ROMAN Catholicism, once the church triumphant in Poland, is now the church controversial.
Two years ago 70 percent of Poles approved of the Catholic Church. Now that figure is down to 40 percent - and this is the most Catholic country in the world. More and more Poles say the church is too conservative and exercises excessive influence on politics:
* A new broadcast media law says radio and television broadcasts must "respect the Christian system of values" - a subtle form of censorship, commentators argue.
* Another new statute, backed by the church, tightens access to abortion, changing the policy of abortion on demand brought in under communism.
* The state is now funding the teaching of Catholicism in Polish public schools, support that some observers say blurs the line between church and state.
The church once enjoyed heroic status among Poles. Under communism, it was the only institution that retained a degree of autonomy, providing an alternative voice amid the cacophony of Marxist-Leninist propaganda.
During the Solidarity trade union protests and martial law of the 1980s, it became politically active, sheltering dissidents and helping to organize demonstra- tions and the underground press - a risky stance, as illustrated by the 1984 murder of the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko by secret police agents. The church's political role was formalized when Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski turned to it as a bridge to Solidarity.
But in today's democracy, some Poles say the line dividing church and state is blurring. Others say they do not need the church to speak for them anymore. They can speak for themselves.
"The strong participation of the church [in politics] is dangerous both for the state and the church [because] the center of real power is transferred from the bodies that are controlled by the people to another body that can't be controlled," says Barbara Labuda, a member of the Sejm (parliament) who lobbied passionately against the anti-abortion bill and is one of the country's most popular figures.
Ms. Labuda describes the abortion law that emerged from the Sejm this year as "a secret agreement" between the Catholic episcopate in Poland and the National Christian Union, a partner in the multiparty coalition government that is often jokingly described as more Catholic than the church itself.
After the passage of the anti-abortion bill, Polish Primate Cardinal Jozef Glemp came to the Sejm to express his thanks. "The episcopate organizes lunches for the members of parliament," Labuda charges. "It gives them marks on how they're doing and tells them what to do."
A senior government official, however, argues that "if there were real annexation" of the government by the church, "certainly those coalition parties which objected would raise the issue." So far, he says, they haven't.
But at least one prominent person has. Tadeusz Zielinski, the parliament's appointed ombudsman on civil rights, recently warned that Poland is becoming what he calls a denominational state.
Mr. Zielinski went to the Constitutional Tribunal, the country's highest authority on constitutional issues, to challenge state funding for religion lessons in public schools and other issues. But last month the Tribunal upheld the most of the practices.
The Rev. Jan Sikorski of St. Joseph's Parish in Warsaw cannot understand the commotion.
Sitting upright in his black robe, he lifts his hands in the air
in exasperation. "It's normal!" he exclaims. In a country that is 95 percent Catholic, he insists, it is normal that unborn life be protected, religion be taught in the schools, and Christian values be reflected in the media. He answers a question about media censorship with his own query: "When have Christian values ever been dangerous?"
In Krakow, the Rev. Jozef Tischner, a liberal priest, criticizes the church, saying it is "looking out for its own interests." The church is having "difficulty adjusting" to its less prominent, post-Communist role, he says.
"Everybody agrees on the separation of church and state [which is anchored in the Polish constitution] but there are different interpretations of what separation means," Fr. Tischner explains. He says it looks like Poland will follow the European model, which allows for more church-state interaction than does the American model.
A European diplomat in Warsaw agrees that the Catholic Church in Poland is confused about its new role. Suddenly, he says, it is no longer the great resister, and all the dissidents and underground institutions, which it had in its lap, are gone. The church, he said, is trying to hang on to its power "and desperately trying to win people as it did then." This, he said, "is its greatest mistake."
The Catholic Church here is always going to hold its core believers. But the harder it tries to keep Polish politics within its fold, the more resistance it meets from less-devoted Catholics.
Joanna Kurmanow, a medical student in Poznan, seems typical of many young Poles today. She says she used to go to church regularly, but now, only on the main religious holidays. "Before, when church was forbidden under the Communists, everyone went," Ms. Kurmanow says. "Now, the priests tell you to go to church, and so people don't go.
"It's the Polish way!" she laughs. "We do the opposite of what we're told to do."