Catholics in Communist Czechoslovakia: A Story of Persecution and Perseverance

Dr. Radomír Malý, a signatory of the famous “Charter 77,” reflects on living under communist rule and oppression for forty years—and what Catholics today can learn from those difficult times.

Left: Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Brno, in the Czech Republic [Wikipedia], right: The Memorial to the victims of Communism (Pomník obětem komunismu) in Prague [Wikipedia].

Dr. Radomír Malý was born in 1947 and today is a well-known and respected Catholic academician and journalist in the Czech Republic. A signatory of the famous “Charter 77,” a declaration critical of the Czechoslovak Communist regime issued in 1977, along with other famous dissidents such as Václav Havel (later president of the Czech Republic), Dr. Malý was arrested and stripped of his teaching position because he was Catholic, and forced to do menial factory work as punishment for his faith. In Czechoslovakia, which after the Cold War divided peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic in 1993, the communists seized power in 1948. The regime came to an end with the Velvet Revolution in Prague in late 1989.

Czech historian, author and journalist Dr.. Radomír Malý in 2012 photo [Zdeněk Kubík/]

While the Cold War is now only a distant memory, and for those born after 1991 the Soviet Union is known only through history books, the harsh realities of that time continue to cast a shadow over culture and politics in Europe. Today in the so-called “free world” of the West, especially in the U.S., many Christians are concerned about social and legal trends that threaten the free exercise of religion, just as the socialist states of the past imposed atheism and persecuted believers in myriad ways, from the use of brute force to subtle harassment. In the interview below, Dr. Malý reflects upon the experiences of Catholics during Communist Czechoslovakia and explains the lessons that may be drawn from this history for Christians in our times.

Translated from Czech, the interview has been edited for clarity and length.

CWR: Please tell us about your background, education, career. Were you born Catholic, or did you convert?

Dr. Radomír Malý: I was born in 1947 in Brno, I studied history at the Faculty of Arts from 1965 to 1970 and earned my doctorate. Then I was employed as a historian at the museum in the town of Kroměříž, but I was dismissed in 1972 for religious reasons, because the communist regime stipulated that faithful Catholics cannot take positions as teachers and scientists in the field of education and culture. From that time I worked until the fall of communism in 1989 in less skilled labor as a book keeper and archivist at a factory. In 1975, I got married and had three children, and my wife died in 2005. During the communist regime, I was involved in illegal publishing activities within the Catholic Church and was persecuted by the secret police. In the underground church, I studied Catholic theology.

After 1989, I became the deputy editor of the Christian newspaper People’s Democracyin Brno. After the demise of this journal, in 1994 I became a teacher at the theological faculty in the city of České Budějovice, where I taught church history until my retirement in 2009.

I was brought up by my parents in the Catholic faith, but in the 1960s during a crisis of faith I had to meditate on my life and come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the Church He founded. Some dear and holy priests and lay intellectuals helped me, to whom I am deeply grateful.

CWR: How would you describe your current relationship with the Roman Catholic Church? What kinds of activities are you involved in?

Dr. Malý: I can say that I am sincerely committed to the Catholic Church, I know that only its doctrine is true because it comes from God’s revelation. The current liberal neo-Modernist trend within the Church that has been noticeable since the Second Vatican Council worries me. The truth of Catholic doctrine on faith and morals has been relativized in the Catholic schools, religious education, and Catholic media, and sometimes even directly challenged. Therefore, I identify myself as a traditional Catholic who prefers the traditional liturgy called the “Tridentine” Rite, and together with Catholics of the same kind I’m trying to publicly proclaim the authentic Catholic doctrine, which the Church has taught for centuries since its beginning. Furthermore, I am involved in the Knighthood of the Immaculate, founded by the Polish Conventual Franciscan St. Maxmilián Kolbe, who sacrificed his life in Auschwitz for the father of a family, as well as some other Marian initiatives, because I am an admirer of the Virgin Mary.

CWR: What was the experience of Roman Catholics during communism in Czechoslovakia? Was fighting religion a priority of the new socialist regime when it took power in 1948? What methods of persecution were used?

Dr. Malý: The communist regime began to persecute the Catholic Church right from the start in 1948. Bishops were interned, almost half of the priests and religious people found themselves in prisons and labor camps (religious orders and congregations were all destroyed), and many did not return because they were tortured by state security forces. Numerous public trials of priests and Catholic intellectuals took place, who were tortured during interrogation by the secret police (known as the StB), and who were forced to “confess” to absurd accusations. Three priests (Jan Bula, Václav Drbola and František Pařil) were executed in 1951 based on fictional accusations of complicity in an assassination attempt against three party officials in the village of Babice, near the city of Jihlava, although at the time of the murder they had already been in jail for weeks and thus were not able to do such a thing.

In 1950, StB agents beat to death a Catholic priest named Fr. Josef Toufar, because he refused to “confess” to fabricated allegations that during a sermon in church he manipulated the cross above the main altar [to appear as a miracle]. Schools could only be atheistic, with religion taught only as an optional subject in which parents had to enroll their children. The school then sent a notification to your employer, and if the parents held a position of responsibility, especially in education or culture, they were fired without mercy. Instead of bishops, who were imprisoned, dioceses were managed in the 1950s by “capitular vicars,” who belonged to the pro-regime organization of priests called the “Peace Movement of Catholic Clergy” (after 1969 this was called the “Association of Pacem in Terris”).

