Catholic Pope Tries to Call in East Europe Flock

The church finds its influence waning after the fall of communism. It struggles to find a new role as secularism rises in popularity.

FOR the Roman Catholic Church in Central and Eastern Europe, the 40-plus years of communism, in the words of Pope John Paul II during his recent trip to Poland, were "times most profoundly marked by suffering."

Under communism, Catholicism and other religions were widely persecuted.

In the immediate aftermath of communism's 1989 implosion, the mood of persecution gave way to hope. Led by the Polish pontiff, the church looked to quickly reestablish itself as the preeminent spiritual force in the region. But events over the past five years have caused those early hopes to fade. In the post-communist era, the Church has run into difficulty in conveying its message to the people.

"Under communism it was easier for the church to determine what was more moral and immoral. Everything linked to communism was immoral. Now it's not so clear," said Jakub Karpinski, an expert on Poland who is based at the Open Media Research Institute in Prague.

If anything, the church has lost influence in a region that includes the staunchly Catholic nations of Poland, Slovakia, and Lithuania, political observers say. In particular, the church in Poland (95 percent Catholic), a major political force during the communist era, has seen a significant erosion of influence.

"Communism paradoxically was a time of tremendous influence for the church," Mr. Karpinski said. "With more freedom in every domain, a certain secularization has developed."

To a certain extent the loosening of the church's authority in Central Europe is a natural phenomenon, political observers say. In Poland, the church before 1989 was the only institution that retained a large degree of independence from communist authorities. As virtually the only outlet for dissent, religious worship for some served as a form of political expression. Thus, church positions on issues could influence political debates.

The church still possesses a strong voice in Polish politics, Mr. Karpinski and others say, but it nonetheless has lost its appeal for some, who have found other forums for expression, Karpinski said.

Pope disappointed

The secularization trend is a source of disappointment for the pope. During his recent trips to Central Europe - a visit in May to the Czech Republic and Poland, and his just-completed trip to Slovakia - the pope despaired at the lack of the church's influence over the development of formerly communist countries.

"An ever-more powerful intolerance is actually spreading in public life," the pope said during his Polish trip in a reference to antichurch feelings. The faithful, the pontiff added, "notice the increasing tendency to marginalize them from the life of the society."

To counter perceived secularization, John Paul II has repeatedly called on Central and Eastern Europe's Catholics to inject traditional church values into political debates in the region. In a message outlined in Poland and repeated in Slovakia, the pope warned against declining morals.

"The younger generation needs to be warned of the illusions of easy success ... consumerism and a hedonism devoid of ideals and values," the pope told a crowd of young people in Slovakia on June 30.

But the natural byproducts of democratization aren't entirely to blame for the church's diminishing role, other political observers say. The church in the post-communist era has exacerbated its difficulties by appearing to focus on issues that have little direct effect on the population, observers add. They point, in particular, to church-state wrangling over questions of restitution of church property nationalized by the communist governments.

"The core of the problem is that the church was seen as not being there to defend the people who suffered the most during the introduction of economic reforms. It appeared to be more concerned with its own priorities," said Zdzislaw Najder, a Warsaw-based political scientist.

Cathedral: church or state

Perhaps the highest-profile restitution case is in the Czech Republic. A recent court ruling returned St. Vitus Cathedral - located in the Prague Castle commanding the heights above the city center - to the church. The decision, however, prompted an uproar, with many Czechs feeling the cathedral should remain government property because it is an important symbol of statehood. President Vaclav Havel appealed the ruling, and a final decision is pending.

The church is also clashing with two other governments - Poland's and Lithuania's - both of which are dominated by political parties that have their roots in the communist past.

In Lithuania, as in the Czech Republic, the dispute is over property restitution. In January, the Lithuanian parliament passed a law restricting the church's ability to file restitution claims.

In Poland, the church and government are disputing religion's role in the country's new Constitution, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

In many cases, the church-state controversies have overshadowed the contributions made by the church's ongoing pastoral work in Central Europe's post-communist development. But if the moral revival that the pope referred to during his Polish and Slovak visits is going to come about, the church will have to do more, Karpinski said.

"It demands a lot of pastoral work, not just a papal speech," he said.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.