For the Intellectual Moorings of Polish Faith
Anderson: How has the Polish Church, which performed with such heroism during the long struggle against totalitarian rule, responded to the birth of democratic and capitalist institutions in Poland?
Zieba: Before I address what happened after 1989—a year widely recognized as a turning point in the history of the democratic project—it is necessary to briefly recount the modern history of Polish Catholicism. In the 19th century, when Poland was divided, a mainly Catholic society found itself oppressed by the Protestant Prussian Kulturkampf, the Orthodox Russian Czarist regime, and the Austrian ideology of Josephinism. Later on, of course, Poland experienced the full force of the 20th century's twin totalitarianisms, Nazism and Communism. In a 200 year period of our nation's history, then, we have had, prior to 1989, only 17 years of real independence—between 1922 and 1939. Throughout those two centuries, the Church in Poland was the only independent institution, and so, quite naturally, an identification arose between Poland and Catholicism. Let me describe this phenomenon:
The key word here would be “faithfulness,” which meant being faithful to both Poland and the Church. This attitude was appropriate to the concrete, historical circumstances, and it had several dimensions. First, it was passive in nature—that is, opposed to being present in the arena of public life, since such presence was closed off to it and thus impossible.
Secondly, it can be described as uncompromising, since a compromise was understood to be a more subtle form of betrayal. One should not forget about the various efforts which nearly resulted in the biological extinction of the Polish clergy: during the 19th century, an official secularization policy; Nazism (30 percent of Poland's priests were killed); and the dark period of Stalinism (not only the Polish primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski—a hero of the “resistance Church”—but a full seventh of all clergy were at one point or another imprisoned by the communists, accused of being CIAagents, or caught with a few dollars).
What did all that mean for the Church?
The final result of this systematic oppression was a pronounced weakening in the field of theology and in intellectual reflection in general. On the other hand, and more importantly, there was great heroism: Christian witness, and even true sainthood, ending in martyrdom. What must be stressed, however, is that the Catholic Church was quite unprepared for the birth of democracy.
“One cannot be a good Catholic without being a good citizen,” the Polish bishops have said in one of their letters. This new model of the “Catholic citizen” that the former model of identification between Pole and Catholic is being transformed into marks a new challenge: it requires a certain dynamic, a sense of creative cooperation, and an art of prudent compromise.
The other characteristic feature of the Polish Church's current situation is her new role in the realm of politics. In the decade prior to 1989, the weakened communists, the opposition (including many atheists), workers, and students all deeply respected the Church. All of them demanded from the Church an engagement with the political life of the country. After 1989, the Church in Poland discovered (and continues to discover) a new realm in which she should be active: it is public rather than political; to be more precise it is metapolitical rather than directly political.
The changes within the Polish Church are quite dramatic when looked at from the vantage point of history. One symptom of these changes is that the Church now faces aggressive new opponents, including the liberal media which describe the Church as an enemy of the state, society, and modernity. And then there are the post-communists, who play their game in a very cynical way, trying to divide Polish society in order to create a sort of “religious war” surrounding recent negotiations between the Polish government and the Holy See.
Interestingly, though, what we might call the “normal society” in Poland remains Christian: each Sunday more than half of the population attends Mass; 80 percent go to church at least on occasion, and only 4 percent declare themselves to be non-believers. Teaching the Catholic faith in the schools has turned out to be a success. According to a recent survey of graduating students, “religion” is the course where they find themselves listened to by their professors, and where they have complete freedom of expression. The number of vocations to the priesthood has also remained high—1,400 to 1,500 a year since 1989.
Recently you founded the Tertio Millennio Institute, located in Krakow. What is its connection to John Paul II's apostolic exhortation
People in Poland are very religious, but this religiosity is often cut-off from any real intellectual dimension. The same holds true of the popular understanding of this pontificate. John Paul II is widely respected, and loved by the people; there are many streets and squares named after him. But the reception of his teaching is rather insufficient, or even perfunctory. The Pope is recognized more as a symbol than as the shepherd of the Church, an understanding of which would extend our Polish character into Catholic universality.
