Poland’s Catholic Church in crisis?
Compiled by Our Warsaw Correspondent Robert Strybel

WARSAW—Poland has once again made world-wide headlines – this time due to a religiously tinged spy scandal that has sent shock waves all the way to the Vatican. The surprise forced resignation of Archbishop Stanisław Wielgus, who was to have replaced retiring Primate Józef Glemp as head of the powerful Warsaw Archdiocese, is feared by some to have caused a deep rift in the Polish Church. It has also polarized the advocates and opponents of a controversial process known as “lustracja”, the screening of people’s past for traces of collaboration with the communist-era secret police.

The powerful initial emotions have since subsided, but those who attended the ceremony or watched it live on Polish television are not likely to soon forget that event. When Wielgus announced from the altar that he had submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI, a tumult erupted in Warsaw’s neo-Gothic cathedral. “Nie, nie, nie (No, no, no)”, “Hańba! (This is a disgrace)” and “Zostań z nami!” (Stay with us) chanted his supporters. Hundreds later marched on the Episcopal Palace waving placards and chanting “Chcemy Wielgusa” (We want Wielgus).

It all started just before Christmas, when the right-wing weekly “Gazeta Polska” publicly accused the 67-year-old archbishop-elect of spying on his fellow-priests for the hated SB (communist security service) for 22 years, starting in the 1960s. He was subsequently recruited by the regime’s foreign-espionage unit. Wielgus denied the allegations and insisted the documents published by the weekly had been fabricated. The issue deeply divided the country, with some churchmen and media defending the archbishop and others suggesting he step down. The matter appeared to have been resolved when the Vatican issued a statement saying the Pope had been fully informed of Wielgus’ past activities and nevertheless expressed full confidence in him.

But independent investigators continued their probe and unearthed more evidence that Wielgus had indeed been a conscious and willing collaborator. At first, the archbishop only admitted to talking with secret policemen when applying for a passport to travel to Germany on a scholarship—something required of all Poles going to the West during the cold war—but insisted he had never signed anything. As more evidence emerged, he said he may have signed something but never actually collaborated. Later he admitted to collaboration but said he was coerced into it and had never deliberately harmed anyone. Finally he grudgingly admitted he had harmed the Church through his activities.

Wielgus was pressured into resigning just hours before his ceremonial installation was due to take place. The night before the planned event, 80 pages of documents on his collaboration were e-mailed to the Vatican and hastily translated into German. After reading them, the Pope reportedly became irritated at being kept in the dark about the extent of Wielgus’ infractions and quickly moved to dismiss him. He invoked a provision of Canon Law whereby “a bishop incapable of properly exercising his office is asked to resign” – proof that the archbishop did not step down willingly.

Eventually a new Warsaw archbishop will be appointed – most likely someone too young to have been an active clergymen in the communist era which ended in 1989. But the issue of screening churchmen is far from resolved. Under the present law, the clergy are not obliged to have their past activities probed by the government’s National Remembrance Institute, but the Church now appears headed towards a self-cleansing arrangement of its own. Still, the complexities involved and the risk of hurting the innocent on the basis of surviving, often incomplete and possibly fabricated secret-police files can be daunting. “Judgment has been passed on Archbishop Stanisław Wielgus on the basis of scraps of paper, documents that had been carbon-copied three times. We do not want such judgments,” the Primate said in a sermon, repeatedly interrupted by thunderous applause. “Archbishop Wielgus was coerced into cooperating by harassment, shouts and threats,” the Cardinal added. He indicated that the former communist secret policemen who had engaged in such intimidation have gone scot-free and now hold lucrative posts or enjoy fat-cat pensions, while their victims are being hounded.

It remains to be seen whether the controversy over the resignation and the broader issue of clergy “lustracja” turns into a serious crisis dividing the Polish Church. Other dismissals appear likely, including that of Archbishop Józef Kowalczyk, the Vatican’s “ambassador to Poland”, widely suspected of misinforming the Holy Father over the Wielgus affair. But Poland’s post-war Catholic Church has been known to weather much graver threats.

It came close to being destroyed in 1953, when the communist regime imprisoned Primate Stefan Wyszyński, cracked down on the clergy and tried to impose forced atheization on the nation. A no less serious challenge of a different sort came with the post-1989 onslaught of free-wheeling capitalist-style consumerism, hedonism and nihilism peddled by movies, television and the Internet. But those who had predicted the Poland would soon resemble de-Christianized Western Europe have so far been proved wrong. Despite a slight drop, church attendance as well as vocations to the priesthood have remained largely stable. Parishes in some localities have indeed recently eliminated one of their five to six Sunday masses, but the declining attendance has been caused by large-scale local emigration to the British Isles and Ireland. So far it still seems safe to say: “Polonia semper fidelis” (Poland ever faithful).