Warsaw Confession: The Polish Church, the Pope & the Past

By Pawlikowski, John T. | Commonweal, February 9, 2007 | Go to article overview

Warsaw Confession: The Polish Church, the Pope & the Past


Pawlikowski, John T., Commonweal


The dramatic resignation last month of Bishop Stanis-law 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 Jozef 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. …

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