The persecution let up a little in the 1960s (I was there and I was allowed to begin my university studies), but after Soviet troops crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, the situation returned to the same conditions that had prevailed around 1960, except that the repression was now rather administrative and not judicial in character. People who were “uncomfortable” for the regime, among them of course in the first place practicing faithful Catholics, had to leave their jobs in the sphere of education, culture, etc. This continued until 1989.

CWR: The communists were in power in Czechoslovakia from 1948-1989. Did their policy toward the Catholic Church change during this time, or did they have a consistent policy from start to finish?

Dr. Malý: Basically no, only in the 1960s – as I said in my previous answer – was there a change, due to pressure in society, to loosen the repression and to expand the space for the Church: bishops were able to return to their dioceses, priests formerly imprisoned regained permission to publicly celebrate the liturgy, practicing Catholics could go to university to study, etc.

CWR: Are there any communist-era Czechs being considered for sainthood? How many?

Dr. Malý: They include Prague Cardinal Josef Beran and the bishop of České Budějovice, Josef Hlouch, both prisoners of the communist regime, as well as the priests Václav Drbola, Jan Bula and Josef Toufar, who I mentioned earlier. As far as I know, the beatification process is also taking place for about two nuns.

CWR: What was the relationship between the underground Church and the above-ground Church during communism – and then after 1989?

Dr. Malý: During the communist era, both structures largely intertwined and cooperated. Before being imprisoned, the bishops gained from the Vatican in 1949 the so-called Mexican faculty, allowing for the secret consecration of bishops without the consent of the Holy See. This was called the “underground” church, these newly consecrated bishops, and other holy priests and bishops, some of whom worked officially as priests at parishes and concealed their episcopal consecrations. Because of a lack of sufficient oversight, some men who lacked proper spiritual maturity penetrated into these “underground” structures. Because it was not certain whether Holy Orders had been properly conferred, after 1989 the bishops, in accordance with the Vatican, demanded these secretly ordained priests to undergo “Ordination sub conditione,” i.e. a new celebration of priestly ordination, in case the ordination under communism had been done improperly. Most of them accepted this and many of them still abound in pastoral work, but some refused and to the present day carry out pastoral work “guerrilla-style.”

CWR: How did the changes of Vatican II affect the Church in Czechoslovakia?

Dr. Malý: We can say that there was very little influence, only that in 1969 the Novus Ordo Mass was introduced and the altar was turned to face the people. The destructive changes that were experienced in the Church in the West affected the Church in Czechoslovakia only slightly, paradoxically, “thanks to” the communist regime and its Iron Curtain, which did not allow contact with the West.

CWR: What was Charter 77, and did it have any religious or spiritual meaning? Were you involved with Charter 77?

Dr. Malý: I signed Charter 77 in 1977. It was a declaration by citizens who, in reference to the signing of a treaty by representatives of our country at the Helsinki Conference, called for respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms, and pointed out that Czechoslovakia was not fulfilling what was pledged in Helsinki. Among these freedoms was religious freedom, one of the most basic rights which was violated in our country.

CWR: Was it dangerous for you to sign and be involved with Charter 77?

Dr. Malý: Yes, I was aware of the dangers that lay in the possibility of imprisonment or, in the best case scenario, the possibility of harsh interrogation by the communist state secret police. I was prepared for this, and so was my wife. The second option happened, as I was interrogated by the secret police, which was very hard, and threatened with arrest by the court.

Paradoxically, my signature on the Charter was only marginally mentioned; the main reason for their “interest” in me was my Catholic samizdat publishing, i.e. secret publishing activities about the spirituality of the Catholic Church and the clandestine publishing of Catholic literature.

CWR: Do you have an opinion about the negotiations between the Vatican and the Chinese government that are now taking place? Is there anything the Church needs to be careful about in dealing with the communist government there?

Dr. Malý: It is very disconcerting that the Vatican now recognizes the government’s favored bishops of the schismatic, so-called “Patriotic Catholic Church,” who were consecrated without the consent of the Holy See. This is a blow below the belt to the clandestine Catholic Church which is loyal to Rome – the bishops, priests and believers who are victims in communist prisons. Note well, for about 20 years this so-called “Patriotic Catholic Church,” despite Catholic doctrine, has supported the “one child policy” of the Chinese government, which established mandatory abortion during the second pregnancy. The current flirtation by the Vatican with Chinese communism is a scandal.

CWR: Another Czech who lived through communism told me that when the socialist state cracked down hard on Christians in the 1950s, it was in a sense easy to understand the risk and meaning of being Christian. But later during the communist era, in the 1980s, the state continued to persecute Christians but not in such a direct way, which made it more difficult to see the threat to the faith and to live as a Christian. Do you agree with this analysis, and do you see a parallel today, when under a constitutional democracy we have the freedom to exercise religion, but many are leaving the faith?

