Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 25
13 December 1999

Wawel P O L A N D:
The Pro-Government Church

Mariusz Janicki

Lately, Catholic Bishops in Poland have been criticising protest organisers, supporting the reforms introduced by Jerzy Buzek’s cabinet and counselling moderation and patience for the disenfranchised. The Catholic Church has found itself in a difficult moral and political situation. If it wants to remain close to the current concerns of its faithful, many of whom are signing on to social protests, then it should criticise Jerzy Buzek’s cabinet. On the other hand, this cabinet is in effect a right-wing government, to which the only alternative is the SLD (Democratic Left Alliance). This is why the Bishops are trying to strike a balance between the government and the discontented. Yet clearly they lean more often to the side of the government.

The Church hierarchy has generally supported the reforms introduce by Buzek's cabinet. Archbishop Tadeusz Goclowski has expressed this directly: "Today's situation, which comes as a result of the reforms undertaken, may be vexing, but the state must be put in order." Elsewhere, he supported the reconstruction of the healthcare system, concluding that it was necessary and "though it is hard it could not be put off infinitely, as preceding governments have done."

Jozef Glemp, the primate of Poland, came out strongly in favour of educational reform: "Educational reform is necessary, and one cannot keep complaining that there is no money for it."

Bishop Grzegosz Balcerek couches his opinions in nationalist rhetoric: "In judging the efforts undertaken by the state, one should retain moderation, patience and impartiality. Patience because reforms are not revolution; fairness, which means to look forward to the good that will be done; and moderation, because we do not belong to the circle of wealthy nations and will not for a long time to come."

Primate Glemp concluded that, "Even if the reforms themselves contain some flaws, one must calmly wait, since they will become apparent, and then they can be eliminated. The reforms have to be given time."

This is why the bishops remain reticent in the face of social protests. They even suspect that the protests are a result of provocation. The Bishop of Wroclaw, Bronislaw Dembowski, expressed this unreservedly: "I fear that someone is waiting to benefit from the sowing of unrest in our Fatherland. It can happen that it will be the inheritors of those powers which in 40 years of rule managed to bankrupt not only Poland that will assume power."

Tribal mentality

There exists in the Polish episcopate a strong pro-market - sometimes even liberal - current, set on economic integration with the European Union. "Nobody deluded themselves that difficult tasks must be undertaken," concluded Archbishop Goclowski, "but it is clear what the goal is: introducing Poland into normal European structures with full partnership. This requires smart politicians and a responsible society which appreciates these politicians."

The Bishop of Legnica, Tadeusz Rybak, notes: "Polish agriculture needs intelligent reforms. It is necessary to work out a clear model for management, one which will meet the European requirements." Thus, difficult transformations must be borne out because it is consistent with the general plan that serves the greater social good. This is the first line of argument.

The second main line preferred by the Church hierarchy opposes drastic forms of social protest. "It is not permissible from a Christian perspective to accept certain forms of action in which there appears either a pagan mentality or an African tribal spirit, where one man fights against another," said Archbishop Jozef Zycinski a few weeks ago. He compared the burning of politicians in effigy to the pagan custom of drowning of Marzanna [a figure made of straw - symbol of winter, ed] "We are not pining after some imaginary world that may never come," commented the Archbishop on the subject of right-wing and left-wing management utopias.

At a local harvest celebration, Archbishop Wladyslaw Ziolek told farmers that he was unified with them in their call for their rights, but he immediately added: "However do not expect me out on the train tracks, on which this holy grain for bread is being spilled." Radical actions also disturb Catholic Bishop Kazimierz Ryczan: "Is the spilling of wheat out of [train] wagons a new version of village culture?"

The national spiritual guardian of farmers, Bishop Roman Andrzejewski, otherwise known to often intervene on behalf of the countryside more so than he has recently, warned that farmers not do "something which would bring shame to their families." The hierarchy does not accept violent expressions of displeasure, calling on Christian traditions of loving thy neighbour, which should be placed above factional interests. In one of his September homilies, Father Tadeusz Magas, the spiritual leader of workers, stated: "It is not permitted to divide the village from the city. We have already been through this. Dividing society into classes is the devil's work…The Church fears hatred the most."

Strikes are immature and useless

Apart from criticising the form of the protests, which in the opinion of the Bishops undermine their seriousness and content, they also question them on purely ethical grounds. The spiritual leader of health-care workers, Father Jozef Jachimczak, commenting on the various strike actions undertaken by doctors and nurses, said: "Everybody has the right to fair compensation for the work they do. However, protest [by this] group is not ethical, when it shirks responsibilities with regard to caring for the sick." Archbishop Zyncki confirmed this assertion, saying: "There are no exceptions in the Hippocratic oath. One cannot say that if society does not fulfil [certain criteria], then I will not fulfil my duties."

In one of his works, Father Franczisek Kampka formulates the conditions in which there would be a "right to strike," in accordance with contemporary Catholic teachings. Among these conditions is the "logical prospect of victory." The professor from KUL (Catholic Univeristy of Lublin) summarises it thus: "If the economic situation does not allow for the satisfaction of workers' demands, then a strike can only be regarded as an illogical act of desperation - an immature and useless act."

It seems that members of the Church have placed many of the strikes that have taken place over the last few months in the "nasty" category and have, in any number of ways, sometimes very overtly, denigrated them.

