Tomáš Halík, reconciling religion and secularism

Article published on April 1, 2006
Article published on April 1, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Tomáš Halík is a catholic priest in the predominantly agnostic Czech Republic. This “enemy of the regime” under communism speaks about the journey of his life, his perception of Europe and the role of both religion and secularism in the world.

In 1969, the death of Jan Palach, was one of the factors that helped Tomáš Halík to take the decision to be ordained. Jan was a schoolmate who burned himself to death in protest at the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Back then, he understood that nobody could get closer to another human being than a priest. Tomáš Halík studied and was ordained in secrecy, at a clandestine church. He was banned from teaching at the university, and worked as a psychotherapist for drug addicts.

Now, after the fall of the iron curtain, he expresses his disappointment with the way we treat our communist past. He says there is a need for in-depth reflection, and yet people are ignoring that need and trying to forget.

We meet at the Krásný ztráty café in the Old Town. It is Wednesday lunch-time, yet it seems quite quiet here. In fact we have the small area to ourselves. Mr. Halík comes in smiling, hangs up his black coat and hat and sits down just opposite me. He is a professor at Charles University, presides over a student parish in Prague and travels the world in the quest for inter-religious and intercultural dialogue. The first Czech president after the Velvet Revolution, Václav Havel, also named him a suitable successor.

European or Czech?

When asked whether he felt more Czech or more European, he said he did not see any contradiction in being both. His being Czech makes sense only in the context of being European. “Europeanism is a concert of various musical instruments and various voices, and they all need to be there.” On the contrary he dismisses popular fears of losing identity and proclaims “nationalism the most dangerous theory of group egoism” that needs to be replaced by a sense of responsibility for the homeland we have been given.

Halík was nominated as a possible successor to the presidential office, but when asked about his political ambitions, Halík is clear. He has none. He has never been a member of any party, yet he is often invited to comment on political issues as a prominent member of Czech society. He has participated in many international debates on European enlargement and the process of European integration itself. He says: “European integration cannot only stay on an administrative and economic level as that would make the European house very cold and hostile. We need to recognize our common cultural and spiritual heritage, and this offers great possibilities for universities and churches alike.”

The EU and Christianity

“The project of Europe as a family of nations has always been a Christian project. However, I would warn against nostalgic memories of medieval Catholic Europe and any efforts return to that. We need to appreciate the benefits that the Enlightenment and modernity brought as well.” For Halík, religion and secularity are not necessarily opposites that should demonize each other, but rather they complement each other. When asked about the controversy over “the Christian roots” in the European constitution, he says that it belongs there, as it is the historical truth. However, it should not limit the others, or make them feel less European if they aren’t Christians. For Halík, the Constitution itself is a reflection of Christian values- solidarity and respect for the human being, and that is why he supported it even though it was not voted in.

Mr. Halík takes his time in answering all our questions in a patient and pleasant voice. He is very much aware of not only politics and religion, but also the arts. We speak of violence and Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Christ’s last hour, to which Halik quite controversially prefers Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation”. But at all times, we keep coming back to religion and its role in today’s world.

He realizes that: “It’s not only Christianity that is in a deep crisis, but all kinds of organized religion. However, there is some hope left. This is what I realized at the death of John Paul II. This is the way – to offer the world personalities like the Pope, brother Roger of Taizé or Mother Theresa. This world is thirsty for an honest, personal testimony.” He continues, “The secularized world is just an island; it involves Europe and in some other societies, upper classes educated in Europe. Nothing is leading our world to a secular society. Quite the contrary, religion is making a comeback in many countries. If global civilization is to stand on something more stable than sand, we need a genuine inter-religious dialogue.” He believes that Catholicism is the only power in this world which can understand both the religious and the secular world, and reconcile them for good.

Two days after the interview, Halík is off to Burma with the Czech Television, to shoot a documentary on a temple in the jungle. His open mindedness together with his views about bringing religion and the secular world together are food for thought.