The post-Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed in part because of the glaring contrast between theory and practice, promise and fulfillment. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, a much older hand at politics, seems to thrive on a kind of ambiguity that the Communists never mastered. This thought is prompted by Pope John Paul II’s latest encyclical, Centesimus Annus, an important document on the church’s social policy that reveals, incidentally, that the Vatican has a more realistic concept of the world after the upheaval in Eastern Europe than the panegyrists of George Bush’s “new world order.”

Naturally, the encyclical sees the failure of the Soviet-bloc regimes as confirmation of its view that socialism and Marxism are wrong and bankrupt. There would be an outcry if one drew a similar conclusion about Christianity on the basis of the Inquisition, but such distortions are inevitable in the battle of propaganda. More interesting 1s the fact that, with capitalism seemingly entrenched, the church no longer feels the need to play the role of anti-Communist crusader. The Pope now emerges as a critic of the “idolatry of the market” and a defender of capitalism with a human face.

As usual, the encyclical does not quite make clear how the capitalist logic of profit is to be reconciled with the “primacy of the human being” that the Pope desires. There are also more down-to-earth questions. Does the encyclical mean that the Vatican will now cease the reshuffling of the Latin American hierarchy? When he visits Poland in June will John Paul damn Lech Walesa and his Finance Minister for introducing the crude and cruel version of capitalism blessed by the International Monetary Fund? Obviously not. Yet the encyclical should enable the advocates of liberation theology or the critics of the Balcerowicz plan in Poland to claim that the Pope is on their side. The wisdom of the Vatican is to have grasped that in both the Third World and Eastern Europe it will have to deal not with the blessings but with the curses of the capitalist system.

The Pope’s home country gives some idea of what the church can do when it has real influence. Having played a helpful role in the transition, the Polish church gained great prestige and power under the new regime. Conscious that these gains may prove ephemeral, it is now trying to institutionalize Its prerogatives. The Polish bishops have just suggested that the separation between church and state be abolished in the new Constitution. Whether or not they succeed in having the dominant position of Catholicism enshrined in the text, they are already busy achieving it in practice.

The introduction of religious instruction in schools was only the first item on the clergy’s agenda. Some church leaders would also like a ban on contraception and the outlawing of civil weddings-and hence of divorce. Fearful of a future in which it will no longer benefit from the existence of the Communist bogy, and in which it risks being weakened by the corruption spread by the capitalist market, the church wants to tighten its stranglehold on Poland’s social and cultural life.

Judging by its efforts on abortion, it will not be bothered by scruples. A church-supported bill that would criminalize abortion has already been passed by the Solidarity-dominated Senat. It must still be voted on, however, by the lower house, whose members have been subjected to an intensive campaign stage-managed by the clergy. A propaganda drive in the schools has used all sorts of devices, including showings of the notorious antiabortion film The Silent Scream. Kids are told to ask their parents to sign petitions in favor of the bill; in small provincial towns it can often take courage to defy the local priest. The collection of signatures is being used to create the illusion of popular backing and thus prevent a proper consultation, for the Catholic Church dreads a referendum, which it would probably lose (most polls show roughly 60 percent opposed to the antiabortion bill). Such a defeat would destroy the myth of the church as moral master and representative of the population.

Why then are the deputies likely to toe the line? Because with a parliamentary election scheduled for the fall they fear the clergy’s undoubted influence; because many people who were brave enough to face the jails of the old regime do not have the courage to defy the church; because on this issue, unlike economic ones, critics cannot claim that the Pope is on their side. For he is the main inspiration of this “moral order.” Optimists suggest that the Catholic Church, having overplayed its hand, will provoke a backlash that will halt the movement toward theocratic rule. Be that as it may, for the outside world the Pope’s trip to Poland is a useful reminder of the difference between the abstract elaborations of an encyclical and “really existing” Catholicism.