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THE WIELGUS SCANDAL: CRISIS IN THE POLISH CHURCH

 

 

By Colin Graham

WARSAW, 20 FEBRUARY 2007— Polish people are acutely sensitive, and often extremely touchy, about their history. Whilst other nations prefer to forget much of their past, whether because of the crimes they have committed or the onset of a culture of wilful ignorance, the Poles have, by and large, clung fast to the memory of the vicissitudes that forged their identity through the centuries.

But the truth of memory is a battleground and the scenes after Stanislaw Wieglus resigned as Archbishop of Warsaw in early January, when the grey-haired congregation flailed their umbrellas at TV journalists and opposing protestors outside the capital’s St. John’s Cathedral, showed that even in Poland, where the past is often a source of unity, history rarely lies still and can open hostilities and the deepest wounds among those who at first glance seem inseparable. In an age where the faultlines of conflict are apparently those of religion, ethnicity and unequal wealth, the Poles outside the cathedral —each one white, Catholic (in origin, if not current inclination) and of humble means, scrapped like alley-cats because in a spirit of openness one side— the media—had exposed a nerve.

Watching Stanislaw Wieglus’ face twitch in soul-searching agony on television in the minutes after he announced he would be stepping down as archbishop – before he had actually taken up the post – was a painful experience for even the most diehard athiest. It is never easy to look at a man who has been found out and despite all his denials that he had never been an agent of the Communist regime, any temptation to gloat at Wieglus’ fate would have been callous. Yet his internal torment, on full, humiliating view, told of how Poland, in many ways because of its Catholicism, can never shake off its Communist past.

Fervent Catholics abhorred the Godless Communists but were unconsciously drawn to them as well. Even during the height of Solidarity’s struggle against the regime in the 1980s, a good many of the clergy— though in no sense secret collaborators with the government—called for restraint when the workers looked close to toppling their Stalinist oppressors. Order and stability, avoidance of bloodshed, became the priests’ watchwords. Some might call this prudence, given the potentially deadly consequences of a standoff, but then others might sense that the church was concerned that an insurrection would spiral beyond its control, as well as that of the Communist authorities.

For ‘control’ is as integral to Catholic thinking as it is to Stalinism; the synonym of ‘flock’ for congregation suggests as much, and both are notoriously two of the most doctrinaire outlooks the world has ever known. By definition, neither brook dissent. The difference in Poland was that one of them—the Catholic Church— was granted the hearts and minds of the mass of the population, whereas the other was by and large despised. Roman Catholicism’s role as the nation’s soul and conscience, a spiritual authority through which the nation cohered during long periods of foreign occupation – by the Russians and Germans, among others—was naturally always going to beat hands down an interloping creed, which used prison, shootings and a monstrous bureaucracy to impress its will on the people. Throughout Communist rule, Joseph Stalin’s quip "The Pope? How many divisions does he have?" hovered above the Poles as an almighty provocation, practically on a daily basis.

But as defenders of the Catholic Church like to point out, it has no need of any "divisions". Its adherents simply believe in the word of God. Naked force in defense of the faith belongs to the bygone age of inquisitions and burnings at the stake, they say - should we need to remind ourselves that Rome has not always risen above the unseemly, bloody fray of politics.

And then we return to twenty-first century Poland to see the clergy on the front pages, mired in political scandal, with the biggest ‘P’ imaginable. But— as we saw by the look on Wieglus’ face— this is a very Catholic kind of debacle, because it is about shame and guilt: a dirty secret revealed. One assumes he has spent a good deal of time in the confessional box and has been forgiven as convention demands. But then we look across the land and wonder how much more "confessing" and "forgiving" has yet to take place, and who, most importantly, is the arbiter in all this. The current government wants to create a Fourth Republic, shorn of the Communist legacy, and seeks to do so via what we could at turns call a purge or an inquisition. Call it what you will.

A British  journalist based in Warsaw, Colin Graham writes on culture in Central and Eastern Europe.  He has written on the Polish satirical cartoonist Marek Raczkowski as well as Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan for Culturekiosque.com.  



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