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Abortion vote not a defeat for pope but for conservative Polish bishops

NCR Staff

The Polish parliamentary vote Oct. 24 that liberalized abortion was less a defeat for Pope John Paul II -- who had appealed to Poles not to approve the bill -- than it was partisan Polish politics amid the increasing secularization of Polish society, according to one seasoned observer.

Life issues to one side, the political loser in the confrontation was not the pope but the Polish "church," meaning the Polish bishops as centralized in their episcopal conference, said commentator Jonathan Luxmoore in a telephone interview from Warsaw, Poland.

Luxmoore, who is completing a book on the pope's role in the end of Polish communist rule, said "the conference is where the real antagonism toward the government rests, and from where the church issues the fighting statements that have come out repeatedly over the last few years -- particularly since the election of an ex-communist-dominated government in September 1993."

The vote overturned a 1993 law -- put into effect by a pro-Catholic government -- that permitted abortion only to preserve the mother's life or when the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest or when the fetus was nonviable. The vote in the Parliament's lower house was to override senate blockage of the legislation. Catholics -- and 90 percent of Poles are nominally Catholic -- bombarded their representatives with letters and staged a massive silent march to no avail.

But the problem -- for the church -- is greater than the presence of former communist President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who promised to immediately sign the new abortion bill into law. It has to do with the growth of democracy.

Luxmoore, a British journalist living in Warsaw, said, "Broadly speaking the period since 1989 (when the communist regime fell) has been one of adjustment for the church, almost of failed adjustment. Under communist rule the situation was, paradoxically, at least in some respects a rather favorable one for the church."

The 1980s, the latter communist period, witnessed the great age of church-building in Poland, Luxmoore said, and the statistics reflected it: church attendance and vocations were at record levels.

"It was almost a Golden Age for the church," said the commentator. "Since then," he continued, "the church has had to compete with a great many other attractions, a great many other expressions of civic, official, social and moral loyalty that have come into Polish society since the end of communist rule."

The Polish institutional church is not dealing easily with what Luxmoore -- a specialist on Eastern European affairs -- calls Poland's "chaotic democracy" and was in some ways content with the earlier, "tidier way of dealing with things behind the scenes with the government, operating with a certain balance of power even though it knew those people were hostile to it," he said.

"It was," said Luxmoore, "a carefully worked out system of checks and balances and privileges. Negotiations happened behind the scenes without any scrutiny by the press or public."

With the end of communism and the liberalizing of the media and civic organizations "the situation is entirely different," he said, "and the church has to deal in the full glare of television cameras with hostile parliamentarians. The church is not happy with the situation and has had a lot of trouble adjusting to it," he said.

Essentially the church, if forced to choose, he said, "would probably opt for a democratic system, but a democracy that preserves the kind of institutional values the church wants to see preserved." As this latest vote illustrates, that is not happening in Poland.

The center of Catholic authority in Poland is the episcopal conference of 112 bishops. Even so, Luxmoore said, "there is often a big difference between what the conference says and what the local priests -- or even the occasional bishop -- is saying."

There is a group of about 7 to 10 bishops who "appear to be very reasonable people, younger and rather ostentatiously approachable, with good media presence and so forth," he said, "but that still leaves well over a hundred" who are much more traditional -- and confrontational.

The pope, Luxmoore said, is outside the political equation. "His name and authority are used to support the position of the bishops' conference on particular issues, the constitution, the concordat, abortion and so forth, yet his position in Poland remains somewhat fascinating.

"The knowledge of the pope's teaching among Poles is at a very low level, lower than among American Catholics, for example," said Luxmoore, "because, I think, the Polish bishops' conference wants to keep actual public knowledge of the pope at that low level."

The bishops prefer to have the pope as a lofty figure, he said, and the bishops do not want Poles and Polish Catholics debating what the pope says and does.

"It isn't necessary from the bishops' conference point of view to disseminate what the pope is saying, or allow any critical awareness -- how does the pope compare with his predecessors, why do Catholics in the West so often disagree with what the pope says, and so on -- for Poles might start questioning," he said.

"Paradoxically, that is why there's a very undeveloped knowledge of the pope, his system, his anthropology, his moral theology. Very undeveloped," said Luxmoore.

With or without the pope, the Polish Catholic decline continues. Church attendance (Mass two or three times a month), is at 35 per cent, down from the high 50s in 1989, Luxmoore said, while vocations -- particularly to the women's orders -- have dropped precipitously.

The church, Luxmoore said, counters that the mid-1980s figures were artificially high due to the dramatic circumstances -- "martial law and such, and that the current ones are more typical, which may be true or not," he said. Poles, when surveyed on, "which institution you most trust or respect or feel most represents the interests of Poland," have seen the church tumble from top spot to sixth or seventh behind the Polish Army, Polish TV, Polish radio, the Polish police, and Polish civil rights spokesmen, he said.

"It must be emphasized," Luxmoore said, "that these polls are specifically dealing with questions of representing the public interest." Even so, he said, "where the Polish parliament, president and government were below the church until about a year ago, now the president -- this ex-communist -- has overtaken church in most opinion poll ratings."

And abortion, the most common form of birth control during communist rule, is now legal up to the 12th week of pregnancy -- for financial or personal reasons -- following counseling and three days of reflection.

National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 1996