Notes on Polish Catholicism

By Sally R. Boss

As one peruses the infrequent articles on Poland in the American press, a certain regularity becomes apparent. The topics discussed can be roughly grouped into cultural ones (Kieslowski and other Polish film makers, an occasional poet or novelist seen as "bravely opposing the communist regime," a folk ensemble or some other Polish-colored popular event at the local theater) and political ones (why did the communists win in Poland in the 1990s, Walesa the hero, the positive role of the Catholic Church in combatting communism, Poland in the forefront of NATO aspirants, progress in privatization). These notes touch the public only slightly, and they do not impress themselves on the memory of anyone. There exists a way of bringing up these topics so as to reinforce their fleeting and cliched nature. This is the way in which Hillary Clinton spoke of Polish affairs when, on a visit to Poland in July 1996 and courting the ethnic vote in the United States, she praised Poland for its "devotion to freedom" and declared Poland's right "to regain its place as a full member of the Western family of nations."

The Polish press does of course deal with a much more realistic range of topics, with the here-and-now of everyday existence. However, it too avoids giving a proper share of attention to the gigantic role the Catholic Church has played in the Polish people's striving for a healthy society. So far as the Church is concerned, the largely postcommunist press makes much of the arrogance of the clergy and the embarrassment which the poorly educated prelates cause to the "enlightened" Catholics. The Polish press registers complaints about clerical greed and plain stupidity, as well as the less-than-charitable statements from the pulpit about the assorted nonbelievers or adherents of other religions. The most irritating, and most frequently mentioned with venom, is the clerical nadetosc, the silly pride of men of the cloth who are uncomfortable with themselves but try to hide it by demanding servility from others.

Much of this has a basis in fact. Saints among the Polish clergy are few and far between, no more and no less than amidst the general population. We tend to expect more saintliness from the clergy than from our neighbor next door, but the Gospels do not give us the assurance that preachers would be exempt from the shortcomings we perceive in ourselves. Yet a parish priest who shows insensitivity to the poor or who tries to talk down to his better-educated parishioners has probably left behind a trail of disaffected and dissident Catholics or ex-Catholics. A poorly educated and vain bishop can cause disaster. The saints, however uneducated, can easily find their way into the thickets of modernity without making anyone squirm – see Mother Theresa.

Yet the shortcomings of the clergy seem trivial by comparison with the real-life alternatives. In the long run, the body of beliefs and negative rules of conduct promoted by the awkward and self-important Polish clergy cause incomparably less damage than either the Soviet social model or the do-what-seems-advantageous-to-you Western model. It was not the Rev. Baka’s Uwagi o smierci niechybnej or the Rev. Benedykt Chmielowski's Nowe Ateny that tried to withhold education from Poles, but rather the anonymous authors of the top-secret NKVD Instruction No. NK/003/47 which recommended that "the publication of source materials should be reduced to a minimum" and "the perception of connections between various subjects of study should be broken off." (SR, XVI/1, January 1994) However distasteful the Polish clergy's near-illiteracy and cupidity have been, their influence on society has been a civilizing one, whereas the intellectuals who penned the famous Instruction No. NK/003/47 have done indescribable damage to souls and bodies, the damage that will reverberate through generations to come. While the rigid rules of conduct imposed by the authoritarian clergy thwarted many an artistic soul, the damage done can hardly be compared to the atmosphere reigning in America's inner cities where youth gangs begin to resemble the bands of homeless and criminal children (bezprizornye) in revolutionary Russia of the 1920s.

The Polish Catholic culture has many faults. It is easily reducible (by those who search for a stone to throw at it) to what Pope John Paul II has called "sacristy Catholicism" (katolicyzm zakrystii), or Sunday Catholicism, the remainder of the week given to mindless living, petty quarrels and feuds with family and former friends. It is reducible to partying and polka dances or, among the "intelligentsia," to whatever international films or art works are currently in vogue. It is reducible to the babkas and paczkis and mazurkas (for Easter), the makowiec (for Christmas), the szopkas and grobs (for Christmas and Easter), and other customs whose symbolic content is barely perceived. It is reducible to the often silly songs that congregations sing off key at Sunday masses. But even at its worst, the Polish Catholic culture is not a no-exit street. One can stay in the dirty bay of pettiness, or one can sail out into the open seas. One can remain on the level of elementary school Catholicism, or one can move forward for more.

One of the litmus tests of a person's attitude to Polish Catholicism is his/her assessment of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981). Some say that his resistance to communism saved the Polish Church and perhaps also the Polish vultural identity. Others say that Wyszynski slowed down the development of post-conciliar Catholicism in Poland by at least a generation.

There have been more books written about Wyszynski than about Czeslaw Milosz, even though Wyszynski has long been dead and Milosz finds himself at that moment in his career when writing books about him serves the interest of ambitious literary scholars. Among the best known are Peter Raina's Stefan Kardynal Wyszynski, Prymas Polski, 2 vols. (1979) and Andrzej Micewski's Kardynal Wyszynski: Prymas i maz stanu (1982; English tr., Cardinal Wyszynski, 1984). Wyszynski himself was a reasonably good writer, and his books have been translated into English and published by a variety of publishers, from Harcourt to Sophia Press. He has been read by persons that have no professional or historical interest in Poland. Wyszynski has always stressed his Polishness, his sermons and writings abound in reflections on Poland, and yet he is read by people who are interested in his timeless wisdom rather than the accident of his birth. In contrast, Milosz's career owes quite a bit to his Polishness. He was the right man at the right place at the right time, so far as his career was concerned.

