Last week, Adam Michnik returned to The New School and gave a provocative lecture, “After the Election of Pope Francis: What Paths for the Catholic Church?” In his talk, more about the Church and democracy in Poland than about events in Rome and the Catholic Church as a whole, the renowned Polish intellectual highlighted the two different paths taken by the Church in current public debates: the increasingly popular fundamentalist approach, termed “Integralism,” resistant to the recommendations of openness formulated at the Second Vatican Council, and the marginalized liberal approach, termed “Progressivist,” adopted by the liberal-oriented Catholics. Michnik worried that Pope Francis would be on the wrong side of this debate, or on the sidelines, given his ambiguous at best relationship with dictatorship in Argentina. The talk addressed pressing issues in Poland. Michnik, as usual, was bold in his presentation. It has broad implications beyond Polish borders, which I appreciate. Yet, I also have a question. For, I think Michnik misses a crucial point, concerning Poland, and also concerning the Pope and the Catholic Church and the need to address religious fundamentalism.
Michnik pointed out that the integralist and the progressivist paths emerged as part of the Catholic Church’s struggle for power to shape public debate in post-1989 democratic Poland. To his great dismay, instead of strengthening the Church’s liberal voice, open to the new issues that the newly democratic country had to face as it opened to the outside world, the Church has become dominated by simplistic conservative and nationalistic arguments, which reinforce hostile attitudes toward all that is unfamiliar or strange. As a consequence, the church has fostered a destructive divide between “us” and “them,” which cuts across Polish society. According to Michnik, a significant role in disseminating the fundamentalist message is played by “Radio Maryja” and “TV Trwam.” These media outlets, owned by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a controversial Catholic priest often accused of promoting xenophobia and anti-Semitism, are widely popular in small towns in Poland.
Michnik did not have a simple answer to his question, “What Paths for the Catholic Church?“ His overall argument centered around the Polish Church’s reluctance to accept any form of criticism, and he expressed concern that Pope Francis, with his beautiful gestures towards the poor will not address the threat of Catholic fundamentalism in Poland and beyond.
I did not have a chance to push Michnik a bit on the role Pope Francis may play in the continuing conflict between the liberal and fundamentalist factions in the Church. It relates to a topic I am studying, popular Catholic practices in post-1989 Poland. It seems to me that Francis’s gestures towards the poor have greater potential power than Michnik recognizes. They could build a bridge between the radical claims of the Polish “integralists” and the “progressivists” in the ongoing Polish Catholic debate by crossing the divide between popular and elite opinion. The integralists present radical, one-sided and often simplistic visions of reality in which Catholicism should prevail, while the progressivists take into account the numerous competing values found in earthly life, but the sophisticated arguments they formulate are incomprehensible to many. In other words, I would have liked to have asked Michnik if he felt that Pope Francis could create a bridge through his message of radicalism in humility.
Michnik presented the conflict as a stark clash between the liberal, open-minded intellectuals, on the one hand, and on the other, the fundamentalists: defenders of pre-Vatican II traditions who want to see the Church as the ultimate institution, founded by God, superior to secular life. In this context, the opinions and gestures of the new pope which emphasize humility instead of rapacity—including the desire of the Church to monopolize the discussion on values—seem particularly important, as they fall in right in the middle of the conflict in the Catholic Church in Poland.
The increasingly marginalized Polish “progressivists” described by Michnik, are intellectuals. I believe this very fact alienates them from popular debate dominated by the “integralist” approach. For many Catholics progressivists’ discussions are not intelligible, too subtle and too boring. The intellectuals speak over the heads of many. Yet many Catholics turn to the Church to give them clear definitions of the meaning of the surrounding world. The “integralists,” on the other hand, present a clear, one-sided vision of an age-old Polish-Catholic unity, which has to be protected in a dangerous, secularizing reality that lacks moral values. Michnik hinted that this propagated, imagined vision not only is a tool of maintaining power in the Polish political debate; what is more, this particular vision seems better suited to an authoritarian, rather than a democratic, regime.
Pope Francis does not look like a “progressivist,” but his call for a poor Church may hurt the Polish fundamentalist vision of the Church, whose opulence and unquestionable power in society is presented as justified by tradition (and God). The Pope’s simple message may be heard by the many traditionalist Polish Catholics uninterested in intellectual discussions, but who nonetheless are troubled by the Polish Church’s increasingly visible deadly sins of pride and greed. “Let us never forget that authentic power is service,” the Pope said in his homily. But will this message come through? And does this “service” include open discussion on the contemporary role of the Church, not limited to the hermetic debates of intellectuals and one-sided claims of the traditionalists?