who had left the Roman Church. These days were truly anti-ecumenical!

However, this particular part of the project ultimately failed. The new National Church would be destined never to unite either with the Anglican Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church[5] or with the Protestant Czech/Moravian Brethren or even with the Old Catholics. At the time of the congress, moreover, approximately 288 ex-priests had joined the movement, most of them from Bohemia, and a smaller number from Moravia. An even smaller number came from Silesia, while almost none were from Slovakia or sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. One of the attractions for this group was the abolition of priestly celibacy, even before the new church had formalized a liturgy of its own.[6] Eventually the National Church would adopt a presbyterian-style or quasi-democratic government, perhaps in keeping with the Hussite mythology that was employed to prop up the idea of “freedom from Roman domination.”[7]

Both Popes Benedict XV and Pius XI condemned the confiscation of Catholic properties and the intimidation of Catholics who were at times coerced into joining. Not joining was considered unpatriotic. Catholic priests were insulted as they walked the streets of Prague and other Bohemian centers. By the time things settled down, and a “modus vivendi” with the Holy See was signed (February 2, 1928) between Cardinal Pietro Gasparri8 and Dr. Eduard Beneš, the

Catholic Church had lost both members and properties which were either confiscated, secularized or just plain vandalized. 9

Initially, the national church numbered 1,388,000 members, but by 1930 it was down to 853,000. The rest had ceased to claim any confession whatever, 10 although one report indicated that a few joined the occult. The Catholic population of the Czechoslovak Republic declined from 95% to 75%, though a revival and a counter-movement occurred simultaneous with the decline.

The new nation matured. Czech Catholics were eventually recognized for their patriotism, but it took the influence of World War II to accomplish it.11 Old associations with the days of the empire were forgotten in the experience of yet another war and the performance of Catholics in regard to both Nazism and Communism. Even President Masaryk, who had never acknowledged Czech Catholics as constituting the majority of the country, might have respected them at last. He died September 14, 1937.

Rev. Brian Van Hove, SJ

Alma, Michigan

First published as “The 1920 Czechoslovak National Church and Rome.” The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter 17, no. 3 (June 1994): 13-15.

Posted on Ignatius insight 25 June 2010.

Revised July 2010.

[1] See J. Derek Holmes, The Triumph of the Holy See: A Short History of the Papacy in the Nineteenth Century (London: Burns and Oates, 1978) 10.

[2] Note especially Otto von Bismarck’s “Kulturkampf” (1870-1878).

3 See James Bemis, “Greatest When Catholic: The Great Age of Bohemia and Moravia,” in The Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Spring 2010) 16-19, esp. 18.

[4] See Ludvik Nemec, Church and State in Czechoslovakia: Historically, Juridically, and Theologically Documented (New York: Vantage Press, 1955) 129-130. The German Imperial Government had done the same thing for the “Old Catholics” after 1870 when they rejected the First Vatican Council.

5   Serbian and Russian jurisdictions sent a delegation to the organizational congress.

[6] In the consistorial allocution of December 16, 1920, Benedict XV said that the position of the Holy See in the matter of priestly celibacy was “irrevocable.”

7    See Roger Aubert, The Christian Centuries, vol. 5, The Church in a Secularized Society (New York: Paulist Press, 1978) 541-542.

8 Pietro Gasparri (May 5, 1852 – November 18, 1934).

9 The years 1928-1929 were intense for Vatican negotiators. The church was undergoing persecution in Mexico and the Soviet Union, and the Lateran Treaties were being concluded with Mussolini in Italy.  The church was eager to make peace with governments through the concordat process.

10 See Nemec, 130.

11 Ibid. 144.

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