The Catholic Church in Poland The Battle for Souls

The Roman Catholic Church sees itself as the custodian of Polish culture. Even today, it still carries weight in the nation's politics. But fewer and fewer people are obeying its commandments.

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Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp: A moral obligation
AFP

Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp: A moral obligation

Wilanów has joined the West. People who have made it in today's Poland move to this hightoned neighborhood on Warsaw's southern outskirts. People like the former president Aleksander Kwasniewski and his wife, Jolanta. Wilanów boasts trees, bike paths, reduced traffic zones and even receptacles for canine droppings - real rarities in a bustling, deafening city that is bursting at the seams.

From the midst of this showcase suburbia, massive concrete pillars rise toward the heavens. Cardinal Józef Glemp, Archbishop of Warsaw and Primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, has decreed that the Basilica of Our Lady of Divine Providence be erected here. It is the largest church construction project in Poland since Prussia, Russia and Austria carved up the country in the late 18th century. The dome will jut 200 feet into the sky.

The gentrified Poles sipping cappuccino in Wilanów's shopping arcades irreverently deride the cardinal's pet project as "Glemp's pyramid." The Primate of the Polish Roman Catholic Church hardly sees things that way. "After the collapse of communism, we have a moral obligation to build the cathedral," he has said. And not only God is on his side. Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczy'nski recently declared his solidarity: "The basilica is a project close to our hearts."

The church and state have been close allies in Poland since 966. And in the postcommunist era, as political analyst Dominik Hierlemann has argued, "The church has skillfully adapted to the new system, and remained one of the most powerful social and political organizations."

Nonetheless, the Polish episcopacy cannot simply assume that its followers will go where it leads. For centuries - through the country's multiple partitions, the Nazi occupation and the communist rule - the church fought to save the Polish nation, paying a heavy price in the process. Today it is fighting to prevent its flock from being shepherded to the verdant pastures of capitalism. A battle has begun, with minds and souls at stake: the new Poland, intoxicated by its freshly acquired wealth, is battling the millennium-old Roman Catholic Church.

Ninety-five percent of all Poles are Roman Catholics, and well over half say they attend mass at least once a week. The Poles, along with the Irish, are among the most pious members of the European Union. But the fact remains that "the majority of the Polish faithful have grown impervious to the moral teachings of the church," according to Warsaw sociologist Pawel Spiewak.

Almost three out of four young Polish Catholics approve of premarital sex. Tens of thousands skillfully circumvent the extremely harsh abortion laws. Experts estimate the number of illegal abortions per year at 80,000 to 200,000. And while Polish Pope John Paul II vigorously opposed the death penalty, some 70 percent of his compatriots want it reinstated, with the most vocal support coming from the nationalistic Catholic League of Polish Families. Sixty percent of Poles believe that priests should keep out of politics, that a strict line should be drawn between the pulpit and the state: a bitter pill for a church so deeply rooted in national tradition.

Take the fabled miracle of Jasna Góra. The Czestochowa monastery was locked in a life-and-death struggle in November 1655. An army of 3,000 heavily armed Protestants from Sweden laid siege to the cloister. Much of the kingdom, including Warsaw, Kraków and Poznan, had already been seized by the Scandinavians. Poland appeared to be vanquished. Fearing for their lives, those trapped inside the monastery prayed to the Virgin Mary - and miraculously survived the onslaught. The invaders were ultimately driven out of the country.

These events produced a cult of the Virgin Mary that is characteristic of Polish Catholicism. It also cemented the Counter-Reformation and reinforced the church's position in the state. One year later, in an outburst of religious and patriotic fervor, King Jan Kazimierz proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Poland.

But the Madonna's imputed power soon waned. By the end of the 18th century, Prussia, Russia and Austria had partitioned Poland. Above all during the occupation by the Russian Orthodox and Protestants in the west of the country, the Roman Catholic Church emerged as the guardian angel of all things Polish. From then on, being Catholic meant being Polish.

