Tomáš Halík interview: Churches need thinkers
Natalia O’Hara meets prominent Czech priest, writer and former dissident Tomáš Halík
Born in Prague in the year communists seized control of what was then Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Halík turned 20 as Soviet invasion ended the brief liberalisation of the Prague Spring; he was starting his fifth decade as communism fell in the Velvet Revolution. A Catholic priest, writer, theologian, lecturer and political commentator, Halík has lived in unstable times, and says that faith gives him “irony, detachment and inner freedom.”
I meet Halík in a small office at the Charles University’s philosophy faculty, where he lectures. Born only a few miles away in the Prague suburbs, he studied at this faculty, and his first confession was at Saint Nicholas’ cathedral, which is visible from the office window. “I lived just down the corridor during the Velvet Revolution,” he says, “giving talks to the striking students, and praying with them for freedom.”
Halík became a priest at a time when mentioning Christ could lead to arrest. Now he works as an unofficial spokesman for Christianity in the most atheist country in Europe. He has said he likes living in the secular culture of the Czech Republic, because it means that being a Christian is a “supremely personal, emancipated act of non-conformity.”
A prolific author, he produces a book a year, shutting himself in an isolated hermitage in Germany for a month each summer to pray and write. Ten books have come out of his summer retreats, all combining theology and personal reflection, and his work is published in seven languages.
recurring theme in his writings is the importance of dialogue. In 1969 he attended a three-week interfaith conference run by British Quakers in Austria. “I decided then that it would be my mission to build bridges and promote tolerance,” he says. He has won multiple prizes for humanitarian work, including the Truth and Justice prize and the Cardinal Konig prize.
You grew up in a secular, communist society. Did you have any contact with religion as a child?
No, I’d never met a religious person. It was a time of Stalinisation and harsh persecution of the church. Czechoslovakia was traditionally a relatively secular society, and there’s a historical tension between the people and the church, so the communists decided to use the country as an experiment in total secularisation.
So how did you first encounter Christianity?
My introduction was reading English books. I love British Catholic writers – Chesterton, Sayers, Hopkins, Greene. When I read Chesterton I realised that Catholicism is a religion of paradoxes and that appealed to me. Later I began to go to organ concerts in the churches, and the beauty made me feel that there was something there. In those days there was also a lot of political sympathy for the church – young people had sympathy for everything that was suppressed by the regime.
When did you decide to become a priest?
The death of Jan Palach [a Czech student who burnt himself to death as a protest against the Soviet invasion of 1968] had an enormous impact on me. He was my age and studying the same course at the same university. I organised a requiem, and was sent to fetch his death mask [secretly made by art student Olbram Zoubek and now displayed at the Palach Memorial in Prague’s Wenceslas Square] from the hospital. It was a snowy January night, I was on my way back from the hospital, and as I was crossing the Charles Bridge I remembered that Palach had said: “I am Torch Number One, and others will follow.” I said to myself: “We’re all Torch Number Two now.” My path wasn’t to sacrifice my life, but I couldn’t live just for myself anymore.
What was it like being a member of the underground church?
Even my mother, who I lived with, could not know I was a priest. I’d hold mass in my bedroom for a few friends early in the morning while she was asleep. Many priests were in prison, and two were found murdered, probably by the KGB. I didn’t expect to continue living in freedom. I thought that sooner or later that I’d be found and liquidated. But I hoped martyrdom wouldn’t come soon, as I’m not a fan of martyrdom. I’m grateful for my life in the underground, because I didn’t have special status. I know about the everyday life of people and I speak the same language.
Your first book to be published in English, Patience with God (Doubleday, 2009), is concerned with atheists and agnostics. Why?
As a believer I am always a seeker, and there’s a fellowship between seekers. Doubt isn’t the enemy of faith but her sister. Unchecked doubt leads to militant secularism, but unchecked faith leads to religious fundamentalism. Like sisters faith and doubt need each other and support each other. There is a kind of atheism that can be a good partner to faith.
