The ‘Decommunisation’ Process and the Crisis of the Church in Poland (ARI)

The ‘Decommunisation’ Process and the Crisis of the Church in Poland (ARI)

Theme: This ARI analyses Bishop Wielgus’s resignation from the archbishopric of Warsaw and the Church’s relations with the communist regime.

SummaryOn 7 January 2007 the Polish bishop Stanislaw Wielgus resigned as Archbishop of Warsaw, after admitting that he had been a collaborator of the communist regime’s secret police. This event not only added tension to the ‘decommunisation’ campaign launched by the present Polish government against those suspected of collaborating with communism, but also submerged the Church in Poland in a situation of crisis. The present analysis examines some of the effects of the ‘lustration process’ on a society that completed a model transition from dictatorship to democracy in the nineties, but in which certain politicians are now insisting on opening up the wounds of the past. In addition, it will be described how lustration’s most active proponents are present-day anti-communists who remained silent during the communist era or who are too young to have lived through it. They are judging the moral attitudes and behaviours of people who at the time were often impelled to compromise or to be subject to persecution, and who suffered interrogation and blackmailing.


The Transition and the ‘Decommunisation’ Process in Poland
In Poland, the transition from communist dictatorship to democracy began with the ‘Round-table’ negotiations in 1989, which were discussions, unprecedented in the Soviet block, between a communist government and its political opponents. They facilitated a peaceful end to the conflict and cleared the way for democratisation of the political system, first in Poland and later in other communist countries in Eastern Europe.

Opinion on the ‘Roundtable’ negotiations has been very divided. Its supporters were convinced, and remain convinced, that they marked the beginning of a long, peaceful and evolutionary process in the democratisation of Poland, and that they prevented the possibility of the country suffering from the type of bloody events that occurred in Rumania in December of 1989. However, their opponents claim that, instead of negotiating with the Communists, participants should have waited a few months longer for the total disintegration of the Communist Party (Polish United Workers’ Party), before organising a ‘velvet revolution’, as in the Czech Republic. Perhaps the Communists would have remained in government for a little longer, but their definitive departure would have lacked the ambiguity that certain commentators believe resulted from the ‘Roundtable’ negotiations.

One of the ‘Roundtable’ agreements led to the first free elections, held in June 1989, which saw Solidarity win a crushing majority. The outcome was that the new government was led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a highly prestigious opposition activist and advisor to Lech Walesa. As Prime Minister, Mazowiecki performed his duties drawing a ‘thick line’ (gruba kreska) separating the past from the present, and he held his government responsible only for its own actions and decisions and not for those of the ancien régime. The politics of the ‘thick line’ had two facets. The first of these was moral, and dealt with the question of whether the Poles as a human and political community were prepared to suspend justice, to renounce vengeance and desist from dredging the past in search of the guilty parties. The second referred to the political practice of the transition period, which demanded many compromises, because it obviously was not possible to change all the people in authority, institutions and public policies at once.

Meanwhile, a sector of the opposition, critical (in their own words) of the ‘destructive’ ‘Round-table’ compromise, launched a call for ‘decommunisation’, that is, for a purge of communists. Since then there have been several attempts to carry out the so-called ‘lustration’ (or review and verification procedure on people performed in institutions, associations and political parties), intensified under the current Law and Justice Party government led by the right-wing, Catholic twins, Lech (President) and Jaroslaw (Prime Minister) Kaczynski. Both the parties of the governing Law and Justice Party coalition, the League of Polish Families, the populist Self-Defence, and the main opposition party, Civic Platform, are in favour of the ‘lustration law’, a new version of which entered into force at the end of February 2007.

