Loses an Archbishop
Samuel D. Kassow
The “Wielgus Affair”—the hurried resignation of
Warsaw’s new archbishop after disclosures of contacts with the Communist-era
secret police—has shaken the Polish Catholic church and prompted new
questions about its leadership and its role in Europe’s most devout nation.
The overflow crowd that crammed Warsaw’s
venerable St. John’s Cathedral to attend the formal installation of
Stanislaw Wojciech Wielgus as Warsaw’s new archbishop January 7 gasped in
astonishment at the sudden cancellation of the ceremony. Instead of an
inaugural Mass, Wielgus announced that he had just tendered his resignation
to Pope Benedict XVI.
President Lech Kaczynski, a self-proclaimed
friend of the church, began to applaud but quickly stopped when he heard
shouts of support for the archbishop. In a tense and angry sermon, Cardinal
Jozef Glemp, the Polish primate, staunchly defended Wielgus and hinted that
he had fallen victim to a media lynching.
But liberal Catholic journals such as Wiez
and Tygodnik Powszechny broke ranks with Glemp and warned that
Wielgus lacked the moral authority to assume his new post. It was not a good
week for the Polish Catholic church.
And its headaches were just beginning.
The day after Wielgus stepped down, the church
announced the resignation of the Reverend Janusz Bielanski, rector of
Krakow’s prominent Wawel Cathedral, on similar charges. Then, at the end of
February, Rev. Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski published his long-awaited book
alleging that 39 priests in the Krakow Archdiocese—including three
bishops—had collaborated with the secret police.
Father Tadeusz had, to put it mildly, received
little encouragement from his superiors for his historical research. They
had, he revealed, advised him to burn his notes.
Historians estimate that as many as 10 to 15
percent of the Polish clergy cooperated in some way with the Communist
The Wielgus Affair began on December 6, when
Pope Benedict announced the appointment of the 67-year-old bishop of Plock
and a former rector of the Catholic University of Lublin to head the Warsaw
archdiocese. Immediately, ugly rumors began to surface about Wielgus’ past
ties to the police—rumors that he angrily denied.
On December 20, the right-wing newspaper
Gazeta Polska published documents that compromised Wielgus, and the
church’s own historical commission soon raised questions of its own. The
following day, the Vatican Press Office declared that the pope had heard the
allegations but stated that “the Holy Father has full trust” in Wielgus and
was appointing him as pastor of the archdiocese “with full awareness.”
At the same time, the Polish bishops conference
attacked the newspapers that aired the rumors. “This situation is especially
offensive in the case of a man of the church,” the conference warned. Even
if a priest had “conversations” with the police, that did not imply
culpability or collaboration.
As the pressure mounted, however, Wielgus began
to backtrack on his earlier denials. Two days before the planned
installation, he admitted that “during a moment of weakness” he had signed a
“promise of cooperation” in order to get permission to study philosophy in
Germany in the 1970s.
That mistake, he said, would haunt him for the
rest of his life, and he asked the public to forgive him. But he adamantly
insisted that although he furnished information on contacts abroad, he never
passed on anything of value and never caused anyone actual harm.
On Friday night or Saturday, January 5 or 6, the
Vatican did an abrupt about-face. Pope Benedict told Wielgus to invoke Canon
401/2 and resign for the good of the church. With dumbfounded observers
asking how the Polish church and the Vatican had allowed such a fiasco to
happen, sources close to the pope strongly hinted that Wielgus had misled
The Wielgus Affair has come at a sensitive time
for the church in Poland. The revered Polish pope, John Paul II, is gone,
and his passing has deprived the church of a major source of legitimacy and
authority as it faces the challenges brought on by the collapse of
Simply put, it has proved much harder to lead a
liberated people than an oppressed one.
During centuries of national subjugation, the
Polish church became a basic pillar of Polish identity—with both positive
and negative consequences. Even as the Catholic faith imbued many with
sublime idealism and readiness for self-sacrifice, insistence on Roman
Catholicism as the basic hallmark of Polishness led many Poles to regard
those of other faiths (especially Jews) as aliens and potential enemies. Yet
few Poles—including those who despised chauvinism and anti-Semitism—could
deny that the church was the single most important institution in Polish
Its prestige grew markedly during the 45 years
of Communist rule, and was particularly enhanced by the election of Cardinal
Karol Wojtyla as pope in 1978 and the rise of the Solidarity movement two
years later. Catholic worship and symbols were an integral part of
Solidarity, as it built a civil society that undercut what was left of
But Solidarity’s unity was always fragile,
because while Poles could agree on what they hated, they were deeply divided
about their country’s future. For that matter, the church itself was far
from monolithic during this period. Thus, while some elements in the church
encouraged narrow nationalism and xenophobia, leading Catholic intellectuals
like Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Jerzy Turowicz, and Jan Blonski took the lead
in encouraging Polish-Jewish dialogue and an honest look at a painful past.
