Archbishop fights for his beliefs

Prague, Czech Republic - Ordained as a priest in 1968, Cardinal Miroslav Vlk was forced to work as a window cleaner in the 1980s and practice his calling underground.

From registered gay partnerships, to euthanasia, to a controversial amendment to the Czech Republic's church law, the past few months have been rife with issues that feed longstanding tensions between the Catholic Church and the state.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, archbishop of Prague, is no stranger to religious battles in a country that has one of the lowest church attendance rates in Europe.

Archbishop since 1991 and a cardinal since 1994, Vlk struggled to follow his calling under the communist regime, when the church's activities were tightly restricted. He could only be ordained as a priest in 1968, during a slight loosening of the regime's iron grip. But he had to officially give up the priesthood shortly thereafter, and spent eight years working as a window cleaner in Prague while continuing to practice underground.

In the past decade, Vlk says he has tried to strengthen the community of parishes and to make the church more relevant to contemporary society.

Vlk spoke to The Prague Post about issues that have been keeping him up at night. Seated in his stately office near Prague Castle, the cardinal pulled out a Palm Pilot in order to make his own recording of the interview, tapped "record," and the questions could begin.

The Prague Post: You have spoken out against the recently signed amendment to the church law. What bothers you the most about it?

Miloslav Vlk: The Constitution states that churches exist independently of the state and that they can direct their own affairs independently. The church's freedom was based on this right. According to the new version of the law, the ministry of culture would be able to determine the legal subjectivity to the various organs of the church. The ministry would also now have the right to dissolve our various institutions. This poses a great threat to the church. The new law would give constitutive character to the establishment of various church institutions, be they charities or parishes. Before, it had a declaratory character.

TPP: How do you intend to proceed now that the law has been signed?

MV: As far as I know, the case will go to the Constitutional Court because the Senate has already rejected it, but the president signed it anyway.

TPP: How do you feel about priests still receiving salaries from the state, a result of the old regime's seizures of church administration and property?

MV: It's a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, politicians and the media say that the church and the state should be separate. On the other hand, the state hasn't been able to arrange it so that the church can establish its own economic model so that we could be independent of the state. A way to do this would be by returning to the church the property that the state confiscated under the communist regime.

TPP: Do you see the recent court ruling that St. Vitus Cathedral is the property of the church as a victory?

MV: It is significant that the court ruled for the second time — in spite of complaints from many sides — that the cathedral belongs to the church. If the Prague Castle Administration wants to argue against this ruling, it can now only do so using communist arguments.

TPP: Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek has said he could imagine reaching some sort of a compromise. The church could say, for instance, that the cathedral belongs to the people, and the state, in return, could hand over the administration of the building to the church.

MV: I had already suggested a similar compromise some time ago, and the state didn't accept it. The time for compromises has passed. I want this dispute to be settled in accordance with the law. Of course, the church can't deny that the cathedral is the cultural property of the Czech nation.

TPP: The new Criminal Code proposed at the end of last year puts euthanasia in a different category than murder. You have spoken out against this bill, saying it could be the first step toward legalizing euthanasia. Why?

MV: If the maximum penalty is six years with a minimum penalty of zero years, the judge can use the minimum penalty. This means a doctor who performs euthanasia can get no punishment at all. It has been shown that in places like Holland, where euthanasia is legal, the law is being abused. I don't think that the problems of old age or of terminal illnesses should be resolved through euthanasia. If people are surrounded by care and love, they have no thoughts of ending their life.

TPP: How do you feel about Parliament's approval of legalizing registered partnerships for gays?

MV: It is clear that today the family is in a state of crisis. I think that allowing homosexuals to adopt children and thus increase the numbers of these people is dangerous. If we were to put a group of homosexuals on an isolated island, they would die out because the have no means of reproducing. But although the church has a negative view of homosexuality, it also wants to help these people.

TPP: But the bill wouldn't allow gay people to adopt children.

MV: Yes, but gays are already talking about adoption as the next step.

TPP: Do you really believe that allowing registered partnership can increase the number of people with homosexual orientation?

MV: I think it can damage the natural, traditional family, whose role is to reproduce. Society needs to be consistent, with an older generation and a younger, working generation. Traditional family structure would lose its unique position.

TPP: How do you view the growing role of communists in the Czech government?

MV: I am troubled by this because it means that the communists are aware of their value and politicians are cooperating with them in order to advance their own political agenda. The Social Democrats pushed through the law about churches with the help of the communists. I think that many politicians are looking out for their own interests and not for the interests of society. The communists haven't distanced themselves from their past.

TPP: Do you think that the communist party should be illegal?

MV: Of course, we live in a democratic state. But Nazism is illegal here, as is the spreading of hate, and I think that the communists fall under the latter category.