“Oh God,” Heinrich Heine wrote, “how big is your zoo!” This sentence kept popping into my head in June as I read the dispatches of my journalistic colleagues on Pope John Paul II’s journey through Poland, apparently written on bended knees after having visions of the Black Virgin of Czestochowa. So strong was the spell they were under that they did not even raise an eyebrow when the Pope proclaimed that the right to form trade unions could not be granted by a government because it was “innate,” inborn. It was not won by political struggle, he said, it was a gift from God. But if the right is innate, I wondered, why didn’t the Catholic Church recognize it until well into the twentieth century, and then only in some countries? One felt mean-spirited quibbling over such matters while the Pope was being hailed not only by reporters but by millions of people in Warsaw and Wroclaw, in Krakow and Katowice, as the spiritual leader of Poland, the scourge of the military dictatorship and the main supporter of Solidarity.

After the extraordinary show was over and the enthusiastic crowds had gone home, Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, in a too-candid editorial, revealed what the Pope’s game really was. He had not gone to Poland to curse General Jaruzelski but to strike, or ratify, a complicated deal that would prop up the regime.

To say such a thing may get me in trouble. Not so long ago several allegedly left-wing readers practically accused me of being an agent of the Vatican because I insisted Solidarity was primarily a proletarian movement, despite the size of the cross Lech Walesa wears. Tomorrow the same people will warn people of the left not to be “more Catholic than the Pope,” and to treat Jaruzelski at least as a partner, even if we don’t bless him. Yet why should left-wingers follow in the footsteps of John Paul II? What sort of unholy bargain with Caesar did Cardinal Glemp work out, subject to papal endorsement? And if the Pope and the general did conclude an agreement, will they be able to implement it at the expense of Solidarity and over the heads of the Polish workers? To answer those questions we must understand the historical role of the Catholic Church in Poland.

Before World War II, the Polish church was one of the most reactionary in the world. It pandered to the rich, preached submission to the poor and appealed to widely held prejudices such as anti-Semitism. Paradoxically, the Catholic Church was weaker then than it is today, despite the close links it had with the state. (For example, couples who wanted to be married in a civil ceremony could do so only in the Free city of Danzig-Gdansk.) More than one-third of Poland’s 35 million people belonged to ethnic or religious minorities: they were mainly Jews, Protestant Germans, Orthodox Byelorussians and Ukrainians. Arrayed in opposition to the reactionary church were the forces of the left–the Communists, the Socialists and a not negligible anticlerical intelligentsia. The power of the church was also potentially threatened by the very fact that it rested on the prejudices it fostered among a predominantly backward peasant population. (It was commonly believed in the countryside that Christ was Polish, because one was either a “true Pole” or a Jew, and God, it goes without saying, could not be Jewish.)

After the war, the situation changed dramatically. The ethnic and religious minorities had vanished: the Jews had been tragically exterminated, the Ukrainians and Byelorussians had been absorbed by the Soviet Union, and the Germans had been expelled. The new regime’s early progressive measures, such as land reform and the elimination of capitalist property, thrust virtue upon the church by depriving it of some embarrassing backers. Instead of defending the interests of wealthy landlords, the church was relegated to representing peasant smallholders. The Stalinist postwar regime also helped the church by confusing ideological struggle for the minds of the people with coercion and repression of religion, including a ban on building new churches. Once pampered and now persecuted by the state, the church acquired a martyr’s halo. The regime’s mistakes and injustices in other areas helped the church regain its ancient role as a rallying point for resistance to an alien power.

Wladyslaw Gomulka, who returned to power in 1956, realized that the government had not used the most popular or the most efficient methods of handling the religious question. His policies transformed the relationship between the Communist Party and the church into a complex struggle for ideological supremacy, a contest which did not exclude concessions and compromises by both sides. In this battle of wits, the clergy, guided for years by the stubborn and wily Cardinal Wyszynski, scored points time and again, helped by blunders perpetrated by the state. In 1968, for instance, it was the world upside down: the Catholic university in Lublin offered teaching positions to academics who had been fired by a “communist” government because they were Jewish. Two years later, when workers demonstrating in Gdansk were shot by “their” government, Wyszynski publicly endorsed their struggle. In 1976, when workers who had come out into the streets were again persecuted, he spoke out against their “exploitation,” and the church extended its support to the dissident intellectuals who had sided with them. The church came to be regarded as the voice of civil society. A joke that circulated in the late 1970s is revealing. A nonbeliever emerging from a church is accosted by a friend and explains, “I didn’t go for prayers but for opposition.” The story reflects the church’s pre-eminence among the opposition and also the intellectual disarray and bewilderment of the secular groups.

Under the puritanical Gomulka, party leaders preserved at least reputations for honesty and frugality. But his successor, Edward Gierek, urged the Polish people to follow François Guizot’s slogan “Enrich yourselves,” and many of his colleagues in the party hierarchy apparently decided to set an example. That enabled the clergy to pick up additional points for moral superiority. Besides the problem of corruption, Gierek’s regime faced economic difficulties. After several fat years living on borrowed money came the lean ones. No longer able to deliver the consumer goods, the leadership decided to permit a papal visit to distract the Polish people. The triumphal homecoming of the Polish Pope in June 1979 was a measure of the political as well as the ideological bankruptcy of a regime that called itself Communist. By then the Polish United Workers Party (P.U.W.P.) was perceived by most Poles as an organ of oppression, injustice and inequality. And the church was seen as the symbol of resistance.

