In Other Words

Poland’s Compromised Church

Komunisci i Kosciol w Polsce, 1945–1989 (Communists and the Church in Poland, 1945–1989) By Antoni Dudek and Ryszard Gryz 462 pages, Krakow: Znak, 2003 (in Polish) When Poland’s new Stalinist boss, Boleslaw Bierut, took his presidential oath in 1947, the Communist authorities demanded the Polish Catholic Church mark the occasion by holding special masses and ...

Komunisci i Kosciol w Polsce, 1945–1989
(Communists and the Church in Poland, 1945–1989)

By Antoni Dudek and Ryszard Gryz
462 pages, Krakow: Znak, 2003 (in Polish)

When Poland’s new Stalinist boss, Boleslaw Bierut, took his presidential oath in 1947, the Communist authorities demanded the Polish Catholic Church mark the occasion by holding special masses and by tolling the church bells. After some haggling, the church agreed to the masses, though without the bishop’s bells.

This incident, recounted in Communists and the Church in Poland, 1945–1989, is a good illustration of the complex relationship between the Marxist government and the Catholic hierarchy. Still a powerful symbol of national resistance for the majority of Poles, the church actually pursued a more pragmatic path and chose its battles against the regime with its own interests clearly in mind. The end of the struggle against communism has brought into much sharper relief the tensions dividing the church from the secular democratic forces that were its putative ally during the Cold War years.

Authors Antoni Dudek and Ryszard Gryz, both prominent Polish academics whose previous works have also focused on the church and communism, clearly do not want to offend either the church or the feelings of this predominantly Catholic nation, which still sees the church as a collective hero unblemished by compromise or weakness. Indeed, released by a publishing house closely connected with the church, this book is hardly a work of historical revisionism. And yet the sheer volume of facts and testimonies gathered by the authors has provoked a controversy by calling into question one of Poland’s most cherished national myths.

Many readers were shocked to learn about the many concessions and even outright acts of collaboration made by some Catholic priests and bishops. Priests cooperating with the police, often under duress, blackmail, or even physical pressure, were instrumental during at least two prominent political trials of church leaders. Even more disturbing to some readers was the pattern of curious codependence that seemingly developed between the Polish Catholic Church and its Marxist opponents.

From the very beginning, the Communists knew that a head-on collision with the church would render the country ungovernable and that the church’s popular clout was capital they could use for their own ends. They tried to weaken the church’s moral authority but often appealed to it when threatened by social unrest. The church in turn was quite willing to render such support to its ideological foe, if it felt a quid pro quo was on offer. For example, during the post-Stalinist "thaw," the church encouraged people to take part in the "elections" in 1957 in exchange for the return of religious instruction to Polish schools. The authors also note that while the church consistently demanded freedom of religious expression, it also petitioned the government to censor books, films, and theater productions whenever it found them objectionable on moral or religious grounds.

During all the social upheavals that Poland experienced between 1956 and 1980, the church acted with the highest caution: trying to protect its own interests, calling for social peace, and working to depoliticize the protest movements. Although it regularly spoke out on behalf of victims of Communist repression, the church also looked with mistrust at the budding democratic opposition taking shape in the mid-1970s. During the strikes of 1980, which led to the creation of Solidarity, the Polish primate delivered a homily calling on the protesters to return to work. Only when it became obvious that the protesters could not be mollified did the church become partially involved in the movement in an effort to ensure its "Christian character" and to neutralize the influence of liberal opposition figures, like the prominent dissident Jacek Kuron.

The church insisted that the goal of the new independent trade union should be a moral and spiritual transformation of the nation rather than a reform of its political system. After the Communist crackdown in December 1981, the church established a wide support network for political prisoners, unemployed activists, and even underground Solidarity leaders. At the same time, however, the church almost certainly participated in secret negotiations with the regime, which led to the partial abdication of Poland’s Communist rulers in 1989. The scope and substance of these contacts remain largely a matter of conjecture, and the authors of Communists and the Church sadly do not provide any new data. The truth is probably buried deep in the state and church archives.

Although the authors do not address the ideological and philosophical disputes that arose in the church-state-opposition triangle, their book makes one ponder the larger political vision of the leaders of the Polish Catholic Church. Adam Michnik, a dissident who is now editor in chief of the main Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, issued an underground treatise called Kosciol, Lewica, Dialog (The Church and the Left), published in Paris in 1977, in which he claimed that the church was a natural ally of the secular, liberal opposition. He argued that the church understood the moral and historical implications of communism earlier and more accurately than the democratic left, while the years under communism had opened it up to new ideas and rid it of its old clerical and authoritarian tendencies. 

As always, the truth is somewhat more complex. Even if the church adopted some of the liberal political vocabulary, it was actually struggling against a different enemy than the secular democratic opposition. The latter saw communism as a totalitarian dictatorship suppressing all the basic liberal values-civil rights, freedom of speech and intellectual inquiry, cultural pluralism, individual liberty, and tolerance. The church, meanwhile, perceived communism as a baleful culmination of precisely the liberal tradition that Michnik and his colleagues were trying to restore. It certainly did not envision post-Communist Poland as a theocracy, but the church saw itself, at least, as the moral regulator of the free market of ideas and values and as a guardian of authority and hierarchy against the seeming chaos of the liberal polity. The church planned to play this role not only through persuasion but also by seeking influence on the public institutions of a future democratic Poland.

The doctrinal differences between the church and the liberals surfaced almost immediately after the fall of communism and remain a key factor in Polish politics. The church quickly moved to restore its old prerogatives in education, culture, and other areas of civic life. Religious instruction and religious symbols returned to public schools, a semireligious preamble was added to the Polish constitution, more restrictive antiabortion laws were demanded, and the Polish media faced constant scrutiny for anti-Christian ideas, or messages that were purportedly offensive to the sensibilities of the nation’s "Christian majority." [See "Would Jesus Join the EU?" Foreign Policy, May/June 2003.]

The church’s self-directed moral supervision of Poland’s democratic institutions has resulted in two contradictory phenomena. On one hand, there has been a visible anticlerical reaction, with griping about the church’s political meddling, and a rapid secularization of a large part of Polish society, especially among the young. Witness the recent polls showing that 52 percent of Poles with college degrees believe the church has too much influence on Polish life. Poles may still be a religious people, but fewer of them define their religiosity according to Catholic dogma and church attendance. And the observance of religious ceremonies has markedly declined.

On the other hand, recent years have seen an unprecedented mobilization of a hard-core, anti-liberal, increasingly frustrated Catholic fundamentalist minority. The growth of this movement is exemplified by the success of a media empire established in the early 1990s by an obscure priest, Tadeusz Rydzyk. His flagship enterprise, Radio Maryja, is today one of the most popular broadcast operations in Poland, and his Lux Veritatis Foundation was licensed in February 2003 to establish a national TV network. In recent years, the Polish Catholic episcopate, aware that the church is rapidly squandering its moral authority, has tried to adopt a more moderate stance and to distance itself from Rydzyk’s obscurantist, nationalist, and antidemocratic message.

The split between secularists and clericalists, however, is growing and threatens not only the position of the church but also the cohesiveness of Poland’s democratic polity. An open, vigorous debate on the church’s political legacy in Poland is long overdue. Communists and the Church may be a good starting point for such a debate. It remains unclear, however, if Poland’s Catholic Church and liberal intelligentsia can muster enough objectivity to make that healthy exchange happen.

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