The Church Is Somewhere In-between

“Conservative, identity-based piety will not offer people any vision of the future. Certainly, the kind of Church we know from Poland or even the Czech Republic will not do it,” says Monsignor Prof. Tomáš Halik in an interview with Aleksander Kaczorowski.

Aleksander Kaczorowski: Monsignor Halik, is artificial intelligence more than a new technological tool?

Monsignor Prof. Tomáš Halik: I think it is.

And what does it mean for religion?

Here is what I think.

The emergence of artificial intelligence is a paradigmatic shift, an outcome of the process of globalization and the most important cultural development of recent centuries. This process entered a new phase in the age of the Internet, which reached us, in the Czech Republic or Poland, with some delay with the downfall of Communism. Artificial Intelligence represents a new quality in this process, and its most fascinating feature is the speed, the rate of change, it brings with it – and this is what is most problematic. One might even say suspicious.


Because it leaves us no time for reflection.

Artificial intelligence is incredibly effective – I myself use it in my work, which is all the more reason for us to ask ourselves anew today what is specifically human, inherent to humans, and what is not? What is it that artificial intelligence cannot replace us in?

Is there such a thing?

Of course. That something is a contemplative attitude to reality. And so we come to the phenomenon of religion.

An international sociological survey was recently conducted on what ‘non-believers’ believe. Non-believers in quotation marks. It revealed that religiosity is undergoing huge changes today. We can no longer talk about religiosity in classic categories: believer vs non-believer. Most people do not fit into them. It’s somewhere in between.

And that’s why religion is in crisis?

No. The crisis affects that sort of religiosity which totally identifies with religious institutions. It is indeed dying. But this does not mean that religion itself is dying. Because there are also fewer and fewer dogmatic atheists and at the same time, there are more and more people who are both believers and non-believers.

Let me give you an example.

If you ask an average Czech whether he believes in God, he will answer you: “No way, I am an atheist.” But when you start digging deeper, he will immediately add: “But I’m not some naive materialist! I also know that there is something more, something beyond us.”

The important thing is that the number of people who are searching is increasing both among those who identify themselves as atheists and among those who declare themselves believers. Also, for many Catholics, religion is becoming a path rather than an end in itself. The great challenge facing the Church today is to learn how to talk to seekers, believers, atheists and those who are somewhere in-between.

Does the Catholic Church still know how to do this? In Poland we are witnessing a mass departure from religious practice, there is even talk of an Irish scenario. Many are performing the act of apostasy. Commentators point to the politicization of the church, its identification with the ruling party, but aren’t there deeper reasons for this? After all, this development does not only affect Poland.

What you are talking about – the politicization of the church – is important, but it is not the crux of the matter. It is clear that the identification of religion with nationalism and political power is lethal for religion. This happens wherever the Church has traditionally dominated the public sphere and has not learned to engage in dialogue with people of different views. As a result, it has degenerated and ceased to matter.

Like in Ireland?

It started in Quebec. Then there was Spain, Ireland and now Poland, where the process of secularization is now proceeding most rapidly. In all these countries, the Church had a dominant position in the cultural sphere, it was seen as the foundation of national identity. It is precisely this identity-based understanding of religion that is in deep crisis today.


Because modern man does not have a clear identity. He is still looking for it. Today, the identity offering goes only to a few who vulgarize it, and then Christianity becomes nothing more than an ideological project. This suits some, and it can be exploited politically, but at the price of degrading the most important element of religiosity, which is spirituality.

This kind of religiosity is quickly becoming sterile, and what’s worse, this conservative, identity-based piety is incapable of offering people any vision of the future. Instead, its adherents focus on culture wars; they pick a few catchy topics, such as LGBT and the like, and fixate on them. And the most important existential issues go by the wayside.

The Church has always been prone to such fixations. The early Christians argued about whether believers could share a table with pagans, in the Middle Ages it was a dispute over usury. Today it is the issue of abortion, gays, etc.

Are these marginal issues?

Of course not, but if the Church only fights battles with secularized society – battles it is doomed to lose – instead of inspiring people to seek the sources of spirituality, the sources of hope, to look for a deeper meaning of life, then it will cease to be credible for educated and young people.

We need to learn to function in a pluralistic society; come to terms with the fact that in the legal system of a secular state there is no place for the criminalization of abortion; come to terms with the legalisation of same-sex unions.

In a free, pluralistic society, the Church can only preach moral values through inspiration, leading by example, and cannot rely on a state apparatus of repression. We should focus on educating consciences.

We can persuade people to follow Christian ethics, preferably by exemplifying it ourselves, but we cannot force them to do so. Today, the most heated disputes concern secondary issues, while we neglect spiritual, existential issues.

I have long studied the phenomenon of Catholicism, which I believe is the opposite of catholicity.

That is, religious fundamentalism?

