Thursday, January 11, 2007

Poland, the church and communism

Poland and the past

Tainted vestments

From The Economist print edition

The Catholic clergy's hidden collaboration with communist rule

Forgive me my past

A JEWISH plot, a simple cock-up, or a necessary dose of reality? The scandal surrounding Stanislaw Wielgus goes far beyond the sad details, belatedly revealed, of his long-ago collaboration with Poland's communist-era secret police.

On January 7th, at the mass that was meant to mark his investiture as metropolitan archbishop of Warsaw, he tearfully announced that he was stepping down. After a month of rumour and a week of media hysteria, the Roman Catholic hierarchy publicly conceded that their candidate's past collaboration with the secret police was far more than the casual contacts he had previously admitted. These, he said, had been the price for scholarly trips abroad in the 1970s.

For the Pole in the pew, this is sickening. The Catholic church has been the repository of national feeling under centuries of foreign occupation and totalitarian rule. John Paul II, the previous pope, was the country's most honoured son, and ranks along with Ronald Reagan in the pantheon of anti-communist heroes.

Now a landslide of resignations is rumbling. Monsignor Wielgus was quickly followed by Janusz Bielanski, dean of Cracow's Wawel Cathedral, who faces similar allegations but also protests his innocence. The church estimates that a tenth of its priests were informers; others think that the proportion is higher.

Previously, this was covered up—perhaps to spare the feelings of John Paul. Now those who favour openness say they will expose errant colleagues who do not confess. A priest in Cracow, Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, is publishing a book exposing the collaboration of dozens of clergy, some of them senior. Such notes of contrast may ultimately make the church's image of picturebook heroics and saintliness more convincing. But they are a painful shock nonetheless.

Some pious Poles, particularly those close to the battily ultra-conservative (and unofficial) Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja, believe that Monsignor Wielgus, an ally of theirs, is the victim of a plot by liberals, foreigners and (inevitably) Jews. But there are serious questions too. How could Pope Benedict have approved the candidacy of someone with such a shady past? If he didn't know, it suggests scandalous naivety and incompetence in his staff. That seems implausible, given that the Vatican's intelligence network in Poland has been formidable in the past.

If he knew and proceeded, it suggests recklessness or cynicism. Was the pope swayed by personal ties (he has known Monsignor Wielgus for three decades)? If so, that was a blunder comparable to his inept linking of Islam and violence. Perhaps he thought that the new Polish government's enthusiasm for screening public figures for links to the communist authorities was overdone. The pope said in Poland last spring that nobody should “sit in judgment on other generations.” After the first revelations late last year, the Vatican press office said on December 21st that the pope had “taken into consideration all the circumstances of [Monsignor Wielgus's] life” and still had “full confidence” in him.

On January 5th Vatican Radio was still assuring listeners that the archbishop would be invested as planned. Vatican sources said the pope decided the candidate should be “earnestly requested” to resign only late on Saturday, after reading a dossier that had apparently been sent from Warsaw in late December. Now the Vatican is pleading ignorance. “When Monsignor Wielgus was appointed, we did not know anything about his collaboration,” Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, who heads the Vatican ministry dealing with bishops, protested this week. These statements are hard to reconcile.

The scandal raises equally uncomfortable questions for Poland's ruling Kaczynski twins, Lech (president) and Jaroslaw (prime minister). They want Poland to make a clean break from the communist past and hoped that vetting would reveal their liberal opponents' sleazy ties with the old order. It is a fair bet that they did not expect it to damage their allies in the church. Senior figures such as Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the primate of Poland, are now, oddly, echoing ex-communist complaints that vetting is a pretext for witch-hunts. The cardinal says that Monsignor Wielgus had no chance to defend himself and that the alleged collaboration was “unimportant” if it took place under duress.

The truth is that opening poisonous, unreliable communist-era archives anywhere risks ruining innocent lives: they include malicious gossip, and private secrets. But keeping them locked up encourages manipulation and blackmail, and lets off the perpetrators of revolting betrayal. That is a problem worthy of the church's finest moral philosophers.


Seven Star Hand said...

Hello Ed,

It is amazing that so many people still fail to understand the Machiavellian nature of the Vatican and Christian leaders throughout history. The Prince was inspired by Machiavelli's years working in the Vatican for the Borgia clan. Just as we have seen with the recent spate of revelations regarding the American religious right and the Republican party, religious and secular leadership have always conspired against the populations they jointly manipulate to gain wealth and power.

