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William Oddie FAITH Magazine March-April 2007

This Passing World

As the outside world no longer has any excuse for ignoring, the Polish Church – the Church of heroic resistance to Communist tyranny, the Church of Wyszinzki and Wojtyla – has another and a darker side to its history, which will now forever be exemplified by the tragic figure of Stanislaw Wielgus, who resigned as Archbishop of Warsaw after less than three days in office. As the Telegraph reported on January 9, in what could hardly have been more of a coup de theatre, ‘The Archbishop of Warsaw resigned yesterday minutes before he was due to celebrate his inaugural mass, after admitting that he had been an informant for Poland’s communist-era secret police….‘“Stay with us,” shouted several worshippers, despite repeated calls for quiet. Outside, many… supporters of MgrWielgus jostled and exchanged insults with a handful of demonstrators opposing the archbishop’s appointment.’

The archbishop insisted that he never told the SB – Communist Poland’s secret police – anything that could have harmed anyone. But, as The Catholic Herald commented, ‘he is surely in no position to judge this.’ Certainly, it is probably the case that he never intended any harm. Robert T. Miller of First Things commented that ‘Wielgus, long ago, did some seriously wrong things, but they were the kinds of bad things that generally good people might do—low-level collaboration, which he probably perceived to be harmless, in exchange for things that in any decent society would have been his by right, such as the ability to travel to pursue his studies. He was undoubtedly far in the wrong to lie about the collaboration in recent days, but we are all tempted to lie tocover up things we’re ashamed of. I don’t think that Wielgus could function as archbishop-metropolitan of Warsaw, but I give him great credit for doing the right thing—albeit belatedly—in resigning. This is to accept a real penance for real sins. Wielgus is doing what he ought to do to save his soul.’ To this it might be added, to put his transgressions into context, that they must surely be nothing compared with those of the Patriarch of Moscow who turned out to have been a full colonel in the KGB, and who nevertheless survived without any uncomfortable questions asked into the post-communist era.

Nevertheless, Archbishop Wielgus did represent tendencies in the twentieth century Polish Church which we need to understand, for they have surely existed, and still exist, in the Church everywhere, and at the highest level. The primary division in the Polish Church, in the words of The Catholic Herald’s editor, Luke Coppen (who has strong Polish connections), ‘is between those, led by the heroic Cardinals Stefan Wyszinski and Karol Wojtyla, who saw the Communists as an implacable enemy, and others who believed that the church had to cooperate with the regime if it wished to ensure its survival’. Precisely. And the simple fact is that in an era when nearly everyone assumed that communism had come to stay, it was not simply a few isolated Polish Catholic priests like Wielgus whobelieved that there had to be some degree of cooperation with the institutional manifestations of communism; it was the Church at the very highest level of all, in Rome itself: for the assumption that communism was a permanent reality and therefore had to be dealt with was the very foundation of Paul VI’s Ostpolitik, the most famous and the most ignoble manifestation of which was Pope Paul’s betrayal (there is no other word) of the Hungarian Cardinal Mindszenty, who was stripped of all his offices and replaced by a Hungarian Primate whose remit (faithfully accomplished) was to establish cordial relations with the communist regime of the deeply unsavoury Janos Kadar. In an era when such messages were being sent out from Rome itself the astonishing thing is not the number of Catholic clergyin communist countries who collaborated (often in minor ways) but the continuing and overwhelming majority who did not.
We will need to return to the wider implications of all this, not merely for our understanding of the Church under communism, but for our understanding, too, of the Church’s relationship with all dominant secular political cultures. First, however, there are things to be said about the repercussions of the Wielgus affair for the fledgling pontificate of Benedict XVI. Those inclined to be critical of the Pope have seized their opportunity, among them Ruth Gledhill who wrote in The Times that ‘The Pope, perhaps resenting a political attempt to interfere with Church policy, ignored [pleas to take the accusations against Wielgus seriously] and nominated the Archbishop on December 6. Soon afterwards, secret police documents were leaked to the press. As a result, one of the mostreligiously motivated Governments in Europe finds itself in an icy relationship with the Vatican. And the Poles, who enthusiastically accepted Joseph Ratzinger as successor to Pope John Paul II, are beginning to wonder about his judgment.’

Fr. Adam Boniecki, editor of Tygodnik, the Krakow weekly paper for which Karol Wojtyla once wrote, a personal friend of the late pope and editor of the Polish edition of L’Osservatore Romano, told the Italian paper La Repubblica “I don’t know who, but someone has misled pope Joseph Ratzinger. This is a serious matter, and someone must pay for it, in Poland or in the Vatican”.’ These words, reported Sandro Magister of L’Espresso, ‘were reprinted with great emphasis in L’Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, which has a direct link to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone: this is a sign of strong displeasure and irritation on the part of the Church leadership over how this matter came to aconclusion.’

