Two very different leaders died last weekend, Vaclav Havel, 75, former president of both Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the Czech Republic (1993-2003) after it split from Slovakia, and Kim Jong Il, 69, dictator of North Korea since 1994.
The first helped defeat communism in 1989, ushering in freedom for a huge swath of Eurasia, from Berlin to the Bering Strait; the second prolonged it into the 21st century, with disastrous consequences, especially for the North Korean people.
A simple narrative, accurate in a minimalist sense, calls one man good and the other evil. Catholic theology calls us to deeper considerations.
Havel, who died Dec. 18, was buried with an exquisite Catholic Requiem Mass Dec. 23 in Prague’s soaring 14th-century Gothic Cathedral of St. Vitus, where Holy Roman Emperors are buried and saintly relics preserved. Archbishop Dominik Duka, who shared a prison cell with Havel in the 1980s, was the chief celebrant.
The archbishop opened the Mass with a minute of silence, while church bells across the nation tolled. Then, a former papal nuncio read a letter from Pope Benedict XVI honoring Havel’s visionary leadership, thanking God for the freedom Havel helped bring to his country.
Yet the childless deceased was not a Catholic, nor even a professed Christian believer, at least during his long public life.
He was baptized and confirmed in the Church because his parents were Catholic (like most people in pre-Communist Czechoslovakia), but Havel mainly portrayed himself as an agnostic humanist in his anti-communist activities and moral messages against oppressive regimes as well as post-modern materialism.
Asked sometime in the 1990s about the rumor that he had converted to Christianity he reportedly answered No, adding: “Genuine conversion, as I understand it, would mean replacing an uncertain ‘something’ with a completely unambiguous personal God, and fully, inwardly, to accept Christ as the Son of God. … And I have not taken that step.”
In fact, Havel maintained a stubborn, open-ended theism throughout his public career — which may have been one reason he was promoted by Western leaders, eager for an interlocutor who was “one of them.”
Still, the Catholic Church is unequivocally embracing Vaclav Havel as a son. There are at least three possible reasons why.
The simplest explanation is that the Catholic funeral Mass is permitted for baptized non-Catholics. Considering Havel’s friendship with the archbishop, the fact that St. Vitus Cathedral is owned by the government because it is located inside the Prague Castle complex (the world’s biggest castle, where the president works), and that Havel’s funeral was also a state event, his funeral Mass can be read as occupying the confluence of historical Church and state space in which his own life unfolded.
Second, Havel was respected by the Vatican and the Czech Catholic hierarchy for the anti-communist role he played alongside Blessed John Paul II, who “greatly admired” Havel, according to biographer George Weigel.
Havel, a writer and playwright like the Pope, came to political prominence through his leadership of Charter 77, a human rights petition launched publicly in 1977 calling on the communist regime to respect its international commitments especially regarding public expression, access to information and religious conviction. Among the signers were 12 Catholic priests and 15 Protestant clergymen. The regime systematically harassed, even jailed, people affiliated with the movement. Havel spent a total of almost five years in jail.
In 1978, the newly elected Pope, John Paul II encouraged the aging archbishop of Prague, Frantisek Tomasek, to assert the Church more strongly against the regime, which he did, including offering support to Charter 77. The movement brought together such a range of people that the main organizers agreed to use a set of three spokesmen simultaneously: a former Marxist, a representative of “independent culture” (a role Havel assumed) and a Catholic or Protestant Christian.
‘I Am Participating in a Miracle’
The experience of Christians and secular dissidents working together on behalf of liberty was a formative experience for all of them — and led to strong relationships. For example, one of the priests at Havel’s funeral was Auxiliary Bishop Vaclav Maly, an early Charter 77 signer who was ordained in 1976, then forbidden by the state from serving the Church in 1979 — so he worked in the boiler room of a hotel. (In Czechoslovakia, the state insisted on the right to “license” priests. They revoked licenses of those who explicitly stood up against the regime.) The priest was a Charter 77 spokesman between 1981 and 1982 and remained Havel’s close friend.
Four months after the so-called Velvet Revolution that brought down the Communists and elevated Havel to the presidency on Dec. 29, 1989, Pope John Paul II came to Czechoslovakia. Greeting him at the airport, Havel’s language was steeped in eloquent reverence:
I am not sure I know what a miracle is. In spite of this, I dare say…I am participating in a miracle: in a country devastated by the ideology of hatred, the messenger of love has arrived; in a country devastated by the government of the ignorant the living symbol of culture has arrived. ... I have the honor of witnessing the moment in which its soil is kissed by the apostle of spirituality.” [Witness to Hope, p. 611]
The two men met at least five times, and Havel attended the Pope’s funeral, although he had left political office.
Outspoken Foe of Atheism
Finally, the Church’s public embrace of Havel is also a function of his many post-presidential statements in sync with Catholic perception and values. He has increasingly spoken out against atheism — last year, he told an international conference in Prague, “[W]e are living in the first atheistic civilization, in other words, a civilization that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity…”
He has also encouraged heroic Catholic anti-communists around the world, such as Oswaldo Paya, founder of the Christian Liberation Movement in Cuba.
Of course, Havel might have returned to Christ’s sacred heart in the privacy of his last months or days, which would truly warrant the full-on liturgy he received. Certainly, spiritual issues continued to engage him: One of his last meetings was with the Dalai Lama.
Still, the probable failure of this admirable leader to complete a spiritual journey back to the faith of his youth is tragic. Religious faith is in drastically short supply in the Czech Republic, one of Europe’s most secular countries.
