January-February 2016

In the Maelstrom of Secularization, Collaboration and Persecution: Roman Catholicism in Modern Czech Society and the State.  By Tomás Petrácek. EL-Press (downloadable via author’s name at academia.edu). 126 pages. No charge.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s Faith in the Public Square (2005) and philosopher Charles Taylor’s palatial A Secular Age (2007) offered macroscopic and speculative views of secularism, from its origins to its current state. Tomás Petrácek, faculty member at the University of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic, offers a concise study of the rise of secularism in one country, with remote and recent history in compelling detail. In the Maelstrom of Secularization examines how the Czech Republic came to be “the most atheist country not just in Europe but in the whole world.” Indeed, this small Central European nation quickly and antagonistically dismissed its religious past and identity in “a mere 150 years,” says Petrácek, “almost no time from a historical point of view.” Atheism became “a sign of modern Czech identity.”

History shows the Bohemian lands to be ahead of the curve in Christian religious conflicts. The Hussite Revolution (1419-1434), often referred to by historians as the “reformation before the Reformation,” was sparked by priest and scholar Jan Hus, who promoted the reformist ideas of English theologian John Wycliffe. The extended revolt makes for a complicated story, with early Protestant-style factions and five defeated papal crusades. At the time, the Church owned about two-thirds of Bohemia, and her influence and power led the nobility to support “radical Hussitism as a conceptual instrument to be used to seize Church property.” Petrácek is far from hasty in drawing conclusions about contemporary secularity from historical premises: “I would point out that we have no evidence of the causes [of secularism] in the years of Hussitism or the Counter-Reformation,” he writes. In recent Czech history, both the Church and the noble or aristocratic classes come under suspicion.

Contemporary secularism, for Petrácek, cannot be attributed to a rift between the Church and nobility but rather results from tension between Catholic identity and national identity. A citizen’s sense of “belonging to the Czech nation” and “belonging to the Catholic Church” split in the mid-19th century. Petrácek points out the influence of historian Frantisek Palacký, leader of the Czech National Revival and “Father of the Nation,” who portrayed the Catholic Church as “a vehicle of undemocratic, unpatriotic principles.” Other historians followed suit, “presenting membership in the nation and the Church as something like schizophrenia.” Catholicism did not have a corresponding historian to provide a positive perception of the Church. Nationalism succeeded at the expense of the Church, indeed of all religion, as Czechs “tended to find a substitute religion in nationalism and political activism.”

Over time, Catholicism would sprout anew. Between the two world wars, Petrácek says, “the process of re-integration of the Catholic tradition into the core of the Czech national identity continued.” But this renewed harmony was cut short by communism: “The Communist regime perceived the Catholic Church as the arch-enemy, and aimed ultimately to obliterate it.” While their tactics varied over their four decades of rule, one of the communists’ most effective strategies was to target clergymen, whom they “divided into three categories to suit the Totalitarian State.” There were the “progressives,” who fully collaborated with the regime; compromisers, who ceded ground to the Communist party “if it meant they could carry out their priestly mission”; and the non-compromisers, “who refused to yield to the regime pressure.” Petrácek remains extremely nuanced, which is to say charitable, toward every aspect of this tripartite division, and he emphasizes the complicated nature of each category. He links the most ostensibly culpable collaborator-priests to those who simply compromised, surmising their motive to be “a sense of responsibility for their flock, which mattered more to them than their own conscience.” Perhaps seminaries inculcated an indiscriminate sense of authority: Priests were “rigorously and thoroughly trained to obey the authority of the Church and, indeed, authority in general.” Petrácek sympathizes with these priests, whom no one prepared “psychologically or spiritually for the pressure that they were put under in encounters with the secret police or the Communist secretaries of Church affairs.”

Petrácek describes the Czech Republic today as a place with fewer “truly convinced” atheists than Christian believers, not due to its great number of believers but as the consequence of a heterogeneous majority whose beliefs and loyalties span the spectrum. “Czech society is much better described as a ‘religious grey zone’” full of “people who are searching and building various pseudo-religious alternative models and systems.” Where beliefs often converge, however, is in “a mistrust of the traditional Churches.” In order to reverse negative opinions of the Church, Petrácek suggests beginning with the widespread interest in social reform: “The Church’s social teaching and its greater involvement in social problems could be used more to bring the atheist public closer to the Church.”

An enlightening feature of Petrácek’s work is one that might be difficult for a North American audience to appreciate. In much of Europe, Church and state are intertwined to an extent that has no basis of comparison here. This difference is integral to understanding why the Church’s alignment with the Austro-Hungarian Empire continues to generate suspicion toward religion. Nevertheless, discussion of the future engagement between religion and the state remains of critical importance on both continents. Our very institutions operate in a manner that “appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian.” And more and more, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot’s comment on paganism, secularism “holds all the most valuable advertising space.” Petrácek supplies a cautionary tale about the threatened survival of Christian religion in a long-ago stronghold.

- Bradford Manderfield



The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times.  By Dom Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B. Ignatius Press. 205 pages. $16.95.

