Warsaw Confession

THE POLISH CHURCH, THE POPE & THE PAST

The dramatic resignation last month of Bishop Stanislaw Wielgus at his investiture Mass as archbishop of Warsaw has raised the most serious questions about the integrity of both the Polish church and the Vatican. I have considerable personal sympathy for those Polish priests and bishops like Wielgus whose cooperation, or even outright collaboration, with the secret police during the Communist era is now being revealed and universally condemned. I served with at least one of the now-accused priests on an international board for Christian-Jewish dialogue and still consider him a friend.

The pressure to cooperate with the secret police during Poland’s long subjugation under Soviet-imposed communism was pervasive. On one of my lecture tours of Poland during the Communist era, the vice rector of a seminary told me of the pressure exerted on him to act as an informer on other priests in exchange for permission to study in Rome. During the same era, I myself had to undergo demeaning interviews at the Polish Consulate in Chicago to obtain a visa so I could participate in several theological conferences in Poland. It was not an easy period for any priest in Poland who wished to study abroad or to maintain international connections, and no one expected the end of the Communist era in their lifetime. It is perhaps too easy for those of us lucky enough not to have lived under a totalitarian regime to judge decisions made by men and women faced with impossible choices.

Priestly collaboration with the government, of course, was not a secret to Poles. The crucial distinction between compromising cooperation and outright collaboration, however, needs to be kept in mind. In evaluating the moral culpability of the Polish church, the focus should be on those who collaborated and whose collaboration harmed others.

One can never condone collaboration with evil, especially if that collaboration is extended over a long period of time. Some compromise may be inevitable when an institution or an individual’s very existence is at stake. Not everyone can take the heroic stance of outright resistance and protest, even though such witness remains critical for the overall health of the church.

The revelations of collaboration raise many questions, not the least of which is how these accusations will be used to gain contemporary political advantage. As far as the Polish church is concerned, though, the most pressing question is whether seminary education during the Communist period adequately prepared priests for the trying political situation they confronted. Certainly it did for many, but it now appears there were significant failures as well. Cardinal Józef Glemp estimates that 10 to 15 percent of Poland’s priests collaborated with the Communist authorities. This number includes at least a dozen bishops. The problem, then, was not only personal; it was institutional. Polish seminary education put a premium on the observance of external rules. This was in large part intended to weed out government spies. In hindsight, however, one wonders if this doctrinaire approach allowed for the development of the kind of internal moral commitment, both spiritual and intellectual, priests needed. This in turn raises questions about the quality of seminary education today. Are Polish seminary leaders adequately preparing students for the different but still demanding challenges of the priesthood in a democratic state and a pluralistic European Union? My guess is that the current seminary system, which has not changed appreciably, will prove even less satisfactory in preparing priests for an increasingly secular and materialistic culture. I fear that Polish Catholicism, long held up as a paradigmatic example of Catholic cohesion and fidelity, may not be able to contribute to the revitalization of Christian faith throughout Europe envisioned by Pope Benedict XVI.

Piotr Mazurkiewicz (“The Polish Paradox,” Commonweal, January 12), on the other hand, argues that Poland, despite its many problems, may still offer a model for the restoration of the church’s influence in Europe. I agree that the potential is there, but I think Mazurkiewicz is too defensive in his analysis of the dynamics of Polish politics, Catholicism, and culture. What is unique and often inspiring about the Polish perspective is also what is problematic about it. As I wrote in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza at the time of John Paul II’s death, the Polish church must resist a growing temptation to insularity and religio-nationalism, and it must fully embrace the vision of Vatican II, particularly its Declaration on Religious Liberty. This includes rejecting the religious nationalism endorsed by the governing Polish political leadership and the brand of Catholicism promoted by the Catholic-inspired Radio Maryja. Radio Maryja is now being broadcast in the United States and in the United Kingdom, where it’s anti-Semitic and right-wing ideology is rightly raising alarms. Whether the Polish church is up to the challenges posed by modern democracy remains a question. Until it comes to grips with the history of clerical collaboration and with the persistence of anti-Semitism among some Catholics, its moral authority will remain suspect.

As a result, much depends on how the institutional church in Poland and the Vatican respond to this crisis. The initial reaction of the Polish episcopate was not encouraging. The hierarchy first tried to bury information about collaboration. In the words of Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz of Krakow, the bishops were concerned that the faithful’s love of Christ and the church not be undermined. Fortunately, the cardinal eventually did something of an about-face and endorsed public disclosure, and the full bishops’ conference established a commission that will examine the Communist-era backgrounds of priests and bishops. Only time will tell how open and thorough these procedures will be.

Contradictory statements have been issued by the Vatican concerning what Wielgus told the pope about the extent of his collaboration. Some observers charge the bishop with lying. In any event, Benedict himself has not spoken forthrightly, at least in public, about the situation. His reticence fits a familiar pattern. Like his dubious remarks last spring at Auschwitz about the responsibility that Germans bore for Nazism and the Holocaust, Benedict seems to regard the record of clerical collaboration with the Communists as at most a fringe reality.

The pope’s defenders argue that Benedict is rightly hesitant to condemn the actions of previous generations faced with agonizing moral choices. John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter has written that Benedict’s willingness to accept Wielgus’s resignation immediately was taken by Poles as a sign the pope was in fact determined to hold the Polish church and the Vatican bureaucracy accountable. In the aftermath of the sexual-abuse crisis, Allen speculates, Benedict “is learning something about crisis management.” Perhaps. Yet a number of Polish priests and Catholic intellectuals think the pope needs to do more. Most important, he needs to acknowledge publicly that collaboration was not merely on the fringes but at the core of the institutional church. Benedict could show real leadership by urging the Polish church to undertake a genuine “truth and reconciliation” process. But as former Vatican Radio reporter David Gibson reminds us in The Rule of Benedict, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger was critical of John Paul’s willingness to ask for forgiveness for the church’s public sins, whether those sins concerned anti-Semitism, collaboration with oppressive or colonial regimes, or Vatican suppression of new scientific thought. As theologian, cardinal, and pope, Benedict has consistently played down the church’s historical and moral failings.

The pope speaks often, and compellingly, about the reevangelization of Europe. But the church cannot realistically expect to reemerge as a strong moral and spiritual voice in Poland, in Europe, and more widely in an increasingly interconnected world until it fully acknowledges the moral implications of its historical sins. John Paul II gave us a model for how institutions, religious or otherwise, can honestly confront their dark side and restore their integrity. Yet even he may have failed to confront adequately the scandal of priestly collaboration in Poland. Benedict can either follow in John Paul’s footsteps or he can turn away from that admittedly difficult path. In the end, only the former course will prove healthy for the church in Poland and the church universal. Pope Benedict’s next appointment to the episcopate in Warsaw will tell us a great deal about how he intends to deal with these critical issues.

Published in the 2007-02-09 issue: 

Rev. John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, is professor of social ethics and director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.

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