In the copious files and reports of the Urzad do Spraw Wyznan [Office for Religious Affairs, a communist bureaucracy whose task was to monitor and report on anti-government activities of the Catholic Church in Soviet-occupied Poland], there exists a vast pile of reports on Wyszynski. These reports can be accessed in the newly opened Polish archives, and copies of these archival materials can be ordered from the United States. Apparently the Cardinal was perceived as a major threat, and not only in the 1950s when he was imprisoned, but well into the 1970s, when communism was supposedly at its least harmful, with economic failure not yet apparent and ideological controls somewhat relaxed. In a secret report dated 22 September 1975, one Zenon Kawecki, an employee of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the Central Committee of the PUWP, thus comments on Wyszynski and the Radio Free Europe religious programming:

Radio Free Europe treats religion as an instrument of political struggle. The goal is to encourage anti-socialist attitudes. By any and all means believers are presented as opposed to the communist party, and it is suggested that the socialist state wants to destroy the Church and religion in general, that Catholics are deprived of elementary political rights, and that they are discriminated against in social and political life. RFE journalists do not just pass on the statements of the Polish bishops but also try to embellish them, emphasizing their anti-socialist bias. These statements allege that anti-humanism and totalitarianism prevail in social relations under communism. The Church is regarded as the main instrument of struggle against this communist structure, while Church dignitaries are treated as if they were spiritual leaders of the nation. In particular, Cardinal Wyszynski is so treated. He is called "the providential man." The commentators maintain that the Polish hierarchy’s attempt to put forth conditions for the normalization of relations with the state has been approved by the Vatican and by the vast masses of believers in Poland. These programs are characterized by nationalism and anti-communism.

Wyszynski's sermons were routinely scrutinized and commented upon in the secret reports of the Urzad do Spraw Wyznan. Apparently the Cardinal was shadowed wherever he went, and professional listeners were assigned to the churches in which he preached. How many manhours were wasted monitoring the Cardinal! Here is an excerpt from a secret report signed KK and dated 15 May 1972:

After an attack on secularism the Cardinal insinuated that the Polish youth were falling under the influence of the "Philistine spirit of sick western societies; this spirit sometimes becomes the program of education for Polish youth." And the Cardinal attacked again suggesting to his listeners that "This torments and tires us, we see hopelessness in the darkness of unbelief and in passive laicization and atheization..." Then the Cardinal said that because of all this, Polish youth and the Polish family, and the nation itself, are in danger of yielding to moral disorder.

In a vulgar fashion, Wyszynski attacked secular morality by saying this to his listeners: "We want to protect Poland from this oft-announced, dimensionless new morality, morality without a spiritual spine, without clear meaning or direction, without human dignity, without respect for man's desire for freedom, love and faith....we want to protect our homeland from this blasphemous decadence in which blasphemy and dissoluteness combine....we want to defend Poland from the plague of drunkenness...we strive for love in social life, and we have had it with hate and all kinds of violence..." Parts of Wyszynski's sermon dealt with the Virgin Mary as a model for youth. Here too he displayed aggression and used insinuations: "We have to contemplate her beauty in order to defend ourselves from contemporary vulgarity which forces us to adopt grotesque lifestyles. The authorities want to make us look ridiculous, and make us surrender our dignity to the calls of fashion."

Or consider this excerpt from a secret report dated August 7, 1972:

In June 1972 in St. Ann's Church in Warsaw, a plaque was unveiled, commemorating the soldiers of the First Division of Polish Grenadiers who fought in France in 1940. Cardinal Wyszynski spoke to the survivors and guests. He said that "the most important value in life is service and sacrifice, even the sacrifice of life if need be." (. . .) The cardinal droned on, "for a soldier, the most important thing is love and loyalty to his homeland. . . . . This duty transcends all social and political boundaries. . . a soldier should be judged by how how well he discharges the moral duty imposed on him by love."

While these reports were meant to be derogatory, the selection of Wyszynski's sayings which they offer makes it hard to understand why such sermons were monitored by the police. One can imagine the effect of such monitoring on the more timid souls. It is a measure of the moral perversion of the communist system that the moralists of Wyszynski's stature were harassed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed (Popieluszko). In view of that, the amount of moral damage these authoritarian sermons had allegedly caused appears minuscule. Yet today in Poland, "progressive" Catholics speak in unequivocally negative terms of Wyszynski's authoritarianism.

Interestingly, Pope John Paul II, who during Wyszynski's lifetime was often considered the old Cardinal's direct opposite, repeated Wyszynski's warnings on May 23, 1996 in the Vatican City. In a sermon to the Polish pilgrims, he said that the Catholic Church was under attack in his native Poland, and that the younger generation was endangered by the promotion of an "irresponsible" way of life. "Today we find in Poland attempts to ridicule religion and to call into question the authority of the Church through the manipulation of information or disinformation on the subject of the Church-state relations. . . .The attempts to lead astray the younger generation through the promotion of a lifestyle which lacks a sense of responsibility toward the dignity and form of one’s own life, and that of others, are dangerous."

Such is Polish Catholicism. Unfulfilled promises, but also a healthy ability to generate voices which call a spade a spade, an ability that is by no means common in countries more sophisticated than Poland. A proven ability to prevent Polish society from degenerating into a mass of criminal children. And all this in conditions of which we, the critics of "primitive" societies in the free world, have very little idea and even less personal experience. Not a bad record, even with all the blots of clerical pusillanimity blurring the picture.

Sally R. Boss is one of the founders of The Sarmatian Review.


Urzad do Spraw Wyznan reports are quoted from copies of these reports in possession of the Hoover Archives at Stanford University, Stanford, California (Poland. Urzad do Spraw Wyznan, Boxes 1-2).

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