No. The point is that catholicity is synonymous with openness, the universal. Catholicism, on the other hand, is a reduction to a particular worldview.

I’m not sure I understand.

Let me explain. Modern times, Modernism, brought with it a process of specialization. Religion, too, became a specialized sector of social life. As part of this process, new Christian denominations arose, branching out quite like Linnaeus’ plant classification system, that is, according to the intentions and ideas of the philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment.

Consequently, religion became nothing more than a worldview. One of many existing worldviews. And it has lost what is most important about it.

Any worldview can become a valid ideology as long as it gains the support of political power. This is the case of Catholicism, which was formed during the period of the First Vatican Council (1869-70), with the Church’s fear of modernity at its core. Catholicism became a kind of counterculture to Protestantism and Modernism, to all modern culture, to modern philosophy. This clerical Catholicism dominated the Piuses’ era, from Pius IX to Pius XII, that is, from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Pope Francis is trying to shake this up today, to point to an alternative model of Christianity, to move out of the ghetto of Catholicism toward an ecumenical Christianity.

And wasn’t this already attempted by Vatican II?

Yes, but this new model did not break through in the Communist countries of the time, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia.


Because they were isolated, cut off from the world and modern theological thought, especially the Czech church. Bishops and priests or even Catholic intellectuals could not properly study and assimilate the achievements of the Second Council. They generally did not have access to the books of the authors who formed its intellectual base, so they could not familiarize themselves with them, and without knowledge of the context, they could not properly grasp the meaning of the reforms. Obviously, they also didn’t have any experience of functioning in an open democratic society. So we ended up with formal changes: we will celebrate Mass facing the faithful, replace Latin with national languages. But we missed the most important thing: we didn’t change our mentality.

Another thing is that the Second Council did not live up to its hopes anywhere. It happened too late, when the world had already gone its own way and stopped bothering with the Church. But that doesn’t change the essence of the matter: we need to liberate ourselves from Catholicism and rediscover our Catholicity. Both in Poland and in the Czech Republic.

The Czechs are regarded as liberal and tolerant in Poland. Are they really like that?

Certainly, Czechs do not identify with the Church as much as Poles do, which does not mean that they are not open to spiritual matters. They are also liberal in many respects, sometimes too much so – this is their way of letting their steam off after the Communist era, when almost everything was forbidden. Sometimes, this has more in common with libertinism than liberalism, so it is a caricature of liberal values. However, there is no dispute that our society is indeed very tolerant. The question is whether this really is an advantage. Is it tolerance or mere indifference?

And what do you think?

The Czechs were formed in the nineteenth century as a bourgeois society. They could not rely on the native aristocracy (that was mostly German or cosmopolitan), nor were they a predominantly peasant society like the Slovaks, Poles or Hungarians. Under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, education, industry and culture developed in our lands. Czechs lived mostly in towns and were relatively well educated. And since an educated middle class is the foundation of democracy, even in the 1930s democracy survived in Czechoslovakia much longer than in neighboring countries where authoritarian regimes took over. Democratic values never quite died in our country.

It is also true that Czechs don’t believe in any grand ideals, in big words. This can be seen in the nature of the language.

Polish has a natural tendency to pathos or pomposity, and this doesn’t bother anyone, but when someone starts speaking bombastically in Czech, he immediately seems ridiculous. Bombast is suspect in our country by definition. This, moreover, has been a problem for Bible translators. When a Czech hears the various bombastic passages, of which there are legion, he immediately thinks to himself: Aha, someone is pulling my leg. And he defends himself with Švejk humor.

This national trait of ours is, of course, exploited by populists. A classic example was President Miloš Zeman, who made vulgarity his trademark, brought it into Czech politics. He did it with full deliberation, fully on purpose. He said he wanted to be the President of the bottom ten million Czechs, but in fact he dragged those ten million Czech citizens down with him. And he called anyone who criticised him a representative of the “Prague café”.

In Poland, it’s called a salon or “warszawka” [little Warsaw].

I don’t want to worry you, but liberals in the Czech Republic are as few as Christians. Most Czechs are somewhere in between.

And this is what the future will look like. People who identify with specific values, religious or secular, are in the minority. The number of people who do not identify with any ideology or institution, religion or political party, is growing.

Fortunately, the dialogue between believers and non-believers is not a dialogue between some two groups of people locked in their bubbles. It takes place within each person.

Each of us has some kind of primordial faith, without which we could not live. The belief that life has meaning. But in order to see this meaning, critical thinking, scepticism is also necessary. These two elements should complement each other. Faith without scepticism turns into fanaticism and fundamentalism. And scepticism unable to question itself becomes cynicism.

Faith and unbelief are two sisters that need each other. That’s why dialogue is so important.

John Paul II was a Pope of dialogue?

