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Polish church may sink government over abortion.

OXFORD, England -- Because only bad news filters through to us, the rule is that the less we hear about Poland the better. But things are looking up. In a recent opinion poll, only 61 percent thought the economy was faring "badly," compared with 78 percent four months ago. Six percent went so far as to say that the economy was "doing well."

Last November, the International Monetary Fund recognized the mood of growing national confidence by granting a new credit facility of $700 million. That will pave the way for substantial reductions in Poland's communist-inherited international debts of about $50 billion. Much of the credit for this relative optimism is due to Poland's first woman prime minister, Hanna Suchocka. She came to power last July as head of an improbable seven-party coalition based on her own party, the Democratic Union and the Christian National Union.

Suchocka, the country's fifth prime minister since communism fell in 1989, is the most successful because she has secured support, grudging at first, but now more appreciative, from President Lech Walesa.

However, the Suchocka administration could be blown apart by the explosive issue of abortion. There have so far been two unsuccessful attempts to revise the 1956 decree of the communist government, which legalized abortion on demand. The new bill came close to enactment in May 1991 and July 1992, but the second time it was sent back for redrafting. The new version is scheduled to come before the Sejm, Poland's parliament, this year.

The 10-point bill would enshrine the right to life of unborn children and prescribe up to two year's jail for "anyone causing a child's death." But it would not criminalize women seeking abortions or doctors intent on saving the pregnant woman's life.

Its compromising nature appears in the requirement that government bodies must provide all pregnant women with all the help and support they need, while obliging them to "responsible parenthood" in future.

Health Ministry officials, who accuse pro-lifers of systematically inflating the figures, say that abortions have fallen by about 25 percent to a total last year of 30,878.

Opponents of the proposed bill have branded it discriminatory and have gained support of about a quarter of the Sejm for their proposal of a referendum.

Outside the Sejm more than 500,000 signatures have been collected calling for a referendum. In a November opinion poll, 74 percent of Poles favored an abortion referendum.

Yet the Polish bishops have set themselves against a referendum on the grounds that "God's law cannot be voted on."

Yet the evidence of the polls is that 59 percent of Poles declare themselves in favor of tighter restrictions on abortion, though 80 percent would allow it in cases where the fetus was damaged or the woman's health endangered.

The bishops' position is not that they fear the result of a referendum but that it is an inappropriate way of resolving moral questions.

Both Prime Minister Suchocka and President Walesa are opposed to a referendum not only because of pressure from the bishops but because it would bitterly divide Polish society.

Ex-Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki has warned of a "religious war between church and society." Critics say that the bishops are overriding public opinion and that once they get their way on abortion, they will seek to ban contraception as well. A recent opinion survey in the weekly magazine Politkya suggested that although 95 percent of Poles consider themselves Catholics, their views do not conform to official church teaching.

About half said they disagreed with the church's outright bans on abortion, contraception and premarital sex. The same number thought the church should allow divorce and abolish the obligation of clerical celibacy. Only a third thought that Sunday Mass attendance was essential for a "good" Catholic. These disturbing findings are regarded by the bishops as evidence of a deep moral crisis, another of the delayed effects of communism. On the other hand the bishops might be consoled by the thought that two-thirds are opposed to women priests.

Where it suits the church, the majority principle is accepted. Bishop Zdzislaw Tranda of the small Evangelical Reformed Church objected to the proposal to build a Catholic chapel within the Sejm. He suggested instead "a meditation area" open to all, as in the United Nations. The reply was that the decision to build the chapel was taken at the request of more than 100 members of parliament; had members of other denominations made such a request, it would have been heeded. Fat chance.

Defenders of the bishops say that they do not want a theocratic Poland and are not claiming special privileges.

In an article provocatively called "St. Peter and John Stuart Mill" Marcin Krol points out that the opposition to communism in the Solidarity years was based on the illusion that the church was making common cause with secular liberal thinkers like historian Adam Michnik.

His Paris-published 1977 book, Church, Left, Dialog was entirely based on this supposition. But it was merely a short-term defensive alliance based on the needs of the situation. And it worked.

But success showed how fragile this alliance really was. Krol, editor of the Polish monthly Res Publica, asserts the complete incompatibility of "liberalism" with the "absolute" morality of Catholicism. "Thou shalt not kill" leaves the church with no option but to oppose abortion.

Krol admits that this sets the church at odds with the dominant political philosophy of Europe and North America. He sees these views reflected in Pope John Paul's speeches in Poland in summer 1991. One of the great influences on the pope, he thinks, is the mid-nineteenth century Polish romantic poet Zygmunt Krasinksi, who wrote a memorandum for Pope Pius IX.

Krasinski thought that the task of the papacy was to mobilize the forces that could save the modern world from the catastrophe of unbelief, doubt, misery, solitude and inhumanity. What Pio Nono could not achieve, John Paul II has begun. What are we to make of all this? It is disconcerting. Yet Krol is surely right to draw attention to some of the elements that make up the Polish national psyche.

He concludes with an important distinction. John Paul's attitude should not be confused with the "Russian" Slavophile rejection of Europe. "This is not an attack on Europe with its democratic and parliamentary traditions," he says, quoting Centesimus Annus, "but an attempt to renew it in the light of its deepest Christian roots."

After all, from these same sources Poland drew the concept of Solidarnosc, which entered the world's vocabulary as the antithesis of every-man-for-himself individualism.
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Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 15, 1993
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