Marketplace Property restitution will give us independence, says Mons. Tomáš Holub of Czech Bishops’ Conference
Given the recent developments on the Czech political scene, the country’s churches and religious groups might have to wait longer for the return of their property confiscated by the communist regime. Under the deal, as proposed by the government, the Roman Catholic Church and some smaller groups would receive around 134 billion crowns in physical property and financial compensation to be paid over the next 30 years. After that, the churches would be completely separated from the state which would no longer contribute to their budgets. RP asked Mons Tomáš Holub is the secretary general of the Czech Bishops’ Conference, a body representing the Catholic Church in the country about how the massive restitution deal might change the Czech Catholic Church.
“I’m not sure it’s massive really, because we’re only talking about a small part of the property we had before the communist regime, but the reason it’s important for us, and I don’t mean just the Catholic Church, but all churches, and also the federation of Jewish communities in the Czech Republic, is because we need to have some independence to help us serve in a democratic society, as is normal for a democratic society because it means we’re independent from the influence of the state.”
You’ve been serving under the influence of the state for 20 years now, since the fall of communism, so what will change now? What will be different after, and if, of course, the restitution deal is approved?
“It will make a big difference, because at the moment all church employees are paid through the state, it means we’re totally dependant on decisions made at the level of government. We can’t set our own policy, which means we can’t do some things in our pastoral and social work that are decided on a church level. This will completely change, and it’s important that we are an independent part of liberal society and can have an influence on values in society.”
Coming to the actual terms of the deal, the Roman Catholic Church in the Czech Republic is set to receive around 75 billion crowns’ worth of property along with over 47 billions crowns in compensation that will be paid over a period of thirty years. How is the church getting ready to manage this property?
“We’ve been preparing for this decision for twenty years. The state gave us this very long time for preparation, unfortunately, and therefore I can say that we are now prepared to manage it in the way that the church used to in the past. That means it will be not centralized. It’s very important to us that these properties will be divided between individual parishes, dioceses, orders and congregations. The management of properties will be done locally, from the places where they are. It’s very important for us to have subsidiary division of the properties. And we also need some kind of control system that gives approval at a parish or diocese level, and also on the level of the whole Catholic Church in the Czech Republic, so there will need to be a two-step checking process for every decision made to do with the properties.”
So that refers to sales, for instance, because some of the critics of the deal express concerns that the Catholic Church will sell everything and take the money to the Vatican. So that will be subjected to some kind of control?
“It is of course linked to sales, but it’s not only about sales, it’s about management of the properties, and this idea of selling to the Vatican is completely foolish, because the property is that of the concrete parishes here, it’s not the property of the Catholic Church as such.”
Will these individual units of the Catholic Church, the parishes, the dioceses and the religious orders, have the money as well as the people needed to manage forestry firms, agriculture and farms, and maintain the buildings that will be returned, or will the central governing body of the church help in some way?
“Of course we will have some centralized advising bodies that will help the individual units to do what they have to, but as I already mentioned, we’ve had twenty years to prepare for this, so I am confident that we have people on all levels that are now really ready to work because they have an understanding of the economic activity of the church and how it can be independent, how it can bring the values that we have to offer to society, and how it can serve in the social dimension that we are convinced we have to do.”
Won’t parish priests become more managers than pastoral workers? You’re talking about the role they should have in society in conveying the values of the Roman Catholic Church, but with this vast property will they be able to focus on the pastoral work when at the same time they will have to deal with first of all legal issues, then with managing the actual property afterward it’s returned?
“First of all it’s important to say that we are not in the situation where the pastor or the parish priest would ever be solely responsible these things. After the second Vatican council we shifted a great deal of responsibility to lay people in the parishes so some economic or parish council will be responsible for many things. What we’re trying to explain to society again and again, is that it’s not the decision of one person in the parish, but it’s up to elected people in the parish to be responsible for it. And the second thing I’d like to mention is that on the level of dioceses such advising teams already exist, that help with the legal and economic things, and there will be similar teams in all parishes, so we plan to have a uniform way of dealing with the properties to serve the parishes.
Some of the critics of the deal have expressed concerns that the local parishes that will receive the property, and perhaps the compensation as well, will be targeted by all kinds of firms and individual who will want to get their hands on the property and on the money. Is that a concern for you as well? And if so, how will you try to prevent that?
“As I mentioned, there’s a link here with our two-level control process. At the moment it’s not possible legally to have any movement of property signed off on only at a parish level. It will be illegal under the Czech legal system, and it means that this will be checked at a diocese level, and now we have eight dioceses, so we are convinced that we do now have enough professional bodies on this level to control and protect these parishes from this kind of unwelcome interest.”
Many Czechs, when they go to Austria for instance, see churches running breweries and being very active in micro-business in the community. Can we expect to see something similar here, whereby the church will begin to change the local environment business-wise?
“Yes it’s important to us that we do get involved in this micro-economy, and that’s precisely linked with this idea that the properties should be kept and managed in their local communities. There are other reasons, but this is one big reason why we couldn’t accept a centralized fund managed from Prague for the whole of the Czech Republic because then the importance of these micro-economies might not have been taken into account.”
“I am convinced it will change a lot. First of all I think it will affect the sense of responsibility within the church because the activities on the spiritual level will be much more rooted in the reality of the material world we live in. I think it’s important that the material and spiritual realities are not divided, because if we proclaim the gospel, it is the gospel for the whole world not only for some spiritual dimension. And the second thing, which I mentioned earlier in our discussion, is that we will be able to focus on topics that are important to us that weren’t possible within the constriction of the previous structure of the Church. We will be able to be more up to date with the needs of Czech society.”
What would you say to, again, the critics of the deal, this time within your church who recently came out with a petition to say that the church should not really get money and that the past wrongs should be settled by some kind of public fund and that the church should not be rich?
“This petition did not come from within the Catholic Church. No Catholic priests signed it. It’s important to explain what we tried to discuss with these groups: that we have some responsibility for the people. We also have to secure their ability to live with their families and have the money to lead a normal life. It doesn’t mean that we are rich, but we are stable – and there’s a big difference between being rich and being stable. We hope that this way we will gain some stability, which is important for giving people some future for their activities, and this is what we hope to receive.”
And finally, what will you do if the bill gets rejected? On Monday the Constitutional Court said that the parishes and the individual bodies of the church may pursue their restitution demands directly at court. Is this the way you will go?
“I have said this many times since the decision of the Constitutional Court: we are not interested in receiving these properties via some court decisions. We are trying to negotiate with the state because that would mean some basic understanding between the Catholic Church and other churches and the population, so we are ready to have discussions. Of course if there is no opportunity for discussions in the near future, there is this other possibility."