Prelates gamble and lose Poland's dilemma: Catholic church's heavy-handed meddling in politics causes a backlash.

November 28, 1995

POLAND'S POWERFUL Roman Catholic church took a big gamble in recent presidential elections. It did everything it could to assure the re-election of Lech Walesa, the Solidarity labor movement hero and a practicing Catholic. About the best thing Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the head of Poland's church, managed to say about the opponent, Aleksandr Kwasniewski, was that the former communist advocated "neo-pagan values."

"Leftist politicians do not respect the people," Archbishop Ignacy Tokarczuk declared in a sermon to 150,000 pilgrims before the election. "We must find ways to remove them from our national culture."

The gamble failed. Mr. Kwasniewski beat Mr. Walesa. Since the victor's Democratic Left Alliance party also controls parliament, Poland will be ruled by opponents of the Catholic church's heavy-handed meddling in politics.

During much of Poland's turbulent history, the Catholic church has been instrumental in helping the country preserve its language and national identity. During the communist rule, it became a rallying point for opposition, forging a strong alliance with Solidarity.

However, many Poles, particularly the young people, resent the overt and uncompromising meddling in politics the church started after the collapse of communism. Post-election surveys suggest that the church's all-out campaign to re-elect Mr. Walesa may in fact have contributed to his narrow defeat because voters felt the church had become too powerful.

Voters found the church's role in recent legislative initiatives particularly grating. Priests lobbied heavily for an unpopular anti-abortion law that provides prison terms for those caught performing illegal abortions. Shortly after Mr. Kwasniewski's Democratic Left Alliance won control of parliament two years ago, that law was liberalized, but Mr. Walesa vetoed it.

Another source of resentment is the teaching of religion by priests and nuns in public schools, which was introduced at the insistence of the church. If there is a feeling of anti-clericalism among Poles today, the church shares the blame. Rather than provoke a fight they cannot possibly win, its leaders should seek an accommodation with Mr. Kwasniewski.

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