Thus, growing from the recognition of a need on the part of the Polish Church for serious theological and pastoral reflection, the idea of establishing the Tertio Millennio Institute came into being. Of course it also grows out of John Paul II's teaching concerning the great jubilee of Christianity. This symbolic date is to prepare us for the second coming of Christ, and should not be treated as a mere celebration, even of a religious nature.
This Institute is also closely linked to my friendship with many Americans who have taught me the importance of such small, but concrete undertakings. Besides promoting the Pope's teaching, we are trying to lay the intellectual and theological groundwork for the Pope's coming pilgrimage to Poland. This project is meant to be an incentive to debate, both public (in the leading newspapers and journals) and, more privately, within a small, select group of politicians, scientists, artists, and thinkers. Our intention is to publish a few books before the Pope's arrival, and to prepare a series of TV programs. We cannot waste this great opportunity!
You have written extensively on economics, which seems an unusual area of specialization for a Dominican monk. In fact, the subtitle of your new book is
Christianity has to it a concrete, realistic dimension. In the somewhat provocative subtitle to my book, I point toward the “new things” Poland is experiencing— new particularly in how we put them together. The concrete situation we face in Poland is that of a modern society with a free market economy. Christians act in such a reality, often struggling against all sorts of temptations, but also multiplying their talents through creative cooperation with others. This sphere of reality requires its contemplative dimension, filled with prayer.
There is a misguided notion, circulating across Europe, that capitalism is immoral in its very nature. In Central Europe, communist propaganda has done a great deal over the years to sustain that distorted image. John Paul II in Centesimus Annus shows a new, multidimensional vision of capitalism: more fully human, based on principles of freedom, solidarity, and the creativity of the acting person. Our duty is to give voice to this new articulation of economics, politics, and culture in a theological way.
One of the sources of the enormous strength of the Polish Church throughout modern history has been its ability to describe reality in a theological way, so to speak. But the most important thing about such a description is that it has also been very realistic, so that many people, including those who were outside the Church, could accept it. We have to do the same thing now. Christians must try to be authentic Christians 24-hours-a-day, lest they become schizophrenic. It is therefore the Church's mission to show them how to be a Christian entrepreneur, a Christian worker, a Christian lawyer, and so forth.
In the past 50 years there was in Poland no ethical reflection on economic life; for the sake of our society this situation has to change. This is why the Church is also responsible for changing people's awareness of economic life, along with other realms. There needs to be an awareness that poverty—not in the evangelical sense—bears with it a host of social pathologies, such as weaker families, more abortions, more drugs, more crimes, etc.
Some American liberals including the philosopher Richard Rorty have said that democracy can only work when tinged by relativism. Obviously you would disagree with this, but I wonder how far it has intruded into Polish intellectual life, and how you might respond to those who make such assertions?
You are absolutely right—I do disagree! Unfortunately this way of think-ing—naive, shortsighted, and even dangerous—has been an influential part of the intellectual life of our epoch, and Polish intellectual life hasn't been completely impervious to it. Fortunately, however, we have a great advantage on our side: John Paul II's thought and teaching about democracy, most fully expressed in Centesimus Annus.Democracy must have firm moral foundations, foundations that prevent it from turning into a kind of fundamentalism. Democracy is not the incarnation of the absolute truth, rather, it's best seen as an alternative to anarchy. Many distinguished thinkers, from Plato to John Paul II share an anxiety about the connection between democracy and anarchy. Let me remind you that anarchy derives from an “arche”—a lack of foundations, a lack of principles. Looking at the word “democracy” etymologically, certain dangers are illumined: there are two different meanings of the word “demos”—rule or power; similarly, there are two different meanings of the word “cratos”—people or mob.
The Pope, in Centesimus Annus, describes democracy positively when certain features central to it are in place: a system of checks and balances; the broad participation of each member of society in public life; and the transfer of power without bloodshed (something rare in human history). He also warns us against the most common errors of modern democracies, such as the limitation of democracy to its procedural institutions, and a lack of reflection concerning this problem.