But during the Second Polish Republic, this equation no longer added up. Between the world wars, one-third of Poland was made up of ethnic and religious minorities. The concept that only Catholics could be true Poles became a rallying cry of the extreme right wing - and was used, for instance, to segregate the Jewish population. The farther the Warsaw government tended to the right in the 1930s, the greater the Catholic Church's influence became. The constitution of 1935 established Catholicism as the state religion.

After Germany invaded Poland, the Nazis closed the churches and murdered thousands of priests and Catholic intellectuals. The communists, too, dealt brutally with the church, imprisoning its clergy and seizing its property. It was not until the end of the Stalinist era in 1956 that they permitted a few safe havens. Once again, the mounting opposition movement regarded the church as the only true custodian and champion of Polish tradition, pitted against a communist regime perceived as a puppet government with the Russians pulling the strings.

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Kraków was elected pope in October 1978, unleashing an outpouring of national joy. Overnight - many felt - the Polish fight for freedom had gained a new ally, Christ's representative on Earth.

Catholic-spirited intellectuals - among them Tadeusz Mazowiecki - were responsible for midwifing the peaceful revolution in 1989. Paradoxically, though, the triumph over communism produced a dramatic decline in relevance for the church. "The transition to freedom 'freed' the church of its privileged position as the country's only free institution," Hierlemann wrote.

By 1990, a bitter controversy had erupted over the role of the state church in the young democracy, sparked by the reintroduction of religious education in schools. Newspapers postulated a "Polish Kulturkampf." People took umbrage at the means the church used to attain its ends. Bypassing parliament and the public, the Polish Bishops' Conference had taken its case straight to the government, which had obediently decreed that religion be included in the syllabus.

In 1993 the church chalked up another success: Poland adopted arguably the strictest anti-abortion legislation in Europe. The reality is that very few powers-that-be within the Catholic hierarchy are open to dialogue. Many of the bishops share Cardinal Glemp's view of the West and its democratic system, namely as a den of iniquity infested with decadence, materialism, godlessness and pornography.

Even today, priests use the pulpit to endorse political candidates in the runups to elections. In 1997 some segments of the clergy portrayed the referendum on the new constitution as a showdown between "neo-heathenism and Stalinism." The church apparatus generally took a skeptical view toward Poland's membership in the European Union. Had the Polish pope not stood steadfastly by the EU proponents, the June 2003 referendum certainly would have failed. The sharpest rhetorical razor was wielded by "Radio Maryja."

Father Tadeusz Rydzyk runs his empire in Toru'n like a gated community. Cameras scan the streets outside the studio complex. Antennas and satellite dishes rise in the distance - the reverend capitalizes on the fruits of globalization to get his nationalistic message across to an audience of some 3 million. The Redemptorist priest set up his station almost 15 years ago. Radio Maryja broadcasts an exotic cocktail of self-help tips, mournful hymns and the occasional anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.

Today, Rydzyk can even call on the resources of a full-fledged media company, complete with newspapers and the television station "Trwam" ("I will persevere"). This past summer, one of the fanatical father's publications printed the names of German journalists who had openly criticized the government in Warsaw, together with a chilling warning: "No one insults Poland without being punished."

The state church under Cardinal Glemp has been very slow to distance itself from this black sheep, a position which - according to experts - some one-third of the bishops sanction. With many fearing a schism, very few have voiced their concerns.

Warsaw's new fraternal rulers, Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have embraced the station's propaganda potential. During the election campaign, Jaroslaw - today's prime minister - frequently took to the stump before the mikes in Toru'n. There were no limits on broadcast time, and no piercing questions to interrupt the flow. In the process, prominent studio guests helped shift the ambitious priest and his media company away from the obscurity of the lunatic fringe and into the limelight.

Since spring, however, a board of highranking church officials has been keeping an ear on Radio Maryja. Its initiator is a German - Pope Benedict XVI.

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