PODKOWA LESNA, Poland -- The Roman Catholic Church's fall from public regard is etched in bitter sarcasm in the railway station here.
Aping the famous slogan of the repudiated Communist Party, the stark black letters warn: "The Program of the Church is the Program of the Nation."
Such assaults are all the more startling in Podkowa Lesna, where the clean lines of the modern St. Christopher's Church sheltered Poland's underground political movement for many years, spearheading the country's struggle for freedom.
Now that democracy is taking hold, with voters yesterday facing their first free parliamentary elections in 63 years, many here are accusing the once vital and revered church of trying to replace the Communist dictatorship with the clergy's dictatorship.
The church contends its role now is to guide Poland through democracy to morality. And its first order of business has been the campaign to reverse Poland's liberal abortion policy with a law that would make abortion punishable with a prison term even in cases of incest and rape.
"Let us pray that on this historic day for our motherland we shall receive the spiritual gift to help us decide earthly matters," the Rev. Leszek Slipek, St. Christopher's priest, told his congregation yesterday.
The Sunday before, he and priests across Poland read a letter from Roman Catholic bishops urging people to vote only for political parties "that favor protection of life from the moment of conception, that respect family rights and that demonstrate by their activities deep concern about Poland and respect for its tradition stemming from Christian roots."
Loudspeakers, left over from the years when Polish Catholics might have feared being seen in church, carried his voice over the deserted streets, as the first snow of winter fell over Podkowa Lesna.
Pope John Paul II himself spoke fiercely on the issue last June when he made his first visit to his native Poland since the downfall of communism.
"Is it permissible lightheartedly to condemn the Polish family to destruction?" he asked. "The Polish Republic needs to examine its conscience. You understand? You who lightheartedly do these things? They pain me! They should pain you!"
With those and the more recent exhortations of his clergymen in mind, voters arrived in spurts at the town's polling station here yesterday, stamping the melted snow from their feet, a few minutes after each Mass ended.
At other polling places, priests came to check who among their parishioners had made it to the polls.
"Judging by people's questions, I'd say most of them are voting Central Alliance," a church-approved party, said Antonin Ring, the state election commissioner for Podkowa Lesna.
The snow, and a heavy dose of voter disgust at the economic hardship here, kept many from voting at all, probably enhancing the church's influence in yesterday's election.
The church's single-mindedness notwithstanding, hardly anyone else considered yesterday's vote a referendum on abortion. With unemployment at 9 percent, and sure to grow as each slice of the economy is privatized, most voters worried more about paychecks than social freedoms.
Still, the abortion issue remains so charged that it became a virtually untouchable issue in the election. Most of the 27 parties running national campaigns refused to declare their positions on abortion. Parliament has suspended action on a church-backed anti-abortion bill until after the votes are in.
The church's advocacy of prison terms for abortion in a state where women are accustomed to free abortion on demand at state hospitals has angered many practicing Catholics, especially women.
"It should be a person's own choice," said Irena Dzinblinski, 58, who sells fabrics and women's clothes at a shack not far from St. Christopher's Church here.
Mrs. Dzinblinski, a mother of three, calls herself a "good Catholic." She comes from a family that includes four priests, and she favors religious instruction in public schools. At her age, she would no longer be affected if abortion were outlawed, she noted wryly. But, she insisted, "It's a matter of one's own conscience."
Mrs. Dzinblinski also feels keenly the economic strain young couples must be going through in Poland's backbreaking shift to capitalism.
She and her husband both lost their jobs with the end of Communism. His anxiety was so great that he had a heart attack and died, leaving her a widow, she said.
Mrs. Djinblinski, a large woman with hair dyed varying shades of auburn, pursed her lips to hold back the tears.
"With the church getting involved in politics, we get not sermons, but political speeches, each Sunday," she said.
That Mrs. Djinblinski and other residents of Podkowa Lesna should reproach the church is revealing, for nowhere more so than here did the church actively seek and win followers against the Communists.