What's behind Vatican's switch on Poland, East bloc

''The time of anger and illusions is over. A more balanced and organized effort is needed.''

This is how a Polish church leader at the Vatican describes the new strategy the Roman Catholic Church has adopted in Poland.

The strategy was drafted during Polish Primate Archbishop Jozef Glemp's recent visit to the Vatican. Polish clergymen have dubbed it ''stabilization,'' but this still vague concept signals that the church is moving again after months of confrontation and stalemate with Polish authorities.

''We must resume a dialogue and work within the institutions,'' a Polish clergyman has pointed out.

The shift in church policy came unexpectedly. Archbishop Glemp arrived in Rome carrying the burden of the banning of the independent Solidarity union that appeared to mark the failure of his moderate approach, exposing him to harsh criticism from the Polish episcopacy. There had even been rumors that Pope John Paul II might consider replacing him as primate.

But after 10 days of intense talks at the Vatican, Glemp accompanied the Pontiff on his visit to Spain, a recognition of the validity of his efforts to accommodate the martial law regime.

Archbishop Glemp's policy of compromise is based on an unemotional analysis of the Polish situation: ''Continuing confrontation jeopardizes the very existence of the Polish nation,'' it reinforces extremism and diminishes the church's political leverage, forcing it to chase after a clandestine movement that it cannot control and that, in the primate's opinion, no longer represents the entire nation.

In a speech last September, before Solidarity was banned, Glemp charged that there are elements who want to trigger terrorist actions and willingly hide behind the cover of Solidarity, ''poisoning'' the very concept of the independent union.

''What is the real essence of Solidarity? Where are the ideals on which the nation had pinned so many hopes? Experience has shown that violent disorders sharpen tension, and there are those whose interests lie in continuing unrest because they want to destroy the Polish state,'' Glemp charged.

The primate's words echoed the line followed by his predecessor, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski. That line was based on a continuing compromise with the communist regime to reinforce the church but not at the cost of endangering a state in a crucial geopolitical position.

The raison d'etat was the essence of what had been dubbed the ''Polish paradox'' - a real power based on full popular consensus, the Catholic Church, which legitimized a formal power imposed from the outside, the communist regime. But the delicate balance was tipped by the explosion of the ''Gdansk summer,'' sparked by a popular movement demanding full participation in the political process.

Two years after Wyszynski's failure in an emotional televised speech to convince workers to call off the strikes, the late primate's approach has gained new credibility. ''We have understood that a frontal clash created neither winners nor losers and political and economic paralysis weakened the institutions of both the state and the church, giving free rein to the more orthodox and hard-line forces,'' a Polish member of the Roman curia said.

The prevailing opinion at the Vatican is that currently there are no better alternatives to the Jaruzelski regime and that with the disarray of the Polish Communist Party (which has succeeded in creating new official unions in only 300 of the country's 60,000 firms) it will be easier to reach a broader national compromise. ''The military is less ideologically oriented and more nationalist, thus giving us a better chance,'' according to a Polish source in Rome.

The church's analysis of the domestic Polish situation has led it to a more realistic stance, but Glemp's line prevailed over the more radical elements in the Polish episcopacy, also thanks to the strong support he found within the Roman curia.

A foreign diplomat at the Vatican observed that ''tension in Poland and fear of spreading contagion put a wedge between the church and the communist regimes in other East bloc nations and could further undermine the Vatican's Ostpolitik.''

The Holy See's detente toward the Soviet bloc, which began in the mid-1960s under Pope Paul VI, was conceived to revitalize the organization of the Catholic Church, atrophied after years of ideological confrontation. Through a cautious small-steps diplomacy, the Vatican tried to obtain more seminaries, build more churches, fill vacant dioceses, and, more generally, put an end to persecution of Catholics.

Paul VI's approach was not shared by Krakow Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who accused him of ''over-diplomacy,'' lack of spiritual content and bypassing the national churches by giving priority to institutionalized relations with communist regimes. On becoming Pope John Paul II, he chose a missionary stance over diplomacy, ''trying to awaken the consciences of believers and rulers and linking religious freedom to other human and civil rights,'' according to Dominik Morawski, a Catholic Polish journalist.

This new position, coupled with Polish unrest, sharpened suspicions and mistrust among the communist regimes. Church-state relations became particulary tense in Czechoslovakia, where only five of 13 dioceses are occupied, young priests are drafted, and no new building permits for churches have been issued. Repression against 4 million Greek Rite Catholics also increased in the Ukraine, on the border with Poland, where bishops still live in clandestineness.

Fear of repression increased also among Catholic communities that had been granted broader freedoms. Cardinal Lekai, primate of Hungary, harshly accused the Polish church of nourishing illusions and urged it to return to a step-by-step policy.

The prominence and stalemate of the Polish question had restricted the strategy of the Vatican. Thus Glemp's moderate approach found broad support in the curia, eager to resume its diplomatic pace.

This new stance was also bolstered when, shortly before Leonid Brezhnev's death, Moscow sent an important signal of ''good faith,'' giving its consent to the appointment of three Baltic bishops - two Lithuanians and one Latvian - a problem that had been pending for 23 years.

''But the Pope has also adjusted his approach,'' according to Morawski. ''Today he feels more leader of the whole Catholic Church than cardinal of Krakow. He has also understood that the Polish experience cannot be easily transplanted.''

By defusing the Polish affair, the Vatican intends to put back in motion its Ostpolitik. In this light, the church expects the Warsaw regime to allow it to form its own organizations, enabling Catholics to participate directly in the political process. The project is not limited to trade unions but, as Archbishop Glemp has indicated, should involve ''city councils, regional governments, ministries, and parliament.''

The goal of the Polish church is that state institutions become more pluralistic, overcoming the lack of political participation that had led first to worker protest and subsequently to the imposition of martial law.

For its part, the Vatican will make its next moves in international forums to seek a broader framework for the problem of religious freedom in East bloc countries. The first step will be taken in Madrid at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, where Vatican diplomats will officially raise the issue.

''The Catholic clergy in Eastern Europe puts particular emphasis on the importance of a specific international guarantee directly involving Moscow. This would prevent confining the matter to each individual country where there could never be a solution,'' the foreign diplomat observed.

''Stabilization'' in Warsaw seems to imply a great deal of diplomatic dynamism. But the test case of what has been hastily dubbed at the Vatican ''Ostpolitik 1983'' remains Poland, where, the Polish member of the curia said, ''If the regime is unable to build a bridge to its society, there will be no stabilization and unrest and upheaval will continue, undermining also the Vatican's new strategical vision.''

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