At this point it might be appropriate to mention what I view to be some of the necessary conditions for democracy to function—a Pentalogue of democracy: a common belief that people are equal; a moral and intellectual optimism about the ability of men and women to learn to distinguish good and evil; a principle of the common good (understood in a pluralistic and dynamic way) as a constitutive feature of a community; and finally, a certain magnanimity toward minorities, something I consider to be an important democratic virtue. Without these five factors, democracy falls into increasing conflict, eventually overturning into anarchy, which is, as Plato precisely describes it in the Republic, followed by an authoritarian regime.
But if all of the above are secured, there is a large space for what Jacques Maritain called “civic faith,” which is not only an option for Christians, but can also be shared by people of different views and opinions. This seems to me to be a serious alternative for that dangerous relativism you have mentioned.
Are you optimistic about Poland's future?
I am, given that it is in Polish hands for the first time—with the short exception I mentioned earlier—in more than two centuries. While there are always many difficulties, our current geopolitical situation is a source of legitimate hope, and even a rather non-Slavic optimism. On the other hand, as a Slavic pessimist, I realize how extremely difficult it is to overcome our communist heritage, namely the destruction of the economy, the natural environment, human health, and, above all, the human conscience.
Can you imagine that in 1946, as many as 56 percent of German citizens still believed that Nazism was a good system, and that its collapse was due solely to historical accident? And yet millions of Germans died during the war, cities were burned to the ground, and everyone knew about the death camps by 1946. The people just could not overcome their Nazi-shaped consciences. And then call to mind the fact that, in our part of Europe, communism lasted longer than Nazism.
Finally, who have been the most powerful influences on your thinking?
My generation in the mid-'70s had no great intellectual masters here in Poland. All had by then emigrated. Censorship was ubiquitous. It was for this reason that, initially hesitating as to whether I should study history or physics, I chose the latter. It has taught me (I hope) a certain precision of thinking, given me the ability to construct models, and made me more humble in the face of reality.
Nevertheless, I must mention several authors, whose books were officially proscribed, who deeply shaped my thinking. The most important thing for us was to build an intellectual alternative to all the official textbooks, TV programs, newspapers—which were saturated with lies. Leszek Kolakowski (who has lectured in the past 30 years in Oxford and Chicago) helped me most to unmask Marxism and overcome the burden of socialism. Czeslaw Milosz the Polish poet and Nobel prize winner, showed me the depth of the metaphysical crisis of our time, and the true magnitude of Christian culture. Thanks to Christopher Dawson, I realized how Christianity has shaped culture in human history as a whole. I should also mention the German Ordoliberals (Wilhelm Roepke in particular), F.A. Hayek, Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, and Raymond Aron. Among the many theologians I deeply respect, it has been [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger, [Romano] Guardini, and [Hans Urs Von] Balthasar who have had the greatest influence on my thinking. Then, in the course of my Dominican studies, I discovered the power and depth of St. Thomas Aquinas' theology. Finally, the most important decision I have made in my intellectual life was to study, in a systematic fashion, the thought of John Paul II. There is for me in this study an unending astonishment: The Pope's ability of being at once general and concrete, multidimensional and integral, pluralistic and universal. Studying his writings and observing his activities I would say that the Pope offers a Summa Theologiae for the turn of the millennium.
Father Maciej Zieba OP
Record: Active member of the Clubs of the Catholic Intelligentsia, which played a key role in the peaceful overthrow of communism in Poland. Served on the editorial board of the Solidarity Weekly in Warsaw. Is the author of several books; many of his articles have been translated in Crisis and First Things. Former director of the publishing house “w drodze” in Poznan.
Current Post: Co-founder of the Center for Political Thought in Krakow, which each summers hosts an institute devoted to the work of, and presided over by, Michael Novak, Father Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel. Recently launched a think tank dedicated to Catholic social thought, the Tertio Millennio Institute. Contributing editor to the famed Tygodnik Powszechny.
Vision: Drawing on the works of the late Father John Courtney Murray and Michael Novak, he is Poland's leading exponent of their vision of U.S.-style political and religious freedom, and in particular of Novak's theory of democratic capitalism.
- April 13-19,1997