At first, these divisions were less important
than the national determination to resist the regime. During the 1980s,
Poles increasingly saw Solidarity as the natural heir of the Armia Krajowa
(AK), the anti-Nazi Home Army of World War II. Like the AK, Solidarity
reminded a people battered by adversity that they were indeed the “Christ of
Nations” whose refusal to surrender to evil would turn into a symbol not
only of national honor but also of universal redemption.
Although this grand narrative of resistance and
defiance helped the Poles persevere under various tyrannies, it was not
entirely accurate. Unsurprisingly, only a distinct minority became active
fighters against the forces of oppression. While the fighters enjoyed the
majority’s tacit support, the fact remains that most Poles simply tried to
live their lives and stay out of trouble.
This was true during the Nazi occupation and
even more under communism. As many as 2 million Poles joined the Polish
United Workers Party not because they were committed Marxists but because
they wanted jobs, access to material comforts, and a chance to travel. And
even those who stayed aloof from the party could not ignore the omnipresent
It was not systematic terror that made the
system evil. The Communists had some brutal murders on their conscience
(such as the killing of Father Jerzy Popieluszko in 1984), but the Polish
People’s Republic did not rely on terror, especially after the Poznan
workers’ uprising of 1956. Instead, it ensnared millions of ordinary people
in a system of moral corruption and compromise: a phone call to meet with a
police agent, a request to sign a “promise of cooperation.”
Refusal meant the loss of a job, a ban on
foreign travel, or the expulsion of a son or daughter from the university.
So why not sign? Many did, telling themselves that they would not “give them
So what the Wielgus Affair did was expose the
tensions between the Poles’ view of their collective identity and the
understandable but less heroic record of most citizens. Indeed, many Poles
sympathized with Wielgus because they had faced the same dilemmas. And even
as some define the church by its alleged heroism, others want it to stress
its traditional identity as a collective of flawed individuals who can seek
and find forgiveness and understanding.
But how far should this spirit of forgiveness
go? The price that Poland paid for a smooth transition from communism to
democracy was a tacit agreement not to confront the past or arrest the
When Communist rule ended in 1989, there was no
revolution, no barricades, no shooting in the streets. Instead, Communists
and Solidarity leaders met around a table and hammered out a compromise.
Communists gave up power. Anti-communists gave
up dreams of revenge. Former party members kept top jobs in government,
academia, and business. Many nimbly hopped onto the privatization bandwagon
and got rich. They did not have to worry about their police files or about
Unfortunately, the transition had its losers as
well as winners. The closing of obsolete factories led to mass unemployment.
Young people emigrated in droves to other countries to find work. Rural
regions suffered terribly. Unemployed Poles who had gone to jail or who had
fought for freedom were outraged to find their former jailers now occupying
comfortable positions in government and the corporate world.
What became the flashpoint and split the
political establishment was lustration—the vetting of former collaborators
with the Communist regime.
One camp, dominant for most of the 1990s, urged
moderation and caution: Better to look to the future and not plunge the
country into the searing ordeal of witch hunts and mutual recrimination.
Yes, punish those who were directly involved in murder and torture. But
think twice before going after the hundreds of thousands with potentially
In fact, lustration raised basic issues of
fairness. The secret police often lied to their superiors in order to
burnish their own records. It was in their interest to show off the agents
they recruited and the information they garnered. Should a life be ruined by
the scribbled notes of a police agent written 30 years before? How reliable
were the files?
Behind the scenes, Pope John Paul II strongly
supported the policy of moderation, especially when it concerned the church.
So did Cardinal Glemp during his impassioned and angry sermon in the
cathedral on January 7:
“Today, with too much haste it can be said that
[Wielgus] was involved in these affairs, but we do not know what pressure
was exerted on him, what methods were used to force him to sign a
transaction, something which is legally invalid for being carried out under
threats or intimidations. Today there is only talk of an event without
giving thought to the circumstances. Moreover, we do not know in what way
the secret service got rid of the servant who was useless to them. The
documents say nothing about this.
“At present a judgment has been expressed on the
person of Archbishop Wielgus. But what type of judgment is it if it is based
on pieces of paper and documents copied three times? We do not want such
judgments and courts! If there are accusations against a person, they must
be articulated and the accused must be given the possibility to defend
himself. However, first of all, there must be defenders, witnesses,
documents submitted for verification of their authenticity.”
At issue was not only how to confront the past
but also two starkly differing views of Poland’s future.
The first saw Poland as a cosmopolitan nation, a
proud member of the European Union integrated into the world economy.
