Winter 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3

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Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Faith and Values Down the Tube

The GOP's Religion Problem

There's a Muslim in the House

Onward Christian Soldiers

Status Kuo

Warsaw Loses an Archbishop

The Pope Takes a Dive

The Gospel According to Hugo

Borat's Religious Provocations



Warsaw Loses an Archbishop
by 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 authorities.

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 Rome.

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 communism.

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 life.

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 Communist authority.

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 secret police.

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 anything important.”

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 former rulers.

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 incriminating records.

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 incriminating dossiers.

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 politics.)

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 authority.

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 church.

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.


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