In Patience with God you compare agnostics to Zacchaeus, who in the gospel of Luke leaves a crowd and climbs a tree to watch Jesus. Your sympathy with people who stand on the edges of religion and observe seems emotional as well as intellectual. Are you an outsider too?
I’m not someone who is fully identified with a particular group. I don’t like the triumphalism that comes from being in a position of power. I have sympathy with people on the outside. I’m trying to build a bridge, and people who do that are often viewed with suspicion by both sides.
What was the genesis of your new book, Confessor’s Night?
Every Thursday night I hear confession, and when I arrive home at around midnight I often can’t sleep because I’m thinking about the people I’ve spoken to. I try to pray for them, then I listen to the radio or the news on TV, and I find that I’m reacting to world events from the perspective of a confessor – trying to find some deeper sense in what I hear, trying to find advice or consolation. Our lives are fragments that can’t be understood outside their context, which is God.
You express sympathy with the marginalised, and mistrust powerful institutions. You’ve also said that [protestant reformer] Jan Hus is a hero of yours. Is the Catholic Church the natural home for someone like you?
I could not be a member of a small church or sect. I love the Catholic Church’s cultural and spiritual plurality and its ability to incarnate into various cultures of our planet. I love paradoxes. I hate uniformity and one-sidedness.
You are often described within the church as a liberal. Are you?
I’m criticised for being both conservative and liberal. As Chesterton said, if fat people call you thin and thin people call you fat, you are probably normal. For me the main divide in the church is not between liberals and conservatives but between thinkers and non-thinkers. I’ve met stupid liberals as well.
How did you become involved with Václav Havel’s government?
In the ‘60s and ‘70s I went to meetings held by dissidents, which Václav Havel attended. At one meeting in his brother Ivan Havel’s flat in the late ‘70s we became friends. When he was president, Havel resurrected an old custom started by [first president of Czechoslovakia] Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who would meet a group of intellectuals and philosophers in the house of [novelist and playwright] Karel Capek every Friday. So every second Friday a group of around 20 of us would meet for a discussion, which is how I became involved in politics.
In your writing you regularly refer to Nietzsche. Why does such a trenchant critic of Christianity appeal to you?
Nietzsche was not a primitive “scientific atheist” like Dawkins, or the Marxists of my youth. He was a great provocative thinker. Christians need good critics.
How do you feel about the Catholic Church welcoming Anglican ministers into the fold?
I have some serious doubts. I’ve met some of the priests and found them extremely conservative. I admire Rowan Williams. I’m not sure this right-leaning group will integrate well in the church.
A decisive issue for these priests has been the ordination of women bishops. Will there ever be female clergy in the Catholic Church? Should there be?
I’m not a prophet, but I don’t think it will happen in the near future. For years I said that priests are like fathers, and that women cannot be fathers – that they have an equal role but that it’s a different one, outside the clergy. But after meeting female priests in the Anglican Church I began to change my mind. I can’t see any theological objection to it. It’s a psychological rather than a theological problem. But tradition is hard to break.
What are your thoughts on the child abuse scandal, and the damage it has caused to the church?
Of course, it’s a horrible thing, and I support victims who want to speak openly about their experiences. But it has been misused by the media, because 80 per cent of child abuse is in families and not connected with Catholicism. Sex is revered in our society, it’s almost worshipped like a little God. So the celibacy of priests is like a provocation. Many people were perhaps secretly pleased to think that priests were not living the way they appeared to be, and of course, there is something attractive to the media about a sex scandal.
What role do you see the Catholic Church fulfilling in the coming years?
The Catholic Church could take a role no one else could by providing a bridge between traditionalist Islamic societies and the secular West. We have something in common with both – we’re from a monotheistic, conservative, Abrahamic tradition like Islamic societies, but we’re also close to secular Western society, which grew out of Christianity. If it happened, it would be one of the most important roles in our history.
Natalia O’Hara is a news and arts journalist based in Prague
This article was published in the November 2010 issue of Reform.