Paradoxically, the draft bill was written by young people in their thirties linked to Law and Justice, who are too young to have known the communist era. They are judging their parents’ generation, which did its utmost to educate them and provide them with an acceptable standard of living under ‘the ecosystem of the institutionalised lie’, as the Polish Pope John Paul II usually called it. The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe judged that the draft ‘lustration’ bill is unacceptable from a standpoint of respect for human rights. There are those who stress that the problem is that ‘lustration’ serves political interests and not ‘the law’, or even ‘justice’. For many observers, the ‘lustration’ campaign launched against collaborators with communism has all the marks of a ‘witch-hunt’, which is likely to feature manipulation of records and files, as well as possible blackmailing and pressure. One thing that has already occurred is that, although it is theoretically illegal to do so, several communications media and Internet sites have published lists of people accused of collaborating with communism, without checking the facts.

The files of the security forces (SB) of the communist regime are stored at the Institute of National Memory, which was established at the outset of the transition (18 December 1989) with the aim of investigating the crimes committed against the Polish nation. Its functions include: (1) gathering and administrating the documents of the national security services written between 22 July 1944 and 31 December 1989; (2) investigating the crimes of Nazism and communism; and (3) organising educational activities. The ‘lustration’ law allows for ‘declassification of the documents of the organs of national security for the period 1944-1990’. All persons on whom the secret services secretly compiled information are entitled to gain access to the relevant documents and to the declassification of their files. Initially, the Institute received around 1,200 monthly applications, but lately the number has increased to 2,200-3,000. This obviously has an impact on the time it takes to process them. Although individuals accused of collaborating with the secret services can instigate legal proceedings against their accusers for infringing their personal rights, they have to demonstrate that the accusation is unfounded in order to win the case; and this is not a simple task.

Questioning or Destruction of Social Links and Historical Continuity
The Law and Justice Party’s electoral triumph in September 2005 was a result of the moral discredit of the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance and of a certain ideological vacuum which existed at the time. The elites which had governed Poland since 1989 were in crisis. Strategic goals had been achieved: democracy, a free market, human rights, political pluralism, parties, a free media, membership of NATO and the European Union. At the same time, high levels of corruption and crime were evident, and, generally speaking, a feeling that there was a lack of effectiveness in the judicial system took hold. At a difficult moment for the consolidation of capitalism, European integration and globalisation, the problem of the identity of Poland and the Poles also surfaced. It was felt that neither the left not the centre were capable of the long-term government of the nation. The Kaczynski brothers were then proposing a different language, which was both old, in that it was familiar, and new. Their Law and Justice party employs the rhetoric of the old Solidarnosc movement, displaying concern for those who were negatively affected by the changes that arrived with the free market and capitalism, and emphasising patriotic and nationalist values. It is the government of the Poles who were unable to be the victors during the period of transition and transformation. Furthermore, the present government is benefiting from an excellent economic situation and the achievements of previous governments; although this factor does not prevent it from acerbically criticising the latter. Nevertheless, it seems unable to take advantage of this situation to modernise and develop Poland. Rather, it is concentrating on combating Poland’s great enemy which, according to the Law and Justice Party, is not so much the communist heritage as the post-communist heritage, in other words, the period of the great events in Poland following 1989.

It is unlikely that the present government’s aim of breaking with the past and eradicating the Poland that existed under the communist regime, and a good part of the democratic transition, will prove to be viable. This is because some historical continuity always remains, and many of those proud of having rebuilt their country out of the ruins of the Second World War are still alive; to say nothing of the transition and even the more recent past. The Polish nation survived 120 years of partitions and German and Soviet occupations because it wanted to preserve the links and memory of historical community. Adapting to the historical circumstances, millions of Poles lived ‘normal’ lives. The events of 1989 brought a deep-rooted change to the political system without breaking this historical community. For this reason it reinforced social links against the ‘enemy-system’, and these were probably stronger than they presently are in a climate of accusations and condemnations against fellow citizens. Those seeking to eradicate the era of a communist Poland for good appear to want to break with social and historical community and destroy social links, creating an atmosphere of distrust in which victims are condemned instead of justice being meted out to their executioners.

