Poland Now — China Later?

Only those who have forgotten history should be shocked by the recent news regarding the Church in Poland. The myth that the Catholic Church, and especially the late Pope John Paul II, single-handedly brought down international Communism may make for good press, but it is far from the complete truth.  This became evident with recent resignation of the newly designated archbishop of Warsaw, due to the exposure of his cooperation with the Communist rulers of Poland decades back. And it is likely that similar revelations regarding many other Polish bishops and priests will follow.

Personally, I'm not surprised. Some forty years ago a young Polish-American priest friend of mine made a trip to Poland to visit his grandmother before she died.  He came back amazed by the high standard of living -- compared to the average Polish citizen -- that he saw among the Polish clergy.  He said a lot of them seemed to have good housing, TVs, good cars, and even more to his surprise, many new churches were being built.  All this despite being under a regime that was supposedly atheistic!

The fact is that all down through history the Church has usually managed to strike a bargain with governments, sometimes even with governments it would prefer didn't exist.  We should also remember that for Poles, there really was no choice.  Abandoned by the West in the Potsdam Agreement, rule by home-grown Communists was far more tolerable than direct rule from Moscow.  In a way President Ford was right on: these people were not completely dominated by Moscow. Whether Catholic or Communist, they were Poles first of all.

Today, despite the vastly lower proportion of Catholics to the general population, we see a similar situation developing in China where there are virtually two Catholic Churches.  Dating from pre-Communist days, there is the traditional church, which still is believed to have some 5 to 8 million followers. Often referred to as the "Underground Church", it remains secretive and oppressed, and it would seem, with a lot of its mostly elderly clergy in prison, almost out of touch with the rest of the Catholic world.  Then there is the government-approved "Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association", which is said to also have some five million members. Although Pope Pius XII excommunicated the bishops of this latter group back in 1957, as of late there have been some little publicized gestures of reconciliation between Beijing and the Vatican. But the main problems remain, mostly over the appointment of bishops, with the Communist government, rather ironically, claiming to uphold the ancient Christian custom of people electing their own bishops but of course, only if the government approves the candidate in the first place.  This is against the Vatican's insistence on the more recent practice of direct appointment by the pope. It is also complicated by the Vatican's official recognition of the Catholic Church in Taiwan.

When it is all over, and Chinese Communism eventually finishes "morphing" into something resembling the capitalist West, which policy will have proved best?  While stubborn resistance may make for martyrs and heroes, one cannot wonder if seeming accommodation doesn't pay off more generously in the end.  But when it finally happens, most likely we'll see something like what is happening in Poland today taking place. And when it does, let's hope that the heroes will have compassion for those who accommodated in order to survive, maybe even to thrive even if it was at the cost of their integrity.

R W Kropf    1/23/07                                           Poland2.mss 600words