“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.