It’s been a tough month for Polish Catholicism. Yet, even in the wake of the resignation of Warsaw’s new archbishop and the revelations of clerical cooperation with the communist secret police, the Catholic Church in Poland can reconfirm its traditional roles as the guardian of Poland’s noblest instincts and the nation’s tutor in moral truth — if it remembers something Pope John Paul II said to a French journalist, Andre Frossard.
Frossard asked, “What is the most important word in the New Testament?” John Paul immediately replied, “Truth.” Why? Because the truth sets us free in the deepest meaning of human liberation. And from that spiritual liberation, much good can come. Poland lived that fact of moral and public life in the 1980s, when a revolution of conscience, ignited by John Paul II and supported by the Polish Church, led to the nonviolent Revolution of 1989 and the restoration of Poland’s liberties.
Amidst the drama and controversy of the past several weeks, that great truth — “No Church, No Solidarity, No Revolution of 1989″ — remains intact. Now, however, the world knows something every Pole, and every serious student of modern Polish history, already knew: not everyone was an anti-communist resistance hero. That fact should not obscure two others, however. First, there were far, far more heroes than scoundrels in Polish Catholicism under communism; perhaps 10% of the Polish clergy were involved with the SB, the secret police. Second, the people who produced the SB files now being scrutinized are moral villains, too — as much as, or even more than, those who collaborated, in different ways and with different degrees of culpability.
The Polish Church can regain control of its own story if it provides a comprehensive account of its stewardship during the communist period, using the archive of SB files kept in Poland’s Institute of National Memory [IPN]. Those materials are “raw files,” and some reflect the ambitions of unscrupulous police ferrets more than the truth of particular situations. Yet the IPN archives do contain truths that should be brought to light, both to liberate the Church from burdensome aspects of its past and to confirm the larger truth of the nobility of the Catholic struggle, under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, for the Church’s freedom and Poland’s. If, in the process, Poles are reminded that moral clarity sometimes lies on the far side of moral complexity, that is no bad thing; it is, in fact, an essential understanding in a democracy. In rendering an account of its stewardship, the Church would also perform a public service. The media is rarely an instrument of precise moral analysis. The Church can help Poles understand that there were different forms of interaction with the SB, and that some activities were far worse than others.
Casual interaction with the ferrets by people seeking passports to study or do research abroad is one thing; others refused even that minimum of cooperation, and their steadfastness should be honored. Still, we have to ask whether someone’s interactions with the SB led, with that person’s knowledge and will, to material or moral harm to others. Some churchmen — who imagined themselves more clever than the police and accepted advantages in return for clerical gossip — cooperated because of their egos; they strike me more as fools than villains, although their foolishness was not morally neutral. Venality was the sin of others, and a more serious moral failure, too. Those who pridefully imagined that they could “use” their secret police contacts to build a more open Polish Church, and ended up doing the communists’ political bidding, bear a particularly heavy burden; they betrayed both Church and society.
The kind of comprehensive, carefully calibrated moral reckoning needed here can only be provided by the Polish Church itself, in cooperation with reputable scholars. During the years I’ve been aware of the IPN archives, I’ve been waiting for the Polish Church to seize what struck me as a great opportunity. It didn’t; the result is the drama and damage of the past month. Yet the opportunity remains. In the spirit of John Paul II who taught the liberating power of truth, it should be seized — quickly.