Polish Catholics unbound


Warsaw,Poland -- OF ALL of the role changes in Poland today, none is stranger than that of the long-revered Polish Roman Catholic Church. Having faced down the Soviet Union, it is now confronting Europe with a similar hostility.

Pope John Paul II made that rather abundantly clear during his most recent "new-wave" visit to Poland. So different from his earlier ones in 1979, 1983 and 1987 supporting Solidarity's fight against communism, this trip found him urging his fellow Poles to reconsider the wiles of the West, begging them to "not let yourself get caught up by this civilization of desire and consumption."

Or, as one knowledgeable Western diplomat put it: "The church here, like everybody else, is trying to reformulate its new role. As long as the Catholics were fighting the communists, the local definition of Catholicism was 'Europe' -- because communism was ipso facto from the East. But, once the communists were beaten, it began to appear that the definition of Catholicism might not be so clear.

At the same time, the pope's newest message was often confusing. For in his meetings here in June -- from Warsaw to his home city of Krakow, to Radom and Koszalin -- he grew notably angry at even the very suggestion that it was now time for Poland to "re-enter" Europe. The pontiff's voice rose with emotion as he cried out: "We do not have to enter Europe, because we helped to create it and we did so with greater effort than those who claim a monopoly on Europeanism, on exclusiveness . . . Poland has been part of Europe for 1,000 years."

What exactly is happening here?

While the vast majority (95 percent) of the Polish people consider themselves Catholics, there is now a profound schism opening over social issues and in particular over the Catholic Church's attempts in the "new Poland" to outlaw abortion, as well as its successful attempt last summer to reinstate religious education in the public schools without even parliamentary approval.

Indeed, the polls are clear as to why the Catholic Church in Poland has slipped to the bottom of the approval ratings, while the Polish army's has soared to the top. With 600,000 abortions a year (roughly as many as live births) and a new church-pressured ban on government-subsidized birth control pills, it is not surprising that 71 percent of Poles surveyed said that the church has no right to demand submission on abortion. That percentage was matched by 81 percent saying it had no right to demand submission on contraceptives, 61 percent on extramarital relations and 63 percent on divorce. Poles obviously do not want Poland to become a socially restrictive Ireland of Central Europe.

This may seem a strange and plebeian end to the pope's great quest in Eastern Europe. Well before martial law ended Solidarity's freedom in December 1981, the pope had been pushing diligently to unite the Western church with the estranged Catholic and Uniate churches behind the Iron Curtain. Solidarity he looked upon as a model for the entire Eastern bloc, a model of organized Catholics burrowing passionately from within totalitarianism. By the summer of 1982, he felt even Solidarity had failed -- but it had not.

Now he is searching beyond the fall of totalitarianism and the birth of democracy in Poland and in the East. Now he is crying out for Poland to be an "island of Catholic piety," an example of morality, justice and the "common good" for both the troubled East and consumerist, secular Western Europe, which he says has "passed the stage of looking for God."

The pontiff is not alone in being appalled at the often-overwhelming expressions of Western media values, in particular the sensationalist press. I heard this shock here, from former communists; I heard it in East Germany, where serious West German papers such as "Die Welt" are barely selling, compared to the trash of the worst media culture. Increasingly people are saying -- ironically -- under communism we were protected from these poisonings of the mind!

Actually the situation was to be expected. Once freed, the Poles were bound to redirect their search, which had used well the power of the Catholic Church against totalitarianism, toward a decent secular life within governmental and church boundaries. But the pope still dreams of something else: his Poland as a searchlight for a moral awakening.

Actually, the fighting, transformational part of the Polish Catholic Church is now going into hibernation. As Father Henryk Brunka, the spokesman for the episcopate of the Roman Catholic Church here, told me as we discussed the new contradictions, "One of the structural elements of the church is that the church is a sign of protest." At all times? "Yes," he answered. "It is a sign of protest, which becomes active in society when something is wrong with the situation."

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