Whether we look at Communism, Fascism, Democracies, or Monarchies, the leaders of most religions, but most especially the faiths of Abraham, are always in bed with those in power. While pretending to help those they preach to, these scoundrels are regularly involved in blatant deception and duplicity. Playing both sides of major conflicts and social schisms is how the Vatican and its cohorts have divided populations and governments throughout history.

The time is long past for those who still support these cabals of liars to get a clue about the true nature of the Vatican and religion in general. These people have never been trustworthy and little has changed throughout history.

Here is Wisdom...

Edward Lucas said...

Thank you for your comment. I don't share your anti-clericalist views. Though the church is certainly imperfect, it is hard to sustain the allegation that the whole thing is a systematic conspiracy


Michael Moran said...

Hello Edward

I live in Warsaw and am writing a commissioned literary travel book on the country for 'Granta'.

I stumbled across your blog while reading about the Bullingdon Club at Oxford and attempting to work out how Radek Sikorski managed to get into it being a refugee from communist Poland. Perhaps that was the reason but the cost of blue tailcoats? My son was at Oxford (Merton) and knew all about it but we were not rich enough!

When I interviewed him not very successfully a few months ago(he was under some pressure after the Israeli 'invasion' of Lebanon and our planned time together degenerated from lunch to a drink then a snatched twenty minutes at the Defence Ministry)he was rather coy with that question.

We talked mainly about lustracja and of course he is such a committed anti-communist he was not interested in the moral dilemma you so accurately highlight at the end of your piece on the recent church fiasco concerning Archbishop Wielgus. I watched the whole ghastly ceremony on television - it was a terribly sad business and a frightful torture for the tearful victim - and those who watched.'Give is Barrabas!' Awful - but then some members of the SB were murderous torturers.

This resignation made me think a great deal about this lustracja process. Poland provides so many moral, ethical and behavioural dilemmas through history I tear my hair every day attempting to come to a balanced view for my book.

Being a good Australian/Irish Catholic boy I feel that Christian principles of compassion and forgiveness are in order in some unproven cases of 'collaboration' or where harm cannot be proven. Could not reconciliation commissions have been set up as in South Africa?

There is so little legal protection for alleged 'collaborators' - their entire lives and reputations collapse overnight. Some terrible things have been happening to 'ordinary' people's lives silently and without publicity here.

I did not live in Poland under communism and am not Polish so how can I possibly understand the motivation of this process as a Westerner? Sikorski assured me that no files had been tampered with or had 'disappeared'. I remain sceptical as I know a number of SLD party members who do not appear on any list and should. Where are their files?

The recent proposal to reduce the pensions of former SB operatives to the bare minimum smacks of vengeance although the brothers deny this accusation. It is such a personal moral stance one is forced to take on this issue.

I could not agree more with your assessment of the Catholic church
in Poland and the deep problems it now faces.

Joining the pugilistic Bullingdon Club seems to be an excellent initiation for Defence Ministers!

Kind regards

Michael Moran

Michael Moran said...

The Tumbrils Roll on Warsaw Streets

I am often rendered speechless by the current political 'purge' in Poland but I was rendered absolutely mute by the resignation of Radek Sikorski on Monday.

The country does not deserve this current political circus after such a history of struggle and unimaginable bloody sacrifice and resistance. The resignation of Radek Sikorski seriously weakens the image of the country abroad and further exacerbates the self-imposed isolation of Poland on the international scene. The country is fast becoming the figure of fun it was in Europe during the Polish Commonwealth.

His support of European integration, both military and economic, was never in doubt. His powerful negotiating role with the US was important not only to Poland but to NATO itself. He was perhaps the only Polish politician who possessed international credibility and who possessed a profound grasp of strategic and geopolitical issues.

One is vaguely reminded of the dismissal of another distinguished Sikorski, Wladislaw Sikorski, by Pilsudski in 1926.

He is after all a man with a life mission to reform and modernise the Polish Armed Forces and give them international credibility after years of neglect under communism. As with the family manor Dwor Chobielin he wants to restore traditional values and rehabilitate the legendary upright and honourable stance of former patriotic officers before the debilitating caress of communism.

One cannot but lament this loss of a true patriot and interpret the situation as the expression of a provincial fear of his clear intellectual superiority - a threat to the future aspirations of the present mediocre Presidential incumbent.

The country was lucky to have him and it is a great loss. Superior people are not replacable.

Michael Moran