High Noon in Poland, 30 years later

George Weigel

Thirty years ago last week, Poland began to self-liberate from communism through the first semi-free elections held behind the iron curtain since World War II. The memorable 1989 election poster created by the Solidarity movement’s graphic artists featured Gary Cooper as Marshall Will Kane in the western epic, High Noon: the lawman was wearing a red-and-white Solidarity pin over his badge while striding purposefully toward the bad guys, with the jumbled red-letter Solidarnosc logo in the background. There were no slogans on the poster; the image said it all — this is an election of great consequence, between good and evil.

As things turned out, Solidarity candidates won 99 out of the 100 contested seats in the newly-created Polish Senate and swept all the contested seats in the lower house of parliament. That overwhelming victory on June 4, 1989, turbo-charged the decade-long process of change ignited in east central Europe by Pope John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage to his native land. By the end of a true annus mirabilis, communism was finished throughout the Warsaw Pact and was on its way into the dustbin of history in the Soviet Union (a state that was also on its way out the door, much to the chagrin of a middle-tier KGB operative named Vladimir Putin).

During the tumultuous 1980s, Poles often said that they wanted a “normal society,” and that is in large measure what they’ve gotten. Poland is a robust, if increasingly fractious, democracy. Its economy is among the most robust in Europe. Poland is a member of the European Union and a stalwart of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The cultural free-for-all we now associate with late modernity and post-modernity is well established in Polish cities and in the national media. Virtually every imaginable public policy argument encountered in the older democracies of western Europe and North America can be found in Poland, although it can’t be said that those arguments are conducted in Poland with any more rationality and civility than elsewhere.

That’s a sadness. For as Solidarity’s High Noon poster reminds us, there was, in living memory, a brief, shining moment of moral clarity in Polish politics. And while it would have been foolish to expect that the line between good and evil would remain as bright and bold as it was when the issue was communist tyranny vs. democratic liberties, it might have been hoped that the lessons of the 1980s would have led Poland to model a new depth of debate in politics, rather than recycling the shallowness and shrillness found in much of the democratic world today.

What would John Paul II have made of all this? He would likely have been disappointed. But he would have remained a witness to hope, a man convinced that the better angels of our nature have a place in public life. And he would insist that public life is not just a gladiatorial arena for contesting power. Democratic public life must also be a place of human encounter, a place for building solidarity as well as for exercising personal liberties; a place where moral truth can make its claims and where “freedom” means more than childish willfulness.

What John Paul II would not have countenanced in any way, shape, or form is the anti-Semitism that occasionally bubbles to the surface of contemporary Polish public life from the fever swamps of the past. He would have deplored a Polish parliamentarian describing as a “provocation” the Passover good wishes tweeted by the U.S. ambassador to Poland in April. He would have cringed at a Polish political activist’s squalid complaint about the ambassadorial tweet: “Christ died and was resurrected also for you, pagans and traitorous Jews.” And he would have been appalled by a Polish bishop fouling his Chrism Mass homily on Holy Thursday by quoting a fake anti-Semitic text from the 1930s, redolent of the Jewish-world-conspiracy madness of the bogus Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Public anti-Semitism is an infallible indicator of sickness in the body politic, everywhere. The Solidarity coalition that liberated Poland 30 years ago was composed of Catholics and Jews, believers and non-believers, radicals, liberals, and conservatives. That coalition took its inspiration from a Polish pope who bent every effort to heal ancient wounds in Catholic-Jewish relations. This 30th anniversary of an electrifying moment in Polish history is a good time for Poles of all political persuasions to reclaim his heritage — and live it.

COMING UP: Restoring, and strengthening, episcopal credibility

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Pope Francis’s recent motu proprio on sexual abuse, Vos estis lux mundi [You Are the Light of the World], was a welcome addition to Church law, as world Catholicism seeks to heal the wounds of abuse victims, promote chaste living, foster mutual accountability within the Body of Christ, and restore the credibility of the Church’s leadership. The response to the motu proprio by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, ably summed up that document’s achievement:

Vos estis lux mundi calls for the establishment of easily accessible reporting systems, clear standards for the pastoral support of victims and their families, timeliness and thoroughness of investigations, whistleblower protection for those making allegations, and active involvement of the laity. It also leaves latitude for national bishops’ conferences, such as the USCCB, to specify still more to account for local circumstances…Vos estis lux mundi…[is] is a blessing that will empower the Church everywhere to bring predators to justice, no matter what rank they hold in the Church. It also permits the Church the time and opportunity to bring spiritual healing.”

The motu proprio is also a vindication of the Church in the United States and its bishops. Many of its provisions for handling abuse cases have been common practice in the U.S. since 2002 (and in some American dioceses, earlier than that). Amidst the frustration that has boiled over here this past year, too many American Catholics, misled by irresponsible reporting or grandstanding by state officials, may not realize that the Church in the United States has been a world leader in addressing the sin and crime of clerical sexual abuse. This leadership has not always been welcomed, in Rome and elsewhere. But much of what was pioneered in the United States is now universal Church law. By making abuse-reporting obligatory and providing canonical protection for clerics reporting abuse, Pope Francis has improved on the American achievement of the past decade and a half.

As Cardinal DiNardo noted, Vos estis lux mundi not only universalizes strong legal and procedural norms for dealing with clerical sexual abuse; it also allows, and might even be seen to call for, creativity on the part of national bishops’ conferences to build on the foundation Pope Francis has laid. That “latitude for national bishops’ conferences…to specify still more” should now be utilized by the U.S. bishops at their June meeting: to honor the Pope’s invitation to devise particular solutions for particular situations, according to the Holy Father’s principle of “synodality”; to meet the expectations of the most dedicated, committed Catholics in the United States; and to offer the world Church further models to consider. Vos estis lux mundi, like the particular Church law in place in the United States since the abuse crisis of 2002, deals primarily with sexual abuse by priests. The next steps in this process of Catholic reform involve devising mechanisms for guaranteeing episcopal accountability, in terms of both a bishop’s personal conduct and his handling of abuse allegations in the diocese entrusted to his care.

There seems to be a consensus, in Rome and the U.S., that these mechanisms should operate at the level of Church “provinces,” with the metropolitan archbishop of each ecclesiastical province as the responsible party (or the senior suffragan bishop in a province, if the metropolitan archbishop is being charged with an offense). To make that mechanism credible, and to provide the metropolitan archbishops the assistance they need in handling allegations against other bishops, three more provisions seem necessary:

1. Lay Catholics — presumably the archdiocesan review board of the province in question — must be informed of an allegation against a bishop, from the point at which that allegation is made to the metropolitan archbishop. Such a requirement embodies the principle of mutual accountability within the Church while protecting the metropolitan archbishop from any future suggestion that he is burying an allegation to protect a brother bishop.

2. Competent and discreet lay professionals should be involved in the investigation of any allegation against a bishop.

3. It must be guaranteed that, when the entire process has been completed in the U.S. and Rome, and a decision reached, there will be a public explanation of the decision and the rationale for it, perhaps released through the relevant archdiocesan review board.

Adopting these provisions in June will accelerate the healing of a wounded Church and enhance the bishops’ credibility, while heeding the Pope’s call for local creativity.

Featured image by Vatican Media