The reinvention of tradition: The moral economy of monastic life in the Czech Republic

Bar bora Spalova, Marek Liska and Tereza Pickovd


Since the end of the 20th century, a few monasteries following the Rule of Benedict have been re-established in the Czech Republic after over 40 years of communist rule under which all forms of consecrated life had been pronounced illegal.1 The renewal of monasticism after the interruption created an opportunity for a new interpretation of the monastic tradition. The highly secular nature of Czech society made successful reinsertion of monasticism into society far from clear-cut. This is, however, what forced both the secular and non-secular into a process of mutual negotiation, reinterpretation and change - a particularly interesting example of a quest to ascertain the plausibility of a traditional religious institution within a secular, or rather, nonreligious society.2 Equally, it can be understood as secular society’s quest for spirituality.

The interruption of the monastic tradition in 1950 by Communist authorities was not the first. Czech (as well as Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian) monasticism is still heavily affected by Josephinism - a series of reforms by Emperor Joseph II in 1780-1781 which suppressed contemplative orders and closed down more than 700 Central European monasteries. The few remaining were obliged to adopt ‘socially useful activities’,3 which changed the face of monasticism across the region (Winter 1945; Kirschbaum 2017; Niessen 2017; Jonveaux 2018; Jewdokimow 2018). After a short-lived revival of the consecrated life in the 19th century, the economic survival of the remaining monastic communities was endangered by the land reforms of the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918-1938), which further reduced properties of the Roman Catholic Church; 16 per cent of their land was confiscated and given to farmers.

The definitive break in monastic tradition in Czechoslovakia came in April 1950 under the new Communist regime, on the night of St. Bartholomew.4 On the night of 13 April, the army and secret police seized the all-male monasteries, confiscated their property and interned the religious brothers.5 Female religious orders shared the same fate, although some were allowed to care for disabled people (Koura et al. 2014). Male consecrated life was made illegal until 1990. Many monastic communities could only emigrate or find asylum in another monastery in order to save their community. In 1991, following the Velvet Revolution (1989) the adoption of the Enumeration Act (1991), made possible the restoration of 200 convent buildings, but this excluded economic assets, such as lands, forests, lakes, arms, breweries and so on. It was not until 2013 that an act on restitution and compensation was passed: churches, including religious orders, received 56 per cent of their former land properties, and they are also entitled to receive 56 billion CZK, more than 2 billion Euros, over the next 30 years as financial compensation. This act began the process of a progressive separation of church and state in the Czech Republic, and it forms the historical context of our research which aims to describe new moral economies: pacts emerging between monasteries and society during the last 30 years of the re-introduction of monasticism into the Czech society.

We will now introduce our theoretical perspective followed by the research methodology. We will then present three of the nine Benedictine monasteries in the Czech Republic,6 and then present three regions of contact between contemporary monasticism and society: monasteries as cultural heritage, the monastic economy and monastic values and spiritualities. In conclusion, we interpret the story of the monastic communities’ return and, therefore, of monasticism as a way back into the imagination of Czech society viewed as the dynamics of moral change in society.

Theory: moral economy enlarged

We base our theoretical perspective on the sociological concept of a moral economy, drawing from an extended understanding of this concept as developed by Didier Fassin. The first use of this term, however, is believed to be by E.P. Thompson’s 'The moral economy of the English crowd in the 18th century’ (1971), referring to a general theory of moral economy in that era as ‘located in the minds of common people and old-fashioned paternalists - an economy that, under certain circumstances, legitimised food riots and by the end of the 18th century was largely displaced by the ideology of the free market’ (Gotz 2015, p. 152). Thompson elaborated a strong opposition between moral claims of the ‘old-fashioned paternalist’ and the free-market logic of strict instrumental rationality. Social and political scientists then tried to extract the term from the historian’s work, which described a rather specific historical context, and attempted to shift it towards more general use. Examples of this may be seen in James C. Scott (1977) and contemporary authors such as Salverda (2017, 2018), Alexander, Hojer Bruun and Koch (2018) and Hann (2018), who use the concept to analyse disputes (and moral arguments in such disputes), within a single economic system.

Didier Fassin, a promoter of moral anthropology, shifts the focus more to the moral attribute. Paraphrasing the definition of political economy, he defines the concept as ‘the production, distribution, circulation and use of moral feelings, emotions and values, norms and obligations in the social space' (Fassin 2009). We have been inspired by this approach as we understand it to be a shift of perspective towards a more general understanding of economic exchanges. Fassin uses the term more as an economy of morality or perhaps of values, and he is often criticised for an alleged omission of ‘real’ economics.7 Nevertheless, we want to balance the analytical emphasis between the materialistic and the value, or emotional concept, of moral economy. That means shifting the primary attention aw'ay from strictly understood economic values, such as w'ages and goods, while not disposing entirely of the materialistic sphere. The act of restitution of property to the monasteries on which this research is based shows how the material is associated with value and emotion, as will be further evident in the analytical sections to come. Hence, we reconceptualise the definition as a comprehensive system of exchanges (offers, demands, expectations and imaginations) of tangible and intangible goods, values, norms and feelings between monasteries and the ‘world’. This ‘wide" moral economy will be studied through the examples of exchanges between three specific monasteries in Czech Republic and their social environment.

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