NEWS ANALYSIS: Czech church shows sign of new political activism

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

PRAGUE, Czech Republic _ When Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus resigned Sunday (Nov. 30), Roman Catholic Cardinal Miroslav Vlk of Prague was one of those showing him the door.

Klaus resigned amid a campaign finance scandal involving his Civil Democratic Party, but Vlk, joining the chorus of criticism forcing the resignation, focused much of his attacks on Klaus’ failure to resolve church-state disputes.

He also criticized the prime minister’s emphasis on economic pragmatism at a time when growing economic troubles in the Czech Republic have tarnished its image as a model post-socialist nation.”Without wishing to overlook Klaus’ contribution to the development of society in various aspects, I must say that his way of ruling has many shadowy sides which slow down the necessary dynamism of further development,”Vlk said shortly before Klaus’ resignation.

While the Czech Republic is highly secular, the Catholic Church still carries some authority, particularly since Vlk’s predecessor, the late Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek, played a leading role in the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled communism.

Although the departure of Klaus _ who faced a mutiny by his own political allies over the campaign finance scandal _ was considered inevitable, Vlk’s decision to enter the debate suggests the Catholic church may be readying itself to play a more visible role in the nation’s political life.

Vlk’s statements caused a stir because church officials have rarely spoken out on politics since 1989. And the cardinal further startled Czechs in broadcast comments by referring to the premier simply as”Klaus,”forgoing the use of titles which are an important courtesy in Czech culture.

Klaus, a former economics professor, had pushed for the privatization of state-owned industries over the past five years. But his support ebbed as rampant investment scandals left many Czechs cynical about politics just eight years after their Velvet Revolution ended communist rule.

Vlk, in his criticism of Klaus before the prime minister’s resignation, took issue with Klaus’ pragmatism and emphasis on economics. After 40 years of communist rule, Vlk said, Czech society badly needed a revival of spiritual values _ a revival for which Klaus’ pragmatism was ill-suited.

Vlk, who was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994, also said Klaus had failed to confront lingering church-state conflicts.

While he did not specify them, the government and church have yet to resolve disputes over vast amounts of church property seized by the former Communist government _ an issue troubling church-state relations in a number of formerly communist-dominated countries of eastern Europe.

Significantly, one of the ruling coalition parties in the mutiny against Klaus _ the Christian Democratic Union-Czech People’s Party _ is viewed as more sympathetic to the church’s property claims.

The party, while small, is likely to join a future coalition government, whether from the right or the left. On Friday (Dec. 5), Czech President Vaclav Havel said he wanted to avoid calling early elections in the country and would seek to form a new cabinet from the current ruling center-right coalition.

Havel, the dissident hero of 1989, is overseeing negotiations for the formation of a new government.

DEA END SMITH

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