The Delicate Situation of the Church
Two years after the death of Pope John Paul II, the Church in Poland is in crisis. During the Polish Pope’s pontificate much was said about resolving old scores with the former regime, but there were no attempts at a detailed review of the past. Now it is the Church itself which is facing the accusation of not carrying out a ‘lustration’ process amongst its priests. It is a situation brimming with paradoxes. The Church had displayed a certain lack of trust vis à vis liberals and left-wingers, but the recent attack comes from traditional Catholics and from the right wing. The Church has focused on claiming a greater role for Christianity in the European Constitution, but it is now under attack from those who would like to see increased Christianity in public life.

Roma locuta, causa finita, the Church has always taught. In Poland, just as Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed his trust in Bishop Wielgus, the media was starting its campaign to reveal information on the bishop’s collaboration with the communist secret services. Stanislaw Wielgus was recruited by the secret police while he was a philosophy student at the Catholic University of Lublin, where he would eventually become rector. According to the conservative weekly Gazeta Polska, in the seventies Wielgus obtained permission to go to study in Germany because of the information he was feeding to the secret police, at a time when the communist regime was fighting against the Polish Church and persecuting many priests. The secret police was constantly trying to infiltrate the clergy. Despite initially denying the accusations of contacts with the national security forces, the bishop finally admitted that he had collaborated with the secret services for over 20 years: ‘I never did all that they asked, I just provided them with information and never hurt anyone with my declarations’. The Vatican cancelled the investiture ceremony programmed for Sunday 7 January 2007 at Warsaw Cathedral. The debate moved onto the streets and polls carried out by the Polish Centre for Research of Public Opinion (OBOP) showed that two thirds of all Poles thought that Wielgus should resign.

When the Vatican annulled bishop Wielgus’s appointment to the archbishopric of Warsaw, there were protests at Warsaw Cathedral against the Papal decision, while the media began to attack the Polish Church. In fact, the lynching of Wielgus was brought about by the media a long time before information on his past had been revealed. Things have gone so far that it is even possible to speak of an apparent schism within the Church between its two radical wings: that which backs the ‘lustration’, and that of the followers of Radio Maryja (an ultra-Catholic and nationalist radio station founded in December 1991 by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk), who oppose it. Media pressure emanates from a generation of journalists in their thirties, which displaced in the media –including the Catholic media– the commentators who had learned to dialogue in the difficult times of communist censorship. The latter had managed to develop the idea of an open Church; today young people, born at the end of the communist regime, are very aggressive and demanding, issuing harsh judgement on a past that they did not experience and offering their support for today’s two radical tendencies: the ‘lustration’ or Radio Maryja.

Led by the Kaczynski brothers, the Polish government has played, and continues to play, a decisive role in the development of these events, and the President’s chancellery even negotiated with the Vatican on the annulment of the appointment. The government had gone as far as placing the ‘lustration’ above reasons of state, acting against the spirit of the concordat guaranteeing the mutual independence and autonomy of Church and state. It would appear that the government would like to decide on appointments within the Polish Church and ensure that the selection process depends on information provided by its institutions, especially the Institute of National Memory. In Poland, such a direct attack on the Catholic Church is unheard of since the times of Wladyslaw Gomulka. Everyone has been able to see Catholic Poland questioning the Vatican. 

In recent years, there have been many accusations against members of the clergy for collaborating with the communist regime’s secret police that have placed the Church in an awkward situation. During the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, many commentators were struck by the prudence he displayed in his speech at Saint John’s Cathedral in Warsaw: ‘We must guard against the arrogant claim of setting ourselves up to judge earlier generations who lived in different times and different circumstances’. Faced with this crisis, the Church has up to now defended itself and accused its opponents of anti-clericalism. But present circumstances require more than an amalgam of old tactics and the good words of political observers, repeated down the years, on ideological divisions and factions within the Church. It is hard to pinpoint who is the adversary and who the ally. The discussion on ‘lustration’ in the Church has revealed the opposing points of view between some Poles and others and between Catholics, and created two controversies. The first is in regard to the ‘lustration’ itself, and the second to the future of the Church in Poland.