The most recent Czech census found a 30% drop in people identifying themselves as Roman Catholic between 1991 and 2001 — from 39% to 27%. According to a respected 2005 survey, only 19% of the population believes in God while 50% report belief in “some sort of spirit or life force” and 30% do not believe in “any sort of spirit, god, or life force.” Meanwhile, in Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic in 1993, more than twice as many people (60%) identify as Roman Catholic.
Vaclav Havel was a courageous, visionary political leader, familiar with Catholic thought and instinctively convinced that human life draws meaning from a transcendent reality. That said, he provided no model of holiness for others struggling to define “Spirit.”
The situation brings to mind a poetic passage from the 1967 encyclical Gaudium et Spes, quoted in the Catechism (1707):
Man is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.
Kim Jong Il, 69, allegedly died Dec. 17 as a result of a heart attack on a train outside the capital city of Pyongyang, although Western intelligence sources are already raising doubts about the account.
He inherited leadership of North Korea upon the 1994 death of his father, Moscow-trained Kim Il Song, who brought Stalinist communism to the peninsula in 1948. Thus, North Korea was the first country to implement dynastic communism, although Cuba practices a form of nepotistic communism dominated by the Castro brothers.
Because the state is highly secretive and largely closed from the rest of the world, little is known about Kim Jong Il. Media accounts portray an odd individual, a combination of eccentric egotist and diabolical strategist. He was a fanatical film buff with a collection of 20,000 Hollywood films, a devoted gourmet who favored expensive cognac and lobster, and a vain man, who wore platform shoes to compensate for his 5-foot 3-inch stature.
But he was also a brutal ruler who supported terrorist acts against South Korea, maintained a system of concentration camps for suspected opponents and their families, and supervised the development of a nuclear arsenal — conducting the country’s first nuclear test, underground, in 2006 — with the potential to seriously destabilize the region, if not the world.
Demonstrating a pathological indifference to the fate of the North Korean people, Kim opted to concentrate state resources on his military expansion — making it the fifth largest military in the world — even in the face of a devastating famine in the 1990s that killed between 1 million and 3.5 million people as a result of economic mismanagement, natural disasters and the “military first” policy.
There’s little good, and plenty of evil that emerges in the picture of Kim’s reign, especially from detailed accounts from recent defectors.
Yet, how can we understand this depravity? Why would God allow the mass oppression of an innocent people? We must have faith in the larger logic.
As St. Augustine writes, “For almighty God … because he is so supremely good, would never allow any evil whatsoever to exist in his works if he were not so all-powerful and good as to cause good to emerge from evil itself.”
This observation is quoted in the Catechism, which goes on to assure us, “In time we can discover that God, in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures” (312).
The status of Christianity in North Korea is murky, like everything else. The Church functions underground, if at all, because those who are publicly identified as Christians are killed or sent to concentration camps. There are reportedly some 100,000 Catholics in prison, and no known priests or nuns. Until 2005, Kim Jong Il was supposedly lax in punishing Christians, and missionaries entered the country through south China, but over the last five years, the ruler cracked down because he was afraid of declining belief in his own messianic cult.
Kim Il Song developed an ideology, Juche, meaning self reliance, that has a religious dimension, requiring that he be worshiped, even in death. His son, Kim Jong Il, is deified as the son of God, supposedly born on Mount Paektu, under a double rainbow and a star (although Russian records demonstrate he was born in Siberia). Portraits of father and son are hung in every building and home. People are required to pledge allegiance to them, get married before them, worship them.
Kim Il Song’s use of Christian iconography to shape his personal cult is undoubtedly related to his familiarity with Christianity, because both his parents were Presbyterians, well known in the Christian community in the 1940s — his mother’s name, Ban-sok, is the Korean name for Peter, which is also given to girls.
According to the Catholic news service Asia News, his parents were devout Christians. Kim Il Song, was convinced by Stalin to eradicate religion when he took power. But some well-placed defectors, including Kim Hyun-sik at Yale University, report that the dictator asked his doctor to pray for him before a surgery and then prayed together.
Before the imposition of communism and before the Korean War, Christianity was spreading rapidly on the peninsula; two-thirds of the Christians lived in the north, but moved south to avoid persecution when Kim Il Song took power. Some 300,000 disappeared. Today, South Korea has probably the strongest — and most diverse — Christian community in Asia. According to the 2005 census, 29% of the population is Christian, 10% Catholic. Astoundingly, there are more Christians than people practicing traditional religions. Only the U.S. sends more Christian missionaries around the world than South Korea.
The Kim family is trying to perpetuate its dynasty: Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Un, 28, has been declared the next leader, ruling in collaboration with the army and an uncle. Most regional analysts consider the arrangement to be unstable.
Although little is known about Kim Jong Un, he was educated at the International School of Berne, Switzerland (under an assumed name, as did his two older brothers) where classes were conducted in English. According to the Swiss weekly L’Hebdo, he became friendly with schoolmates from American diplomatic families and also learned French and German. American basketball and action films were among his interests.
Groomed for fewer than two years, it is hard to imagine the Korean population deifying this young man.
North Korea expert Aidan Foster-Carter told the Register that he considers the practice or power of Juche to be in decline. A leading U.S. analyst, Ralph Cossa, noted that many North Korean defectors convert to Christianity after they escape.
Victor Gaetan received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba. He writes from Washington, D.C.