Despite wide uneasiness, catechism returns to Polish public schools

September 27, 1990|By Kay Withers | Kay Withers,Special to The Sun

WARSAW, Poland -- Amid ongoing controversy, catechism classes have returned to Polish public schools as Roman Catholicism makes a comeback as the state religion.

Last month a church-state commission, without benefit of either Parliament or people, agreed to make catechism once again a part of the school curriculum from kindergarten to high school.

Theoretically the classes are optional, but there is enormous pressure on children to attend and great perplexity as to what to do with them if they don't. Crucifixes can be hung in classrooms if the majority of the students wish, and the same majority can impose prayers to open and close lessons.

The tab for this is to be picked up not by the church but by the state, which must manage to find funds to pay the army of catechists who are to move into the nation's classrooms and school councils.

In the long church-state negotiations leading to this step, the church was calling in a decade of debts after its long support of the former underground Solidarity activists now leading Poland.

Its influence over the rural population meant that political pressure was intense. And the state's chief negotiator, Jacek Ambroziak, a key aide to Premier Tadeusz Mazowiecki, is a former legal adviser to the primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp.

Many members of the country's Catholic-dominated, post-Communist government, however, were uneasy, and so were many of the 90 percent of Poles who are, at least nominally, Catholics.

Both Education Minister Henryk Samsonowicz and his deputy, Anna Radziwill, a devout believer and a former teacher, opposed the move, buckling only when it became clear, as Ms. Radziwill told reporters, that the alternative was resignation.

Many teachers were aghast. "This trend is setting Poland back decades, if not centuries," said Tomek Kulesza, 32, a principal and also a devout Catholic.

He and other educators said they feared conflicts among schoolchildren and pressure on non-Catholics to attend religion classes, now moved from after-hours parish halls, where they were tolerated by the Communists, into school buildings, timetables and treasuries. Mr. Kulesza said he was hard put to find classroom space as it was.

Official ombudsman Ewa Letowska filed suit with the constitutional court, claiming that school religion contravened both the constitutional separation of church and state and a 1961 law banning it from public schools.

But with constitutional rewriting already under way, Bishop Alojzy Orszulik, an ardent advocate of school catechism, told the Solidarity daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, that the episcopate "will demand that the teaching of religion in schools be guaranteed by the [new] constitution."

Fear of offending the church appeared widespread.

Ms. Letowska, officially neutral, hastily notified Cardinal Glemp that she was not against religion in schools as such but merely questioned the legality of the procedure that had reinstated it.

Stanislaw Remuszko, 42, a journalist and Catholic, tried to organize resistance in the form of an Association for the Ideological and Religious Neutrality of the State.

At its first meeting, fewer than a hundred people showed up and, clearly fearful of the influence of the clergy on the Polish masses, they voted against calling a referendum on the subject.

"I sent an appeal to seven major papers," Mr. Remuszko said. "but only two of them printed it. They are all afraid of the church."

In high schools, where the students themselves can decide whether to attend catechism classes, school religion could evoke less interest than in elementary schools.

At the Clementine Hoffmann High School in Warsaw, 60 percent to 70 percent of pupils were likely to opt for catechism, an employee said. But Mr. Remuszko put likely elementary school attendance at well over 80 percent.

Polls have shown strong support for school catechism among the relatively uneducated, who tend to equate religion with morality.

Lech Walesa, their leading spokesman, told Gazeta Wyborcza, "When communism has wrought such havoc, I consider the teaching of religion as essential from a moral point of view. . . . Religion doesn't teach you to do anything bad. . . . The church is proposing to teach Poles, free of charge, honesty and morality."

Beyond the schools, Parliament is debating a new abortion law that would punish any abortionist with three years' jail, new regulations have made divorce more difficult and the constitution may drop the clause separating church and state.

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