issue 155 | January 1986
The Cardinal and the General
TRAVELLING through Poland in early 1985 I learned about a small hunger strike taking place in a church near the Gdansk shipyards. When I made my way to the church, I met Anna Walentynewicz, the unyielding welder whose sacking from the Lenin Shipyards in 1980 had sparked the clash between Solidarity and the Polish military.
'I originally came here for only a few days,' Anna confided. 'But then had to stay longer to help the protesters. Of course, the authorities don't like it. But the Catholic hierarchy is not very pleased with this hunger strike either.' On the other hand she quickly added, 'the priest of this parish is just marvellous.'
As the hunger striker's words indicate, Poland's Catholic Church is far from being a monolith. It has its collaborators and its resisters. And both have their role in the unusually powerful and privileged position of the Catholic Church in a country ruled by an allegedly anti-Christian, Communist government.
Poland's Catholicism has puzzled outsiders for some time. Five years ago, when the Polish workers astonished the world by setting up genuinely independent labour unions, observers in the West were bewildered by Lech Walesa sporting a crucifix and by burly strikers on bended knee. The saga of Solidarity lasted just 16 months. But when the tanks of General Jaruzelski put a provisional end to this miraculous revival of the Polish labour movement, the outside world was left with the mystery of the strange, conflicting coexistence between the Catholic Church and the Communist party. Here were two supposedly hostile forces who suddenly appeared to be propping each other up. Just what was going on?
After 40 years of 'Marxist' rule, the Catholic church in Poland is today stronger than ever. Before the war a reactionary and often anti-semitic Catholic hierarchy derived its strength from the backwardness of a mostly peasant population.
Today Poland is predominantly urban and much more educated, yet the Church thrives. Its popularity seems largely due to the postwar regime. The Communist government nationalized industry and broke up the large, privately-owned rural estates - and in the process deprived the Church of its traditional allies, the industrialists and the large landlords, With official political opposition banned, the Catholic Church was thrust into a new and unexpected role. As the regime was increasingly associated with oppression, injustice and inequality, the spiritual prestige of the Church rose accordingly. It became a symbol of resistance and a focus of hope. A climax was reached in the summer of 1979 with John Paul II's homecoming. The triumphant tour of the Polish Pope was a measure of the Party's moral bankruptcy.
It was also a dress rehearsal for the dramatic 1980 confrontation between Solidarity and the government. Only this time the Polish workers became the actors in their own drama and their victory profoundly altered the position of the Church. Up to then the Catholic Church had been the only outlet for opposition to the government. Now there was a new actor on the stage. Solidarity was fighting for the rights of every section of society, including the Church's right to continue religious broadcasting.
There were signs the Catholic hierarchy did not much appreciate this new three-cornered game. But then neither did the Communist Party. Only in Gdansk, under extreme pressure, did the Party accept that even in the Soviet Bloc the workers had the right to organize their own, autonomous unions. However, the heresy was not allowed to last for long. Sharing spiritual power with the Church was one thing but sharing political power with the workers was quite another.
On December 13th, 1981 General Jaruzelski's troops moved into action. The next day, Cardinal Jozef Glemp condemned the military coup while recommending resigned acceptance to the Polish people. A few days later, sensing the gap between his sermon and the mood of the nation, he had to toughen his line. The incident, nevertheless, illustrated the dilemma facing the Catholic hierarchy.
Unlike Solidarity, brutally driven underground, the Catholic Church still had plenty to lose. The regime had been quite generous in recent years, allowing dozens of new churches and seminaries. And it was ready to pay a handsome price if the Church would dissociate itself openly from the labour movement. On the other hand, if the Catholic hierarchy went too far on the road of collaboration, the Church could quickly lose the store of goodwill and popular support accumulated over years.
Was there room within this framework for a 'gentlemen's agreement' between the General and the Cardinal? It looked like it in November 1982 when, on the eve of a strike called by underground Solidarity, Cardinal Glemp went out of his way to preach labour discipline and a few days later Lech Walesa was released from internment.
Here one could see the makings of a deal. What went wrong can only be guessed. It appears that at the last moment the Party was unwilling to pay the necessary price - certainly Lech Walesa refused to play the appointed part. Unlike the Church, he does not have eternity on his side. Had he agreed to lead a phoney union while many of his comrades were kept in jail, he would have lost overnight his undeniable prestige and popularity. Rumours of a compromise between the Church and the military were revived time and again, especially in June 1983 when John Paul II's visit attracted huge crowds carrying Solidarity banners. But the Pope could find only a few moments for a private discreet meeting with Lech Walesa.
Treading a difficult path between resistance and collaboration, the Church in Poland preserves its power. The cathedrals are packed full of young people. Although they were stunned by the military coup, Poles have not given up hope altogether. Instead the conflict has shifted from the factory to the home, from the social to the personal - and this passive, moral resistance strengthens the hand of the Church.
Visiting Poland five years ago you were taken to the Lenin Shipyards to see the new monument erected to commemorate the death of workers at the hand of the state. Today the shrine is the Church of St Stanislaw in a suburb of Warsaw where Father Jerzy Popieluszke preached and is buried. The priest was murdered in October 1984 by three members of the Polish security police.
This example, however, is another warning against simplification. Though Father Popieluszke was a Catholic priest, his outspoken support for Solidarity disturbed the ecclesiastical hierarchy. And they tried to silence him by sending him to Rome.
His assassins, though government agents, did not go scot-free. They were sentenced to many years in jail. Indeed, since the regime is not in the habit of punishing its faithful servants, the indictment was interpreted in some quarters as a move towards reconciliation with the Church. But it was a strange sort of peace when during the trial Father Popieluszko was made out to be almost as guilty as his murderers. In this bizarre ballet between Church and Party each side in turn gets closer to the other without actually embracing.
In this peculiar partnership there is no love lost. The Church has not developed a sudden passion for the 'godless' rulers, It simply wants to avoid a bloody confrontation - and to preserve its vested interests. The Vatican may also have wider ambitions about the revival of Catholicism in the Soviet Bloc.
Nor have the Polish rulers have suddenly seen the light and been converted. No, it's more that they see the Church as the lesser of two evils. They prefer to share a great deal of spiritual power with the Catholic Church than a fraction of political power with genuine representatives of Polish people,
Daniel Singer is a Polish exile and author of The Road to Gdansk.