As the people of Poland prepare to elect a president, the Catholic church wants to influence how they cast their votes. Daniel Passent, of the Polish weekly Polityka, asks whether the new democracy is becoming a theocracyby Daniel Passent / November 20, 1995 / Leave a comment
The defeat of godless communism might turn out to be a somewhat bitter victory for the Catholic church in Poland. Exposure to the materialist west is producing unusual challenges for the church, which has enjoyed an ambivalent renaissance since communism began to collapse.
The church is now struggling to establish its authority over as many areas of public life as possible, and is directly involved in November’s presidential elections.
“Let us be frank, the people in Poland have started to fear the priests, ” wrote Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel prize-winning poet, in 1991. Events during the past four years seem to have proved him right.
Historically, the church has always been strong in Poland. But over the past 50 years its popularity increased as it provided some shelter from oppressive regimes-first the German occupation, and then the communists. In 1978, the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as pope signalled acceptance by the worldwide Catholic church of the anti-communist struggle of Polish bishops. This continues to define their identity.
In 1990, on the eve of the last presidential election, Bishop Jozef Zycinski called on the Polish people not to vote for ex-communist politcal parties. An archbishop, Jozef Michalik, said: “Let Catholic vote for a Catholic, Jew for a Jew, and communist for a communist.”
Embarrassing statements such as these provoked protests. In the run-up to the current election, the Polish bishops have had to plan their strategy more carefully. Three months before the election the episcopacy issued a statement, The Word of the Bishops, which gave Catholics instruction on how to vote. (95 per cent of Poles are Catholic.)
In it the bishops declared that the episcopacy has a “moral responsibility” to warn voters against electing candidates who held “high positions of power” under communism-words aimed at Aleksander Kwasniewski, leader of the ex-communist Social Democratic Party of the Republic of Poland, and one of the most popular presidential candidates in the election.
Is the church interfering with politics? Not according to the bishops who insist: “All we are doing is defending the identity and continuity of the nation.”
Many people in Poland are enjoying their newly acquired freedoms. It is widely felt that the country is more stable now than at any time in the past 200 years. But the church feels that Poland’s identity is being threatened, both by the secular west and within Poland itself, by the ex-communist…