Catholic Church and State Resume Old Battle Over Power in Poland

THE Roman Catholic Church and the Polish government are waging a battle in a war some compare to the church's hard-won fight against communist repression.

At stake is the Catholic Church's role in this country: A proposed diplomatic agreement with the Vatican would give the church jurisdiction in certain state affairs along with giving it preference over other religions.

Proponents say it would restore Poland's historic role as a rampart of Roman Catholicism in Europe. They feel that increasing the church's influence would balance out not only decades of secularization under Communist rule, but also the materialism they see in a free-market society. More than 90 percent of Poles are Catholics.

But the Alliance of Leftist Democrats (SLD) - part of the ruling government coalition - is now on the rise partly because a majority of Poles reject an increase of the church's influence in society. The former communists seemed to have hampered the church's advances.

The conflict is all the more intense since Poland is in the middle of its second presidential campaign since 1990. Tempers flared highest when the parliament recently rejected a parliamentary report that, if approved, would have paved the way to ratifying the concordat.

"The government's proceedings are disturbing and serious," said Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, secretary general of the Episcopate of Poland. "It is astonishing that the government delegates people [for the commission] and subsequently rejects their report...."

A coalition divided

The coalition government of the former communists in the SLD and their partners, the Peasant Party (PSL), split down party lines over the issue, with the Peasant Party in favor of the report.

The opposition Worker's Union (UP) backed the SLD, however. "The UP does not choose to have a religious war, but we don't agree with the conclusion of the commission, " said Konrad Napicrala, a UP member of parliament.

The PSL, which is supported by many church-going rural folk, wants to prove its distinction from the SLD and is for quick ratification of the concordat. With the support of the church, the PSL is taking action. "We are preparing a new proposal of the civil code and laws concerning the civil state," said Franciszek Stefaniuk, vice chairman of the PSL.

It took more than three weeks for the government's Council of Ministers to give their reasons for rejecting the declaration, seen as a stalling tactic to delay parliament's ratification of the concordat, which has a Dec. 31 deadline.

Where Catholics would gain

The particular areas of concern in the declaration are of civil registration of church marriages, divorce, burial of nonbelievers when there is no communal cemetery, financing of the Papal Academy of Theology, religious teaching in schools, and payment of priests as public school teachers.

"The government is very concerned with all points in the declaration," said deputy Prime Minister Aleksander Luczak and chairman of the Commission of Government and the Episcopate.

"If the church interprets the concordat with good will [in a way that does not threaten the former communists] this lets them know the entire problems of acceptance," added Marek Borowski, chairman of the Council of Ministers.

The communists are now under constant attack from the church and the right wing. Yet Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist minister and leader of the SLD, is the front-runner in presidential elections next month. There are worries of a communist comeback if he wins, since the SLD would control all three branches of government.

"You can see that this is the continuation of the People's Republic of Poland," Pieronek says.

The SLD's leaders insist that the concordat is not dead. "To have this declaration will not affect the concordat as a document, but it will help in the legal interpretation of the concordat after ratification," said Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy, an SLD member.

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