This essentially pro-government tone of the Church has been clearly registered by those who represent the "common man," such as Andrzej Lepper (leader of the farmers' trade union Samoobrona) and Wladyslaw Serafin (leader of the Union of Farmers' Circles and Organizations), who have called for the boycott of this year's pilgrimages to Jasna Gora. Lepper unreservedly criticises the attitude of the Bishops, juxtaposing them against priests "at the bottom" within the parishes, who support Samoobrona. Similarly, PSL (Polish Peasants' Party) supporters believe that they have great relations with the parish priests and do not approach Bishops "on their knees." Workers unions have not yet expressed their doubts with regard to the Church's attitudes, but perhaps it is only a matter of time.

Not too long ago, the leaders of the Slask voivodship thanked the local clerics for their part in pacifying the moods of the region's miners. If the government authorities are expressing their thanks, then they probably know why - because it means that they don't have to thank the unionists.

Eternal respect for authority

Thus, one can pose the question whether the higher spiritual leaders have so stupidly torn themselves away from the mood of the public - or at least from those opinions expressed on the street, in blockades and in strike actions - or are they rather looking down the road, recognising that public opinion is in fact very diverse, and revanchist sentiments are not as strong as they outwardly appear.

In any case, it is clear that the government has the Church's support in the difficult task of implementing reforms. Emotional speeches, presented mainly on Radio Maryja (Radio Maria), or the declaration one cleric from Sosnow in which he expressed his desire to join the SLD do not change this fact.

Many have pointed out that it is not merely a matter of sympathy for the right-wing authorities and a maintained distance from the left-wing opposition. There exist other, deeper reasons. The Catholic Church leaves economic matters in the hands of the state and government as a matter of principle. The ruling powers are the authority which the Church hierarchy recommends to the faithful. The Church can criticise certain aspects of individual legislation; it can interfere in education, media and medical ethics. But in matters which directly affect society as a whole - such as the budget, taxes or privatisation - it remains circumspect, avoiding getting embroiled in political intrigues, especially in matters in which the faithful aren't feeling particularly like following the proscribed doctrines and could easily be judged as having views close to those of the SLD or members of the PSL.

Of course bishops bend their views in individual cases. In one instance, they'll speak out for more social security for laid-off workers; in another, for help for workers of the former PGR (Communist-era collective farms); and in a third, in favour of pro-family politics or Sundays off for supermarket workers. But these are all undertaken from a humanitarian or doctrinal angle and not as a challenge to the market system.

Even if Bishop Michalik undertakes a defence of agricultural workers, it is above all because, for him, they represent the essence of Polishness and the defenders of the soil of the fatherland and not because the Bishop thinks that the purchase price for goods is a little too low. The Church does not want to enter the economic fray, but because it is not appropriate that it remain mute on certain issues, it always has a tendency to support the ruling authorities' point of view. The Church demonstrates a definite tendency to avoid conflict with the state in cases where it does not have a clear ideological interest; afterward, it can, of course, use this to its benefit in negotiations in the Wspolna Komisja (Joint Commission). The approach it takes is something along the lines of: "We are supporting the government, and we expect reciprocal consideration in those areas which serve our interests."

Poverty is better than violence

Above all, the reason that the Bishops are urging obedience toward the ruling authorities is because they, too, are a fundamental part of the establishment. The dissipation of the authority of the current government strengthens anarchistic tendencies and undermines the position of various structures - including the spiritual. A break in the orderliness of the state and unpunished disregard for political and societal laws could manifest as a crisis of several institutions - including the Church.

And finally another broader question: is the Church simply propagating the idea of noble poverty, even though these days it is a notion which would be ill-received by even the most faithful? One can clearly see that the Bishops critically approach drastic protests, the primary aim of which is to increase monetary gains. By similarly reminding businessmen that profit not be their only goal, they convince workers to not make wages the only goal of their protests. Poverty and deprivation are certainly not something the Church regards as correct or acceptable but neither is it a sufficient reason for protest and disorder. It is as though the Church were counselling: it is better to be poor than violent; it is better to remain passive than disrespectful to one's brother (that is, director, minister, premier…)

It would be an exaggeration to conclude that the Bishops have no doubts whatsoever regarding governmental policies. The Church, including Pope John Paul II, constantly calls for social unity and criticises the most offensive face of capitalism. Even Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, who emerges as the biggest liberal in the episcopate, said in an interview for Glosu Wielkopolskiego: "I am judging Leszek Balcerowicz with the eyes of a consumer and a man who should be concerned with the welfare of others. Balcerowicz believes that first one must bake the bread and then dole it out. I, on the other hand, think that we must remember that during the baking people shouldn't die of hunger… Following Leszek Balcerowicz's first shock therapy, we should erect a monument. But whether we should pursue the same path again, I cannot judge."

It seems that, after all, despite various wavering, the hierarchy has generally come to believe in the lack of alternatives for the difficult economic transformation to a market economy. There is no talk about the possibility of a third path, which should theoretically come out of the contemporary experience of the Church.

Mariusz Janicki

Translated by Joanna Rohozinska .

This article originally appeared in the Polish weekly Polityka (Nr 42, 16 October 1999)

Write to Polityka at: polityka@polityka.com.pl



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