Two Controversies Concerning Polish Memory and the Church’s Future
The first controversy is about the ‘lustration’s’ purpose and methods and the settling of scores with communist Poland. The debate on how to write national history was opened as early as 2001, when the history of the massacre of the Jews in Jedwabne was revealed. Today, now that the participation of the clergy and their collaboration with the secret services has been unveiled, the dilemmas of Mazowiecki’s ‘thick line’ have returned to haunt the ‘lustration’. There is a mixing of issues in relation to Poland’s memory in general and that of the Church in particular. Specifically, how to write the history of a Church whose importance to Polish history has been, and remains, unquestionable, now that it has been revealed that some of its priests agreed to collaborate with the communist regime. The Church has been searching for a model for settling scores with the communist past. Its basic premise is that not all of the collaborators were equal, and that it is necessary to set certain criteria. Was the collaboration conscious? Were superiors informed about it? What were the intentions of individual clerics? What was the reason for the collaboration of a cleric in each case: money, career, a sex scandal? Or maybe the reason was as trivial as the need to obtain cement for the renovation of a Church? Was the information obtained by secret agents damaging? Political commentators disagree as to how far, in general terms, it is possible to trust the reports of secret service agents. There have been cases in which papers have contained false information, in which the accused individuals never collaborated and in which some of the people whom the secret services were trying to recruit were already registered, unbeknown to them and without their agreement. However, opponents of this relativist posture fear that this will mean that secret papers will be discredited as a truthful historical source and that any grading of the degree of collaboration might water down the ‘lustration’, with the result that those who really were guilty will not be brought to justice.

Thus, the first controversy, the dispute on the purpose and methods of the ‘lustration’, has not been solved since the fall of communism in 1989.

The crisis caused by the appointment of Bishop Wielgus and the subsequent discussion on the secret files on clerics has led to a second controversyconcerning the debate between Catholics and secularists on the functioning and future of the Church in Poland. It seems that the basic division in Polish Catholicism is not between conservatives and liberals, between an open Church and a closed Church, or between secularists and believers. The divisive issue is: How should the Church react to present accusations? Catholics agree that the Polish Church emerged safe and sound, victorious and successful, from the persecutions of the communist regime. The number of clerics who distinguished themselves for their heroic behaviour is certainly greater than that of collaborators with the regime. Moreover, it does not seem fair that the moral stigma only be attached to those who collaborated and not to the civil servants working for the secret services, who were paid a salary for spying on and recruiting collaborators by means of all manner of threats and blackmail. In the dispute as to how the Church should react to the accusations, the key question is: How can the authority of bishops and priests be rebuilt now? Some people believe that the Church has inherent authority and that it demonstrates this fact via appointments within its hierarchy. Returning to the case of Archbishop Wielgus, it is important to recall that the Vatican published an unprecedented declaration affirming that Pope Benedict XVI had absolute trust in the candidate. In theory, the Pope’s declaration should have been sufficient to kill off the doubts. But there are others who believe that the Church does not have de facto authority, and that its authority depends on the facts. Even if the Pope had confidence in the bishop’s innocence, the situation should have been clarified as soon as doubts arose. It appears that at no time did the Church request information from the Institute of National Memory. The Church’s future is at play not so much in the media as every day in the parishes, in the confession boxes and catechism classes. It is said that Poland has a Church which instructs but which does not listen. In other words, the hierarchy matters less to the faithful than the position and behaviour of priests.