It is necessary to see both the positive and negative sides of his pontificate. The Pope appreciated some aspects of the Second Council, and supported inter-religious dialogue, as exemplified by the famous meeting in Assisi in 1986. ‘Solidarity’, which broke the Communist Party’s monopoly on power and made a fundamental breach in the monolithic Soviet system, was an aftermath of the spiritual atmosphere after the Pope’s first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979. John Paul II supported parliamentary democracy, the free market and the European Union.

And the bad sides?

He was constantly on the road, so he did not oversee the papal curia. He did not control the administrative apparatus and the problems that were growing there, such as corruption.

What else?

He ignored the problem of sexual abuse.


Because he didn’t believe the information about the scandals that came to him. He thought these were slanders. It was not uncommon for the Communists, and before them the Nazis, to accuse unrepentant priests they wanted to remove of paedophilia. So he downplayed these reports, until finally it was too late: a delayed bomb went off and undermined the Church’s credibility. It wasn’t until Pope Francis acknowledged that this was a systemic problem, and that the root cause was clericalism – perceiving the role of the clergy in terms of power. The priestly estate, which was supposed to serve, became a ruling class. Priests stopped listening, they saw themselves as truth-keepers.

Unfortunately, John Paul II became a symbol of this triumphalism; against his own will. I had the privilege to know him, I appreciated and liked him very much, and I have no doubt that he was a saint. But when Polish Dominicans visited me in Prague on the day of his death, I told them: the Polish Church must now see the face of Jesus Christ again behind the icon of the Polish Pope.

How do you feel about the Catholic Church today?

Its great asset is Pope Francis. Thanks to him, we are presented with a great opportunity for synodal reform, a profound reform not only of the Roman Catholic Church, but of Christianity as a whole. There is a chance that we will go down this road together: Catholics and representatives of other faiths. After all, the process of globalization, which is in crisis today and has shown us its dark face, must also have its spiritual aspect.

But this will not be done by the kind of Church we know from Poland or even the Czech Republic. It is a relic of the past, it has nothing to offer for the future. That’s why it is lashing out in the culture wars.

Of course, we have seen this before: Catholicism without Christianity, which eventually becomes Catholic Fascism. Think of France from the time of the Dreyfuss affair, from the time of the split between republicans and monarchists. The leaders of the ultra-Catholic, ultra-nationalist Action Française were actually atheists, but they really liked Catholicism conceived as a solitary fortress. This self-enclosed Catholicism was completely sterile, fed by nostalgia for the past, for Medieval Christanitas. These people were great lovers of the Middle Ages, but not the authentic era, only the one from the imaginations of the Romantics. They did not create anything new. In architecture, neo-Gothic, in philosophy, neo-Thomism. There was always a retro element to it.

And it hasn’t changed, it still characterizes these circles.

Recently, an extreme nationalist Slovak politician called for the enthronement of Christ as King of Slovakia. Czech journalists asked me what this meant. I replied that it was a symbol of Catholic Fascism, which the church in Slovakia has never shaken off.

It’s a legacy of Fr. Jozef Tiso’s World War II collaborationist regime, but he wasn’t the only one; there was also Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, there was the Vichy regime and the Croatian Ustasha.

Today these people are openly pro-Russian. A few years ago in Gniezno, an Orthodox archbishop called for an alliance of Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox against Protestantism and liberalism. Fundamentalists of all faiths, unite!

Was it a Russian clergyman?

Patriarch Kirill’s aide. Now he is in Hungary, you can see he is keeping an eye on the Kremlin’s affairs there.

Pope Francis will not have it easy.

That’s why the Church today needs an inspiring vision. One in the spirit of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin, the first thinker of globalization.

Wasn’t he excommunicated?

He had problems with the hierarchy, but he remained a son of the Church. That’s why he can inspire us: he had doubts, but remained faithful.

Do you expect the abolition of celibacy or allowing the priesthood of women? Is this even possible?

This should not be made a taboo subject. But this is not the most important thing.

And what is?

We must learn to listen to the arguments of others.

I took part in several pre-synodal meetings. Participants are divided into small groups. They are given an issue to consider and are expected to speak quite openly about it. Then there is a moment of contemplation, during which everyone reflects on the interlocutors’ statements. And then they say what they thought was most important about them. This is again followed by a moment of contemplation, and then comes the time for joint conclusions.

This is a fantastic method. It would work well in many a parliament.

Tomáš Halik (1948), Czech Catholic priest, theologian and sociologist of religion, teaches religious studies at the Faculty of Philosophy of Charles University in Prague. He is the author of many books, also published in Polish. Halik is the winner of the Templeton Prize (2014), called the “religious Nobel”, and the Fr. Józef Tischner Prize (2021).

Read the speech by Professor Tomáš Halík on the topic of values in the digital age delivered at the Aspen Annual Conference 2023.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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