Dr. Malý: I think that in the 1980s, every practicing Catholic, if you did not live in complete isolation, perceived the threat to the Faith and Christian life by the Communist regime. It is true that the oppression of Christians at that time was far less harsh, in terms of police crackdowns and court procedures, and by this time sentences based on religious activity were not longer than two years, unlike in the 1950s when it was common for practicing Catholic to be condemned to 15-30 years in concentration camps. The persecution of Christians in the 1970s and ‘80s shifted more to the level of sanctions in employment, which was also very hard, so that’s why I conclude, based on my personal experience, that every practicing Catholic was aware of the threat to Faith and Christian life. At the time, however, despite the persecution, the Catholics usually did not leave the Church, but today, in the era of constitutional democracy and freedom, they do.

CWR: What happened to the Roman Catholic Church after the end of communism in 1989? Did the Church grow? Were there any controversies within the Church, or between Church and the state or the culture?

Dr. Malý: The Catholic Church after 1989 not only did not record growth, but rather declined.

Paradoxically, under communism the churches were full and the Church had huge respect mainly due to the outstanding Prague primate, Cardinal František Tomášek. Participation at Holy Mass on Sundays was understood by some people as a statement of disagreement with the communist regime. In the 1990s quite the opposite process occurred, despite the fact that religious schools grew up like mushrooms after rain. The Czech church was influenced by the West, and the post-conciliar Liberalism and neo-Modernism caused frictions inside her. Simply speaking, the most active and best-known representative of neo-Modernism was and still is the spiritual administrator of the university student parish in Prague, Fr. Tomáš Halík; his conservative counterpart and advocate of orthodoxy was and is a former professor at Prague’s Theological Faculty, Fr. Václav Wolf.

In addition, there have sometimes been strained relations with the state mainly due to the question of restitution of church property confiscated in 1948 by the Communists. The Czech political left, led by former communists, started a real propaganda campaign against the Catholic Church, which was described as “greedy” and “grasping for wealth,” and which appealed to anti-Catholic memories from Czech history, primarily in relation to the Hussites [a protestant-like reform movement led by Prague priest and professor John Huss, who was condemned for heresy at the Council of Constance and executed in 1415].

CWR: How would you describe the spiritual life of Czechs today? Are most Czechs Catholic? Is the Catholic Church relevant to today’s (post)modern Czechs?

Dr. Malý: It is reported that, statistically, over 20 percent of the population, in other words approximately 2 million people, belong to the Catholic Church in the Czech Republic. But only about 400,000 regularly attend Holy Mass on Sunday. The rest – apart from some small Christian denominations (about 1 percent of the population) – are non-practicing, and if one claims to be religious he typically says he believes in “something” undefined.

I fear that in its present approach, the Catholic Church is not able to reach postmodern Czechs. It irritates me that the statistics show a steady decline in Sunday attendance at services and recipients of the sacraments – and our bishops are not initiating any evangelizing or missionary campaigns.

In my opinion, the Church will become attractive only when it presents itself as a clear alternative, as opposed to our contemporary postmodern and neo-Marxist society, and when it properly and firmly opposes the pernicious gender ideology, abortion legislation, pornography, homosexuality and other atrocities that pose a threat, especially for our future generations. This is what should be happening, and it is hard to watch instead the compromising spirit and underlying tendency “to agree at any price.” This never worked with the communists and will not work today. I also think that the Church must proclaim a clear doctrine, as it was accustomed to doing until some 60 years ago, not the fuzzy and relativistic teaching we often see today. People need to hear a resounding “yes, yes – no, no,” as Jesus Christ said, not ambiguous phrases, which do not convince anyone.

CWR: An idea being discussed today is the so-called “Benedict Option,” which proposes that in a secular culture hostile to Christianity, like that in the USA and Europe today, Christians should form communities to defend and live their faith. Did Catholics in communist Czechoslovakia live a kind of “Benedict Option”? Is there any lesson from how Catholics survived communism for how to live the faith in our time?

Dr. Malý: I agree, I see this path as a real option. Czech Catholics during the communist era tried to create just such a community, even at the risk losing their jobs, and of persecution or imprisonment. But what I consider most important is religious education in the true faith of Christ, which is now at a very low level.

CWR: Are there any more lessons for today from the experiences of Catholics under socialism in Czechoslovakia?

Dr. Malý: Most of all, no communist regime can ever, under any circumstances, be trusted, and one should not retreat when facing such a communist threat. Also, it pays off to adopt a firm stance of maintaining a strong personal character with a commitment not to betray others or the faith, and not to collaborate with the regime, even if it costs me dearly. Christ does not promise an easy life to his faithful, but “tribulation,” but He also adds: “Do not be afraid, I have overcome the world.” Communist ideology in the form that we knew before 1989 is already gone, but Christ and his Church are still here.

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About Benjamin J. Vail 7 Articles
Dr. Benjamin J. Vail, OFS is an American Secular Franciscan living with his family in Brno, Czech Republic. He has studied sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oslo (Norway), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Masaryk University (Czech Republic).

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