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The 1920 Czechoslovak National Church and Rome | Rev. Brian Van Hove, S.J. | June 25, 2010 | Ignatius Insight
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
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'. 
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.
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
Austria the "Los von Rom" ("Away from Rome") Movement itself provided the
pattern. As "Pan-Germanism" tended to attack the Church,  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.
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.
addition to Czech nationalism, often rallying around the martyred and
semi-mythic figure of Jan Hus, 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.
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.
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.  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!
this particular part of the project ultimately failed. The new National Church
would be destined to never unite either with the Anglican Church or the Eastern
Orthodox Church  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. 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." 
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 Gasparri  and Dr. Eduard Beneš, the
Catholic Church had lost both members and properties which were either
confiscated, secularized or just plain vandalized. 
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,  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.
new nation matured. Czech Catholics were eventually recognized for their
patriotism, but it took the influence of World War II to accomplish it.  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.
published as "The 1920 Czechoslovak National Church and Rome." The
Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter 17, no. 3 (June 1994): 13-15. Revised June 2010.
Published by gracious permission of the author.)
 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.
 Note especially Otto von Bismarck's "Kulturkampf" (1870-1878).
 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.
 Serbian and Russian jurisdictions sent a delegation to the organizational congress.
 See Roger Aubert, The Christian Centuries, vol. 5, The Church in a Secularized Society (New York: Paulist Press, 1978)
 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."
 Pietro Gasparri (May 5, 1852 – November 18, 1934).
 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.
 See Nemec, 130.
 Ibid. 144.
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Father Brian Van Hove, S.J., is the Chaplain to the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan.
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