“The Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty,” observed Vaclav Havel in his 1994 address in Philadelphia, the birthplace of American democracy. “It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.”
A writer, activist and former president of the Czech Republic, who welcomed the participation of believers and atheists alike in the long struggle against the “totalitarian lie,” Havel died on Dec. 18. His death should prompt a reassessment of an emerging secular ideology that seeks to suppress faith-based values and witness from the public square.
Now more than ever, the legacy of this courageous man, a Catholic who survived persecution and imprisonment in his fight against the Soviet Empire, should inspire all people of good will to resist efforts to replace respect for fundamental truths enshrined in natural law with a “tyranny of relativism.” Those who doubt that this sea change is under way need only read his eulogy in Britain’s Guardian newspaper: Vaclav Havel, “whose spirited defiance of Soviet-imposed totalitarianism … [has] nothing to offer to the Czech or European experience of today.”
At the very least, that summary judgment should serve as a warning that the suppression of a continent’s religious legacy will soon lead to the sidelining of residual moral truths embedded in that faith. The inalienable dignity of the human person, for which Havel risked his life, is still under threat in new and insidious ways.
A gifted yet humble man, Havel employed his talents as a writer and activist to spearhead the Charter 77 movement that called on socialist regimes to actually fulfill their pledges to uphold fundamental human rights. He gained fame as a playwright whose sense of the absurd appealed to citizens who were raised on a diet of communist propaganda. But he was not a nihilist. “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed,” Havel said during one address.
As a moral and political leader in Eastern Europe, he appreciated the role of the Church as a powerful civil institution that mediated the dominance of the state, creating pockets of freedom. Indeed, the Church nurtured independent democratic activism precisely because she refused to make politics ultimate.
None of this was news to Pope John Paul II, a close ally of Havel’s, and it is not news to Pope Benedict XVI, who has repeatedly called on his fellow Europeans to embrace rather than repudiate their Christian roots. Let us hope that Vaclav Havel’s passing will lead secular and religious leaders to affirm their joint commitment to natural-law principles and revive their efforts to jointly defend human freedom at home and abroad.