Poland and the past
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.