The revival of religious irrationalism is not peculiar to Poland. The provisional (one hopes) failure of socialism to change the world has created a vacuum which has been filled by the forces of unreason. Khomeini, Solzhenitsyn and Wojtyla, each in his own fashion, personify that trend. History, however, has its surprises as well as its ironies. The Pope’s first visit to Poland also ushered in political change. Having been allowed to run the show during his visit, the Poles concluded that their masters were dispensable. That realization played a part in the events of the following summer, which led to an unprecedented victory for the Polish working class and to the government’s recognition of Solidarity.

The religious and the secular seemed to merge when strikers splashed holy pictures all over the gate of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in 1980. For me the ambiguity was best illustrated when one of the members of the strike committee gave my wife, who comes from three generations of Breton anticlericals, an image of the Black Virgin on which he had inscribed “Madonna of the Strikers.” But rising above this folklore one could see that something historically significant had happened–the labor movement was reborn. In August 1980, when Cardinal Wyszynski urged in a sermon that the Gdansk workers end their strike, there were no protests. With all due respect, the strikers totally ignored his advice.

The ideological hegemony the Catholic Church exercised over the workers’ movement undoubtedly contributed to Solidarity’s failure to produce a genuine socialist program. But that was only one element in a complex confusion resulting from a general identification of Marxism and socialism with the ruling regime. True, it should be mentioned that Walesa’s chief adviser, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, belongs to the progressive and not the reactionary wing of the church. Catholics in Poland run the ideological gamut, from those on the left of Mazowiecki to the Red-hating, Jew-baiting priests on the right of Solzhenitsyn. The church as an institution, however, was bewildered by the rise of Solidarity. Until 1980 it had spoken for all segments of society. Now the labor movement had taken over the role of demanding concessions from the state, including those the church wanted. Cardinal Glemp, who became primate in 1981 after Wyszynski’s death, tried rather awkwardly to act as a matchmaker between Walesa and Jaruzelski, hoping to prevent a collision. But the government remained obdurate. In December 1981, the P.U.W.P. announced its terms: it could share spiritual supremacy with the church but not temporal power with the workers.

The church’s difficulties did not disappear with the intervention of General Jaruzelski’s tanks. Glemp’s sermons at the time of the military intervention will one day be studied for their odd counterpoint of moral resistance and political resignation. Admittedly, his dilemma was not a minor one. On the one hand, the church wanted to avoid a confrontation between the workers and the regime that would lead to bloodshed and Soviet intervention. It also had substantial real estate interests to protect–convents, monasteries, seminaries–and the regime was ready to pay more than a mess of pottage for its help in taming Solidarity. On the other hand, too open a collaboration with the authorities would have deprived the church of the prestige it had accumulated over the years. Glemp’s approach was resented not just by laymen but by a good proportion of the lower clergy, and attendance at churches throughout Poland fell or rose depending on whether their priests preached sermons for or against the Glemp view. Nevertheless, more out of self-interest than love of the government, the episcopate chose to cooperate with it.

Last November, it looked for the first time as if the deal might come off. A month earlier, you may recall, Solidarity, hitherto suspended, was outlawed. Its underground leadership, after much wavering, called for a general strike in protest. On the eve of the strike, Glemp made a public appeal for law, order and labor discipline. Walesa was suddenly freed and there were rumors that martial law would soon be lifted. The strike was a flop. Conditions were ripe for a compromise between the sword and the cross. The Pope’s second visit, which the Vatican had by then proposed, would thus coincide with the funeral of Solidarity.

What went wrong can only be guessed. The authorities were probably too greedy. They didn’t lift martial law, only suspended it. They liberated some political prisoners without proclaiming a general amnesty. They began preparations for the trials of the dissident intellectuals of KOR and the regional leaders of Solidarity. Also, Lech Walesa refused to play the role of figurehead. The astute leader from Gdansk is too wise to believe that, like the church, he is eternal Were he to collaborate with the government, he would quickly cease to be Poland’s hero. In fact, since his liberation he has not made a single wrong move. He has expressed his sympathy for the underground movement and met secretly with its leaders, yet somehow managed to stay on the right side of the law.

Rapidly recovering from its setbacks, Solidarity sponsored massive May Day demonstrations throughout the country, proving that its gravediggers were premature. Above all, Jaruzelski was shown to be unable to break the Polish stalemate. While Solidarity can no longer paralyze the country with a strike, the regime cannot mobilize the workers on its side. According to the government’s own inflated figures, the new puppet unions have less than 3 million members–one-third as many as Solidarity had. When John Paul II’s plane landed on Polish soil on June 15, the political climate was far from what it had been in November: The Pope and the general could no longer negotiate as if they were the only actors on the political stage. Or couldn’t they?

