Polish 'war of crosses' threatens prestige of both state and church

Both government and church in Poland have much to lose from any major confrontation - so much that each is surely desperately hoping for some way out of the current conflict over crucifixes in school classrooms.

When the government took down crucifixes from classrooms in an agricultural school near Garwolin last week, it sparked demonstrations and a standoff with the Roman Catholic Church. And though it is still a local issue, it has gained a chilling label as a ''war of crosses.''

Should it spread, it would be a formidable setback for the authorities in their steeply uphill task of promoting a popular patriotic revival to pull Poland out of its prolonged social and economic crisis.

For the Catholic Church, escalation could jeopardize not only the gains giving it an extraordinarily unique position within a communist state, but also its longer-term hopes. These concern a demand for legal status as a legitimate part of society and more freedom for church activity generally. It would also like the government to accept a church plan for agricultural aids for the deeply Catholic countryside where the crucifix dispute emerged.

Each side this week has shown that it is anxious to defuse an issue which could (a) bring the government into sharp conflict with a majority of Poles - some 90 percent of the population is Catholic - and (b) place the church in conflict with the law in a no-win situation.

However reluctant the authorities are to impose it, the law - which gives the state authority to take down crosses in public buildings and institutions like schools - was implicitly acknowledged by the Polish primate, Jozef Cardinal Glemp. In his address in the Warsaw Cathedral Wednesday evening, he did not challenge the government's legal authority. But, he asked, ''Are laws right if they wound the feelings of the majority?''

The church, he said, sought social calm and order. It seemed an allusion to his recent moves to steer Catholic policy onto a course of qualified accommodation with official efforts for Polish recovery.

Glemp also made clear, however, that this is not a blank check for support, but a quid pro quo, conditional on the authorities' meeting the church at least halfway in its own prerequisites for social conciliation.

Domestic calm, he went on, required tolerance, and that could not be ''where intolerance is displayed toward the cross in the name of secularization.''

There has been at this writing no government response to the primate's implicit appeal for a modified interpretation of the law. That may come when the party conference opens today.

But what was said before the primate's address suggested that the government initially saw the Garwolin incident as a local matter that could quickly be dealt with, as a source put it, by ''goodwill, good sense, and understanding'' between town authorities and clergy.

The controversy has, of course, become more than a local issue. But it is still a rural issue which has not yet hit bigger, more sophisticated cities and towns.

In the cities, most schools and universities have not had crosses in the classroom. But the crisis of confidence about the regime in the 1980s has tended to make the cities more religious. And from recent conversations, one already has an impression that townsfolk, though less involved so far, are watching events with sympathy.

The countryside has always been the Achilles' heel of party strength in Poland. Conversely, it is the natural area of deepest feeling behind the church. These young Garwolin protesters are the children in devoutly religious households. And in the postwar period, the crosses have had their traditional place in the classrooms.

It is difficult to see why the authorities chose a course of action that was likely to bring them into conflict with rural, peasant feeling. Its strength was evident in 1980 when the party leadership had to give way to peasant farmers' demands for their own Rural Solidarity.

The removal of crosses began last fall and has been proceeding steadily ever since. But there were no known protests, or none large enough to command attention.

The process apparently started soon after the Pope's visit last summer. Both before and after that event, Soviet-bloc spokesmen had voiced strong disapproval of the influence enjoyed by the Polish church.

The standing law on the lay character of schools may offer a way to ward off such criticism. But the Garwolin case has raised the issue to the uncomfortable point where the primate has had no option but to intervene.

''The white eagle (the national emblem) and the cross,'' he told his congregation, ''are Poland.''

Those who listened to him noted his conviction in speaking of the cross as a purely religious symbol having nothing to do with politics. He seems to be counting on the government to adopt a more flexible attitude about something the church considers nonnegotiable.

The question is not so much will it do so, but can it?

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