A new dividing line on the Church’s future has thereby been established. Some are of the opinion that there is no danger of laicization of the country, something which was already feared at the advent of pluralism and the free market in Poland following the fall of communism and the transition to a market economy. A total of 75% of adults define themselves as practicing believers and the number of those attending Sunday mass has only fallen a few decimal points in comparison with the eighties. However, there are other symptoms that should not be ignored: 47% of Poles attend Sunday mass, but in Warsaw this percentage is only 25%. The Church in Poland has to affirm its historic authority on a daily basis, especially following the death of the Polish Pope John Paul II.

Precisely in relation to the future, it appears that those gaining ground are the people who propose using the secret police papers carefully, but who also want the Church to reveal the latter and to publicly face up to its past. The President of the Bishops’ Conference, Jozef Michalski, announced that the Polish Church is going to conduct a review on its relationship with the regime and the activities of its bishops; the resulting reports will be presented to the Vatican for the Pope to decide. The Polish Church has decided that the Historical Commission created a few months ago to analyse the complaints lodged in relation to certain clerics will extend its work to review all prelates. Poland has around 90,000 priests and members of religious orders, of whom around 27,000 are secular priests. Historians who have studied the secret police files estimate that approximately 10% of them collaborated with the regime in some way.

ConclusionThe radically anti-’lustration’ position has been morally discredited in the light of Bishop Wielgus’s case. Furthermore, the project for a radical ‘lustration’ has won over numerous supporters and many people think that it is no longer feasible to halt the process. But there are also many others who believe that if the ‘lustration’ is to continue, it will be important to conduct it in the most civilised way possible. It appears that the Poles want to read the secret police files. For some people this represents justice, while for others revenge. As we have already mentioned, the ‘lustration’, particularly in its unrestrained form, has ruined the lives of many innocent people who have been publicly accused, because the secret files are not always genuine –some were falsified or manipulated and many of those registered as ‘sources of information’ were blackmailed and pressured–. The opinion that nobody should be judged simply because they signed a declaration of collaboration tends to prevail.

On the other hand, many democrats oppose those accusing former communists, stressing the complexity of the feelings in society. Questioned in an interview on the triumph of political cynicism in Poland, the film director Agnieszka Holland responded that ‘it comes from the complexes and a conviction that evil is in the others, not in ourselves’. Throughout the history of Poland, Poles have always attributed evils to foreigners: to the Russians, Germans, Communists or Jews. The present division between ‘we-good’ and ‘them-bad’ serves to condemn practically the whole population that lived under the communist regime. It is common knowledge that authoritarian or totalitarian political regimes are maintained by a fabric of daily lies in which citizens, in trying to live their lives, invariably participate to some extent. Only a handful of opponents were openly against the regime; and it is difficult for the supporters of the ‘lustration’ to admit this, because they also formed part of this overwhelming silent majority. It is simply not appropriate to judge choices and behaviours in those days from the standpoint of a free and democratic country. Vaclav Havel suggested that each person should reflect on his or her own responsibility for having supported the communist regime. Zygmunt Bauman has said that in Poland historical memory is being used as a tool in the struggle of the current governing class, mainly new arrivals, to laud themselves with praise for somehow having contributed to overthrowing the communist regime. In doing so, it denies anti-communist opponents their just desserts, and discredits any moral and political position which may be different.

In view of how things are developing, it would appear that the process of declassifying the secret files may be postponed and modulated, but it cannot be halted. It does not matter how much secret information is unveiled or how many times forgiveness is asked for: it will always be insufficient for supporters of the ‘lustration’. This may lead to a traumatic division of the nation and erosion of the great authority that the Church had gained due to its position of independence under the communist regime. The historical irony is that it has been the Catholic Church itself which has caused the crisis of the Church in Poland, thereby facilitating secularist attacks against the Polish Church hierarchy. It is the right-wing radicals, religious conservatives, who are backing a ‘lustration’ process in the Church, with a surprising lack of respect for the bishops. Their position and actions may have very significant consequences. Time will tell if these serve to strengthen democracy and the Church or to weaken them.

Izabela Barlinska
Associate, Analistas Socio-Políticos, Gabinete de Estudios