FOR the Roman Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe, the
40-plus years of communism, in the words of Pope John Paul II
during his recent trip to Poland, were "times most profoundly
marked by suffering."
Under communism, Catholicism and other religions were widely
In the immediate aftermath of communism's 1989 implosion, the
mood of persecution gave way to hope. Led by the Polish pontiff,
the church looked to quickly reestablish itself as the preeminent
spiritual force in the region. But events over the past five years
have caused those early hopes to fade. In the post-communist era,
the Church has run into difficulty in conveying its message to the
"Under communism it was easier for the church to determine what
was more moral and immoral. Everything linked to communism was
immoral. Now it's not so clear," said Jakub Karpinski, an expert on
Poland who is based at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague.
If anything, the church has lost influence in a region that
includes the staunchly Catholic nations of Poland, Slovakia, and
Lithuania, political observers say. In particular, the church in
Poland (95 percent Catholic), a major political force during the
communist era, has seen a significant erosion of influence.
"Communism paradoxically was a time of tremendous influence for
the church," Mr. Karpinski said. "With more freedom in every
domain, a certain secularization has developed."
To a certain extent the loosening of the church's authority in
Central Europe is a natural phenomenon, political observers say. In
Poland, the church before 1989 was the only institution that
retained a large degree of independence from communist authorities.
As virtually the only outlet for dissent, religious worship for
some served as a form of political expression. Thus, church
positions on issues could influence political debates.
The church still possesses a strong voice in Polish politics,
Mr. Karpinski and others say, but it nonetheless has lost its
appeal for some, who have found other forums for expression,
The secularization trend is a source of disappointment for the
pope. During his recent trips to Central Europe - a visit in May to
the Czech Republic and Poland, and his just-completed trip to
Slovakia - the pope despaired at the lack of the church's influence
over the development of formerly communist countries.
"An ever-more powerful intolerance is actually spreading in
public life," the pope said during his Polish trip in a reference
to antichurch feelings. The faithful, the pontiff added, "notice
the increasing tendency to marginalize them from the life of the