Opposing this were many Poles who decried the corrosive impact of
materialism, secularization, and a loss of traditional values. The Poles had
shaped their unique culture, based on religion and love of family and
church. Were they going to throw that away for the cheap comforts of fast
food and fancy cars?
To be sure, Poles voted overwhelmingly to join
the European Union in 2003, and had the strong support of John Paul II in
doing so. But, in fact, the Polish church was deeply divided on the issue.
Many priests, especially in rural areas, opposed
membership. Radio Maryja, a conservative and anti-Semitic Catholic radio
station, openly urged a no vote and Glemp himself was notably lukewarm. With
the passing of John Paul II, these conservative trends in the church have
had freer rein.
Fed up with corruption and high unemployment,
Poles elected the strongly pro-Catholic Lech Kaczynski as president in late
2005. He and his identical twin brother Jaroslaw (both former well-known
child actors) had founded the strongly conservative and highly nationalistic
Law and Justice Party in 2001.
As mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski drew
criticism for trying to ban a gay rights parade in the summer of 2005. In
his inaugural speech as president, he attacked corruption and materialism
for sapping the nation’s spirit and called for a return to Catholic and
traditional national values—in short, for a Fourth Republic as a break with
the flawed Third Republic that had begun in 1989.
An aggressive lustration campaign became the
centerpiece of Kaczynski’s game plan. After forming a coalition government
with such right-wing parties as Self Defense and the League of Polish
Families, he urged passage of a law to expose former collaborators. Not
coincidentally, the law would prove to be a powerful weapon to discredit and
purge key figures in the nation’s political and business elites.
Kaczynski’s government at first enjoyed the
strong support of much of the Polish church, but the Wielgus Affair exposed
a deep rift between pro-lustration government nationalists and their
conservative Catholic allies, who strongly supported the embattled bishop.
For its part, Radio Maryja angrily blamed the
Wielgus Affair on a conspiracy of Masons, “philo-semites,” liberals, and
enemies of Poland who wanted to weaken the nation. The station warned that
Kaczynski and his conservative partners had made a “grave mistake” when they
supported Wielgus’ resignation. (It’s worth recalling that modern European
history offers many examples of tactical alliances between the Catholic
church and right-wing nationalists that foundered because each side
ultimately had a different view of the relationship between religion and
I was in Warsaw during that entire wild week in
January, and was at first surprised to find scrawled outside of the offices
of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, “JEWS: KEEP YOUR FILTHY HANDS
OFF OUR CHURCH.” Meanwhile, pro-Wielgus demonstrators could be heard
chanting, “We Want a Pole.” When I asked my Polish friends, they laughed and
patiently explained what the demonstrators meant.
So how did a pro-Catholic, conservative
government come to be pitted against the conservative factions of the church
itself? And why did liberal Catholic circles hail Wielgus’ resignation?
One answer concerns the church’s search for a
new role in a rapidly changing nation. Back in the heady days of Solidarity,
Poles went to church because they were Poles, and because it was a way to
show their contempt for the regime. Many of these churchgoers practiced
birth control, had premarital sex, and underwent abortions. But for them the
church was a lodestar and its leader, John Paul II, a beacon of moral
Today, while church attendance in Poland remains
the highest in Europe, priests look nervously at what happened in Quebec in
the 1970s and what is currently happening in Ireland. Will the Polish church
suffer the same decline?
Now that Poland is free, many former reasons for
going to Mass no longer exist. And opinion polls show overwhelming support
for premarital sex and contraception, especially among the young. Sixty
percent of Poles now believe that priests should stay out of politics.
For conservative Catholics, Wielgus promised
leadership that would stand firm on basic church principles and proudly
reaffirm the traditional bonds between Polish identity and Catholicism. The
government’s lustration campaign, useful as it might be to purge secular
elites, threatens to compromise the church at a time when it has to fight
for moral leadership against a tide of secularization and ebbing faith.
Liberal Catholics, on the contrary, decry the
authoritarian nature of the church and the tendency of the hierarchy to
dictate to the laity rather than consult. Polish Catholics, they say, are no
longer ignorant peasants. As the country looks to a new future in Europe, it
wants a church that, in the spirit of Vatican II, can offer both moral
guidance and flexibility.
If conservative Catholics see the Wielgus Affair
as a witch-hunt, liberals decry the church’s tendency to sweep dirt under
the rug and hush up scandal. Even as they support the duty of Christians to
forgive sinners, they also point out that in the past, Warsaw archbishops
had often provided models of heroism and leadership. Was Wielgus qualified
to follow in their footsteps?
On one point, however, there is little debate.
The Wielgus Affair signals a turning point in the history of the Polish
For Wielgus or against him, most Polish
Catholics do not want to see their country become just another secular
society. They know what the church meant to them in the past. What they
don’t know is what it will mean to them in the future.