The Pope’s speeches during his extraordinary pilgrimage were like the utterances of the Delphic oracle, their meaning subject to interpretation: truth was in the ear of the listener. The Western journalists covering the Pope’s visit did not lie. They accurately reported which passages in his speeches were most heavily applauded. The huge crowds that flocked to the masses, turning them into political rallies. were highly partisan.

Whenever John Paul II made an allusion to, say, Saint Jadwiga repelling the Tatars, whenever he used the word “solidarity,” whenever he mentioned Gdansk, the audiences responded with thunderous applause. When he unexpectedly met with Jaruzelski for a second time toward the end of his journey, Poles were puzzled When his brief encounter with Lech Walesa received as little publicity from the Vatican as it did from the Polish government, they were perturbed. When they read extracts in Polish newspapers from the editorial in Osservatore Romano in which Father Virgillo Levi praised heroic sacrifice and called on Walesa to stand aside for the sake of “national reconciliation,” Poles simply refused to believe what was happening.

And yet upon detached reading, the Pope’s speeches yield different meanings from those the crowds cheered. He invoked the Gdansk agreements. So does the government. He called on the Virgin Mary to protect suffering Poland and exhorted Poles to stick to their moral principles. Spiritual resistance does not bother the regime, which does not want to be loved but simply tolerated as a lesser evil. And consider the political advantages it derived from permitting this pilgrimage! If the Polish Pope can shake hands with Jaruzelski, why can’t Reagan or Thatcher? If the church can pump $2 billion into Polish farming, why should Western bankers not get out their checkbooks? The leaders of Poland could paraphrase the Huguenot Henry IV’s dictum about Paris: Power in Warsaw is worth many a mass. Only one cannot say such things so crudely in public. Father Levi was dismissed at once for forgetting the art of Jesuitical circumlocution.

The question is not whether the church and the regime are trying to resume their former state of competitive coexistence, but whether they can make it work. Each side has its reasons not to seek a victory over the other. The Pope wants to consolidate the position of the church in his native Poland, to spread its influence throughout Eastern Europe and, if some reports are to be believed, to make forays into the Soviet Union through the Baltic states. The general wants Rome’s tacit approval for domestic consumption and a certificate of good conduct to show to the West. Both the church and the party may want to conduct their dialogue privately, and without Interference from an unwelcome newcomer–the proletariat.

There is a scene in Andrzei Wajda’s film Man of Marble in which Birkut, the record-breaking bricklayer, goes to Warsaw to protest the arrest of his mate, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. At the Ministry of the Interior he is greeted by a suave bureaucrat who assures him everything will be fine and dandy–Just “don’t take any initiatives.” I confess that the scene did not strike me one way or the other when I first saw the film. Then I saw it a second time at a showing in Milan organized by Il Manifesto for local labor activists. They explained to me that the scene underscored their link with their comrades in the Soviet bloc. East or West, they said, proles are told the same thing: “Don’t take any initiatives.”

But the Polish workers have taken a hell of an initiative, and that is why it is now so difficult to make a deal over their heads. The attempt this July looks like a repeat of last November’s failure. Before lifting martial law the government “reformed” the legal code by inventing a state of “economic and social emergency” and by altering the provisions concerning labor law and academic freedom. Who needs martial law when the same results can be obtained under “ordinary” laws? Suffice it to say that workers still face three-year prison terms for belonging to Solidarity, a banned organization. Similarly, the amnesty the government granted is selective: members of KOR and the “extremist” leaders of Solidarity remain behind bars. If the Pope finds this sufficiently miraculous. his image in Poland will be tarnished. If Cardinal Glemp accepts it as the official side of the deal, he may find himself unable to deliver his part of the bargain, particularly on the labor front.

There are two possible interpretations of the drama in Poland. First, the gloomy one. Beaten by the military wing of the self-appointed vanguard of the proletariat, led astray by their religious shepherds, the workers have had it. They will go home and lick their wounds, and Poland, at best, will return to normal for a long time. Then there is the optimistic view, which I share. It holds that the workers have become actors in them own drama and will not leave the stage so easily. An interlude of relative inactivity may even have some advantages for them. If there are genuine left-wingers in the West who have leaned toward the party and distrusted Solidarity because of its clerical connection, they may now have second thoughts. What is much more important, Poland’s workers may shed some of their illusions about the political role of the church As a result, when the Solidarity movement becomes active again, it will be no less powerful, but more soberly secular.

P.S. Why take on two churches at once? I am not a glutton for punishment, merely one of those dreadful nonbelievers who distrust all established churches and who, though not standing in the middle, receive blows from all sides. Last year I was described in these pages by Susan Sontag as an appalling apparatchik. This year I was accused by Doris Brin Walker, in a letter to The Nation, of being a cold warrior who takes the anti-Soviet line “in almost any article” I write. I would be worried by the charge were it not just a question of semantics. If being in favor of workers’ councils is a sure sign of being “anti-Soviet,” I must accept the label. I would only remind Walker that “soviet” in Russian means council. Heretically hers.