RECENT parliamentary debate on the abortion issue has once again focused attention on the changing role of the church in Poland.
In a day-long session at the end of July, the Sejm, or lower house, made no final decision on how to change Poland's current law, which essentially allows abortion on demand.
But it decided that a severe, church-backed draft law that would virtually ban abortions and penalize doctors who carry them out will be put to a final vote this fall.
Echoing recent bitter accusations that the church seeks to exercise too much political power in postcommunist Poland, left-wing Member of Parliament Izabella Sierakowska said passage of the bill would be a step toward theocracy. "Before long, procreative activity will be regulated by church bells," she said during the Sejm debate.
The Roman Catholic church has long played a role in Polish life that goes far beyond that of a church in most other modern Western countries.
Under the communists, under the Nazis, under 125 years of partition when Poland disappeared from the map, under centuries marked by invasions and wars, the church became the symbol of Polish nationalism. Religious faith and political positions were often intertwined.
Since the ouster of the communist regime three years ago, the church is undergoing a difficult transition as the country tries to transform itself into a modern, democratic state.
Many Poles, even devout Catholics, resent what they see as growing clericalism - or "black power": what is perceived as a concerted attempt by the church to maintain its intense involvement in secular political life when it is no longer necessary.
Besides the church's highly visable role in the abortion debate, other key instances of this were the institution of catechism classes in public schools two years ago, and attempts by some elements in the church to influence voting in last year's elections. In addition, some political forces try to cash in on the traditional power of the church and deep religious feelings of the people.
Various right-wing political parties have incorporated the word "Christian" into their names to imply church sanction and various politicians, in the words of one priest, "abuse" their position by "giving the impression in their speeches that they are speaking with the backing of the episcopate ... and putting the church into embarrassing situations....
"They want to use Christianity as a means to gain power," he said.
A public opinion poll carried out by Radio Free Europe, for example, shows that between October 1990 and January 1992, the percentage of respondents who said they "had confidence" in the church dropped dramatically from 81 percent to 55 percent. A survey carried out by a Polish polling organization in early May showed that only 48 percent of respondents "approved" of the church.
Public opinion polls also have shown that the majority of Poles do not want an outright ban on abortion - one of the leading means of birth control in a country where sex education is minimal, contraceptives are hard to find, and housing is scarce.
"There has been a sharp drop in attendance at the religion classes in the school where I teach," said Anna, a high school English teacher. "At first there were two priests teaching, now there is one. He is trying to attract students by arranging `pilgrimages' abroad that only members of the religions class can go on.
"My own son hates catechism class," she added. "But he used to like to go to religion class when it was held at the church."
OBSERVERS describe confusion over the church role, both among the broad mass of the faithful and among the clergy.
"Many don't know what the real role of the church is - to lead people to God, to faith. This is the real role of the church, not politics," says Rev. Adam Boniecki, editor of the influential Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechnie.
"People don't understand what the church is, what they can expect from the church, how the church functions," he says. "The church was always well organized. People are suspicious now. They think, `we're finished with the Reds [communists], now we have blacks [clergy]. The press has been very anticlerical."
The clergy, too, he says, "has difficulty adjusting to the new context. There is a tradition of fighting against an enemy."
Many priests, he said, have difficulty stepping back from the political role they played under communism; they have trouble understanding that criticism of the church today does not mean "a diabolical plot to destroy it."
"The time of the siege mentality is over," he says. "We have to begin a new way of operating - to persuade, not to command."
Archbishop Henryk Muszynski, one of the leading church figures in Poland - viewed by many as a possible eventual successor of Cardinal Josef Glemp as Primate, or Catholic leader, of Poland - agrees. "Many people don't know how to behave in a pluralistic world," he says. "Before, they had one enemy - communism and atheism. Now it's much more complicated."