The vice of acedia, more commonly known as sloth, has until recently gone largely ignored in Catholic theology. After years of in-depth study of acedia and its consequences, Dom Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B., abbot of Saint-Wandrille Abbey in Normandy, France, has come to the startling conclusion that despite its obscurity — or rather because of it — acedia is the great unnamed evil of our day. In The Noonday Devil he presents an informative theological examination of this vice, traditionally understood to be one of the seven capital sins, and offers enlightening analyses of its implications for the Christian life.

Acedia (from the Greek akèdia, a “lack of care”) is a mysterious and complex vice characterized by an indifference to the exercise of virtue and religion. As Nault explains, it is “an evil that causes man to lose the joy of living and paralyzes his interior dynamism.” At its worst, acedia leads to a fundamental sense of meaninglessness that inevitably results in the despair of one’s own salvation. The “demon of acedia” is particularly sinister because, unlike most demons, it strikes the soul in the full light of day when least expected — hence the name “noonday devil,” a reference to Psalm 90:6 (Douay-Rheims). Acedia can take different forms and manifest in surprising ways, and it is often mistaken for what people today like to call a “mid-life crisis.” Since its greatest strength is its subtlety, merely identifying acedia within the soul is half the battle.

The earliest theological exposition of acedia comes from Evagrius of Pontus, a late-fourth-century Desert Father. He defined it as “a relaxation of the soul,” for he saw it to consist of a lack of due attention to the spiritual life. Within the monastic context, he explained, acedia appears primarily as the temptation for a monk to forsake contemplation and leave his cell out of spiritual restlessness. In the next several centuries, St. John Cassian, St. Benedict of Nursia, St. Gregory the Great, and Hugh of Saint Victor would build upon Evagrius’s work and offer additional perspectives on the nature of acedia and its manifestations.

The most complete teaching on acedia was formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, who proposed two definitions: “sadness about spiritual good” and “disgust with activity.” Taken together, these definitions show that acedia is ultimately a sin against the joy of charity, for it is foremost a sadness at the prospect of what one must do to enter into communion with God. Instead of embracing his high vocation to be a son of God, the person overtaken by acedia is averse to his supernatural calling and settles for an easily gained “animal beatitude.” According to St. Thomas, in its most serious form, acedia leads to the total despair of eternal beatitude, the famous unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, St. Thomas offers a definitive remedy for this terrible vice: the Incarnation. By encountering the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, one can realize the great dignity of one’s vocation and have a foretaste of the beatitude for which one is ordained.

In the century following Aquinas, William of Ockham initiated a “revolution” of great magnitude that would divorce theology and spirituality and cause the disappearance of acedia from Christian consciousness. With his radically different concepts of human nature and freedom, Ockham developed a legalistic and authoritarian morality that would essentially eliminate the very possibility of acedia. Henceforth, only writers of spiritual works would discuss this vice, but even then in the watered-down forms of sloth and melancholy.

Nault makes clear that although gloominess, discouragement, laziness, and boredom can be experienced with acedia, the vice is much bigger and more serious than these relatively benign symptoms. He notes that acedia left to fester can actually result in the disintegration of the human person, which is evident all around us in our godless world. The deep-seated nihilism of our age is a sure sign of acedia, as is the instability of so many who lack a sense of fulfillment in their lives and seek out endless distractions and pleasures to fill the void — what Nault refers to as “the culture of channel-surfing.” The purposelessness that comes with acedia can make a person idle and neglectful, but it can also lead to a frenzy of activity to escape doubts and despair, as well as hollow attempts at reshaping oneself in order to find personal meaning. Tragically, the spiritual lukewarmness that the vice also causes blinds one to this cancer sickening one’s soul and leaves one in a state of sterile mediocrity. Nault reminds us of what the Lord says to such persons: “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16).

In the most eye-opening part of the book, Nault discusses specific ways in which acedia can appear in the different states of life. Within religious life, a few manifestations of acedia are a gradual relaxation of the rules, bitterness, minimalism, and sometimes even assuming new and increasingly diverse apostolates. For priests, acedia can manifest as a loss of priestly identity, resentment of authority, or activism. Acedia within married life directly threatens the communion of the spouses, causing temptations to infidelity and a lack of openness to children. Spouses in such a state suffer a breakdown in mutual trust and often seek self-centered compensations outside of the family. Even single persons are vulnerable to acedia, which can appear in them as a sense of isolation and frustration with their situation. Anyone aware of the state of the Church and society in recent times knows how prevalent and detrimental these problems are, and also how rarely they are addressed head-on. Centuries of neglecting the full reality of acedia has caused untold damage. Nault’s position that acedia is the great unnamed evil of our day is well founded.

The Noonday Devil is a much-needed wake-up call for Catholics to rediscover their supernatural destiny and boldly proclaim the joyful message of the Gospel to reinvigorate a world deadened by its own apathy. And for those caught in the grip of acedia, Nault offers sure hope that, by persevering and accepting the saving grace of Christ, this “mortal trial par excellence” can indeed be overcome.

- Stephen J. Kovacs





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