Cathedral Caught Between Secular, Spiritual

Times Staff Writer

A shoe scrapes on stone near the tomb of Good King Wenceslas and winter breaths curl against the stained glass, but few of the tourists meandering through St. Vitus Cathedral sense the underlying battle here between the secular and the sacred.

Tomas Holub does. “The state should own this church,” said Holub, a pilgrim with a nationalist streak standing in a dim light near the altar. “It’s the symbol of the Czech nation. Our kings are buried in crypts below and you can feel their spirits. It changes the dynamics of this place.”

Czech history is rife with unreconcilable differences, but the legal struggle between the state and the Roman Catholic Church over ownership of the cathedral is a troubling tour through the ages. Prague was once the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, only to become the capital of the most godless country in Europe. And, ironically or not, the cathedral whose Gothic spires rise over the city has become a stirring icon of national identity.


“There’s an interesting ambivalence in society,” said Martin Horalek, spokesman for the Czech Bishops’ Conference. “The Czech nation is proud that they are not touched by all religious things. But at the same time, they understand that through their history they have been touched by the church. There are deep connotations.”

The questions over the 14th century cathedral, which is encircled by the state-owned Prague Castle, are a legacy of four decades of communism. In the 1950s, the communist regime declared that the cathedral and other church property belonged to the state. After the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1990, the Catholic Church regained some of its buildings. But the new government considered the cathedral a symbol of an independent country and a valuable asset to the tourism industry.

“All Czechs feel they have a stake in the cathedral,” said Frantisek Kadlec, a state historian and director of tourism at Prague Castle. “If the church becomes the owner, would the state and the people’s right to the monument be limited? I think people are concerned about that.”

Suspicions and ill will toward the Catholic Church date back centuries. Construction on the cathedral began in 1344 under Charles IV, a revered king who also happened to be ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. Troubles erupted in the early 1400s, when Jan Hus, rector at Prague University, challenged the Vatican over communion practices and was burned at the stake. War and uprising ensued in a reformation movement that predated Martin Luther’s Protestant revolt in Germany.

Spiritual discontent raged for generations. The Czechs later came to regard the church as a proxy for the Austrian Habsburgs, who crushed their rebellions for independence. Anti-Catholic sentiment swept the nation after World War I when the Habsburg Empire fell. Another world war, followed by Soviet domination, eclipsed religious concerns, and the cathedral, often silhouetted in fog and mist on a lighted hilltop, became entwined with a people’s struggle.

Catholics make up about one-third of the Czech population, but most of them haven’t knelt in a church in years.


“I think the current problem is that after the communist regime there still doesn’t exist a strong, confident state or a strong, confident church,” Horalek, of the Bishops’ Conference, said. “The church still feels some kind of hidden fear from the state that the church may have some kind of political influence. I see that in the minds of people. But the church still has to learn to communicate better with contemporary society.

“This is the most atheistic country in the world, or maybe North Korea is first.”

Distilling the spiritual from the secular has proved difficult. A court ruled in 1994 that the cathedral belonged to the church, as it has for much of its history. The verdict was overturned on appeal. The church then offered to give the cathedral to the state but, in a bit of characteristic Czech defiance, the state refused, saying the building was not the church’s to give. A district court ruled again in October in favor of the church. The state has appealed and a decision is expected this year.

The atmosphere has been further strained by the Czech Parliament’s refusal to ratify a concordat negotiated between the Vatican and the state in 2002. Leftist lawmakers don’t want to appear to be giving the church special treatment. That stance has also hindered church efforts to reclaim other valuable real estate nationalized by the communists. “Whether St. Vitus stands for religion or national pride doesn’t matter,” said Ilja Kolian, who strolled through the cathedral the other day past a mosaic depicting Jesus and Czech saints at the Last Judgment. “The main issue is who will take better care of this historical monument.”

Despite lawsuits and appeals filed by both sides over the years, there is a degree of coexistence between church and state in the cathedral. Masses and religious ceremonies are held by the archdiocese, although priests must first be granted entry to Prague Castle. The state handles administrative and upkeep costs that ran about $700,000 last year.

It’s not difficult to discern why both sides want ownership of the cathedral: Saints and noblemen are buried there. The Czech crown jewels are in a vault that can be opened only by seven keys held by different state and church officials.

“Whole generations of the Czech nation contributed to this cathedral. Czech citizens gave their money to support its construction over more than 650 years,” Kadlec said. “It’s complex and difficult to solve. The Catholic Church is not so well accepted here, but I think the public is surprised that the cathedral should belong to one party or the other. It’s been shared for centuries.”


A joke circulated recently that the church would move the cathedral stone by stone to the Vatican -- taking with it the crown jewels and the bones of St. Wenceslas, the duke of Bohemia who spread Christianity in the 10th century and was killed by his brother. The Catholic feast day for Wenceslas is Sept. 28. And in typical fashion in a country where the secular and religious revere the same heroes, Sept. 28 is also the nationally celebrated Czech Statehood Day.

“I don’t know if I can see deeply enough into this question,” said Jarka Novotna, stopping in the cathedral a moment to ponder the complexities of history and ownership. She walked away with a group, flicking through art books and pointing to crucifixes and chapels beneath images of swords and halos.

“The Czech indifference to religion is definitely a factor,” Holub, the nationalist minded pilgrim, said. “Young Czechs see the church as old-fashioned, not open to normal thinking people.”


Fleishman, The Times’ Berlin Bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Prague.