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Fears Rise of Poland’s Catholic Foundation Eroding

c. 2007 Religion News Service (UNDATED) When Benedict XVI was elected pope nearly two years ago, it was obvious that the cardinals in the conclave chose the elderly German theologian in hopes that he might halt, or even reverse, what the electors viewed as the massive secularization of Europe, once the heartland of the faith. […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) When Benedict XVI was elected pope nearly two years ago, it was obvious that the cardinals in the conclave chose the elderly German theologian in hopes that he might halt, or even reverse, what the electors viewed as the massive secularization of Europe, once the heartland of the faith.

And it was just as clear that the spearhead of that strategy of “re-Christianization” would be Poland, the deeply Catholic homeland of the widely beloved Pope John Paul II.

The formula seemed to make good sense. Throughout its history, Poland has been fiercely Roman Catholic, rallying to the faith even as the nation was regularly overrun by invaders. Poland survived the travails of the 20th century, outlasting first the Nazis and then the communists. That enduring spirit came, in no small part, from the nation’s modern-day Moses and the first Slavic pope, John Paul II.

Now, however, some fear that the foundations of this Catholic bastion may be eroding from within, a development that could have a lasting impact not just on European Catholicism, but on the continent’s politics and society.

The doubts began with an astonishing scene Jan. 7 as newly appointed Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus, moments from his official installation as head of the archdiocese of Warsaw and thus de facto leader of the Polish church, announced his resignation because he had not been forthcoming about his collaboration with the secret police during the communist era.

If l’affaire Wielgus were a one-off scandal, that might have ended it. Instead, the resignation re-opened a simmering national debate about collaborationist clergy. The rector of the historic Wawel cathedral in John Paul’s hometown of Krakow resigned a day after Wielgus when newly opened secret archives revealed his shady past. Polish newspapers promised more revelations were in the offing.

Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski called the cascade of revelations a “national crisis” that some are comparing to the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the United States that began rolling out exactly five years ago.

Polish Catholicism has certainly survived its share of weak bishops; if this were any other period in Poland’s history, the instinctive loyalty of Polish Catholics would have carried the church through. But the danger this time for the Catholic Church in Poland, and for Pope Benedict, is that this scandal is erupting at a time of unprecedented change in Poland, and much of Eastern Europe.

For all their fidelity to the church during the Soviet years, Polish Catholics after the fall of the Berlin Wall have often gone their own way as they tasted the fruits of freedom. The country is nearly 95 percent Catholic, yet research shows that Mass attendance hovers close to 40 percent, divorce rates are rising and younger Poles are adopting more liberal attitudes on issues like sexuality.

Moreover, while Catholic leaders have held up Poland as an exemplar of a child-friendly Catholic country whose fecundity will prove the salvation of Europe, Poland’s birthrate has actually fallen to 1.2 children per woman, the lowest in Europe and well below the replacement rate. Even proudly secular France has a relatively robust birthrate of 1.8.

But rather than pointing the finger at Polish Catholics, critics across the board target the hierarchy itself for what seem to be self-inflicted wounds hurting the church’s credibility at a time when the church is needed as much as ever. Many fear future revelations could even dent the Teflon legacy of Pope John Paul, who may have known about the spies in his midst, but did nothing about them.

John Paul, as pope, took a relatively hands-off approach to his homeland church. His greatness tended to overshadow every other Polish bishop, and few wanted to risk tarnishing his reputation by talking too loudly about the priests and bishops _ perhaps 15 percent or more _ who worked to one degree or another with the Polish secret police.

In essence, the circle-the-wagons mindset among the Polish hierarchy and faithful that was considered a necessary evil during the Soviet era endured longer than communism itself. After John Paul’s death, however, the floodgates seemed to open along with files from the communist regime that began to show the extent of collaboration by some clerics.

Many believe the key to restoring the credibility of the Polish church is a greater openness and accountability regarding past sins _ a prescription that echoes calls in the United States in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal.

“For 50 difficult years, from Hitler’s invasion in 1939 until the communist crack-up in 1989, Polish Catholicism fought tenaciously and successfully for its independence, and Poland’s, by emphasizing the liberating power of the truth,” John Paul’s best-known biographer, George Weigel, wrote on Newsweek.com.

“That brilliant accomplishment must not be compromised now by a stubborn reluctance to face the full truth of those five decades, a reckoning which is essential to helping Poles of today and tomorrow _ and the rest of the world _ understand what those truths mean.”

The question is whether the church in Poland, or in Rome, is willing to be so open.

How much _ or whether _ the episode will damage the new pope remains to be seen, as the finger-pointing has only just begun. He is generally not keen on airing the church’s dirty laundry. During a visit to Warsaw in May last year, Benedict cautioned against “the arrogant claim of setting ourselves up to judge earlier generations who lived in different times and in different circumstances.” The listening Polish clergy applauded.

And just a day before the Wielgus debacle, Benedict told a crowd in St. Peter’s Basilica that they should not hold the shortcomings of some Catholics against the Catholic Church: “If in the course of history, Christians, being limited and sinful men, on occasions have been able to betray (Christ) with their conduct, this still highlights even more the light of Christ which the Church only reflects by remaining united to him.”

Whether Polish Catholics take such a beneficent view of the latest developments will go a long way toward determining whether Benedict’s plan for the re-Christianization of the continent has a chance.

(David Gibson wrote this article for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He is the author of “The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World,” published last fall by HarperSanFrancisco.)

KRE/LF END GIBSON