‘In effect’, commented Magister, ‘the final curtain of this drama – the resignation of Wielgus just 40 hours after he had formally taken his post as archbishop of Warsaw – can be explained only by an authoritative decision by Benedict XVI himself. If by ordering his resignation the pope finally decided to reverse his position of constant support for Wielgus … it must be because he was convinced by very serious facts.’ This must mean that the Pope was not at first told everything: that a story was cooked up for him which was designed to explain why Wielgus’s Polish critics were not happy with the appointment but which did not disclose enough to convince the Pope that Wielgus really could not function as head of the Polish church. As late as December 21, the pope again personallyreconfirmed his ‘complete trust’ in Wielgus after having examined ‘all the circumstances of his life,’ and also, as it later emerged, after having spoken with him again. It appears, in other words, that Wielgus himself deceived the Pope, and that those charged with investigating the affair did not discover the full extent of the allegations against him until the very last minute: the story is a chapter of dishonesty and incompetence, both in Poland and in the Vatican, for which Pope Benedict can hardly be blamed, but from which he will undoubtedly draw lessons for the future.

All this, it seems, is a million miles away from the home life of our own dear part of the Church Universal. But is it, really? One of the predetermining factors in the witness of John Paul II against the secular materialism of the Western world was his personal experience of resistance to another kind of materialism, and to the political culture that came with it, in what was then called Eastern Europe – now a thing of the past. But appeasement in much of the Western world was at the very heart of the liberal mentality, both inside and outside the Church. When President Reagan denounced the Evil Empire, he was himself widely denounced for undermining something called detente: but not by the Pope. And in almost exactly the same way, when the Pope condemned both materialism in thepolitical culture of the West and secularism within the Catholic Church in Western Europe and North America, he was condemned by liberals within the Church as someone who lacked the sophistication to understand the complexities of life in the West. Within a few years of his election, Peter Hebblethwaite was writing, de haut en bas, that he ‘would like to think that John Paul continues to learn from his stay in the West…and that he might spend as much time trying to understand the rest of us as we have spent trying to understand him’. The myth that the Pope was determined to undo the brave new world of Vatican II (which, having been trapped behind the iron curtain he could not possibly have understood) was sedulously spread abroad. All that, today, seems very distant: it is nowPope John Paul who is seen as the Council’s most definitive interpreter and advocate. But the theology of compromise once known as ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ (as opposed to its reality), though not much talked about these days, is still as powerful as ever it was. To those who have been formed by it, the late Pope’s call to all Catholics to become ‘Signs of Contradiction’ is anathema. There can, they profoundly believe, be no survival without collaboration: and the idea that if we are to thrive in a predominantly secular culture we should informally come to a kind of concordat with it, rather on the model of the Anglican Establishment, has become very powerful in the English Catholic Church. Much as most English Catholics love Her Majesty the Queen, many of us felt just a little uneasywhen it became known that she referred to the late Cardinal Hume as ‘my Cardinal’, and not entirely enthused by television images of Her Majesty attending Vespers at Westminster Cathedral, for all the world as if it was Choral Evensong at Westminster Abbey: not because such ecumenical gestures are in themselves a bad thing, but because this one seemed all too likely to be have been a reward to the English Church for no longer making so much of a nuisance of itself, as it could have done, for instance, by criticising the supposedly Catholic-minded Tony Blair for his wholehearted support for abortion (including abortion up to term) - a stance which, north of the border, had led the late Cardinal Winning to utter a series of blistering denunciations of the Prime Minister even during NewLabour’s honeymoon years. Readers of this magazine will not need me to give further examples of issues on which the English Catholic hierarchy has failed to speak, even to its own people. The fact is that painful though current events are for the Polish Church, collaboration with a profoundly anti-Catholic materialist culture has gone further and deeper in our own Church and has had an infinitely more debilitating effect on English Catholic spirituality. If you doubt that, search out one of the Churches in England which has been given new life by Polish immigrants. Go to Mass there (as I once did to an electrifying Mass in Polish in Moscow during the final months of the Soviet Union). It may be comforting to think that others have their problems, too: but the crisis for Polish Catholicismis as nothing compared with the crisis we face here as we sleep-walk peacefully downhill towards that gentle extinction which is specially reserved for those who have forgotten what it is they have to say to those who need to hear it.


Faith Magazine

March - April 2007