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Prague hosts meeting of European bishops: woman speaker raises clerical hackles.

Woman speaker raises clerical hackles

PRAGUE, Czech Republic - While peace broke out in the Middle East and war spluttered in ex-Yugoslavia, the European bishops (CCEE) met in Prague, capital of the Czech republic, Sept. 7-12 for their eighth symposium. Its theme was "Freedom and Solidarity."

Devised in more euphoric times, it was designed as a celebration of the new postcommunist Europe. Something of this spirit remained. Miroslav Vlk, archbishop of Prague, must have pinched himself as he led the 10 cardinals and 70 bishops into the magnificent Gothic cathedral of St. Vitus for the opening liturgy. This was unthinkable four years ago. Even more amazingly, Vlk then led the prelate into Hradcany Castle, together with 45 priests, 45 religious (including 27 sisters) and 55 lay delegates (including 22 women) to a reception presided over by President Vaclav Havel.

The triumphalist baroque statues, symbol of the Counter-Reformation and Hapsburg domination, seemed to cry out, "It's our turn now." The era of communist domination was over. Church and state were in league once more.

Yet this was a faulty impression, an illusion. The opening paper by Professor Jolanta Babiuch of Warsaw University - the only woman to address the meeting - dispelled it. She had been talent-spotted by Cardinal Basil Hume, archbishop of Westminster, at the "Business Ethics in Eastern Europe" meeting in London Nov. 10, 1992. He considered her "intelligent and independent."

She called her paper, modestly, "Some Sociological Reflections." She pointed out that "if the lesson of communism is that freedom cannot exist without the market, the market itself should not be mistaken for freedom." The majority of people in Eastern Europe were, anyway, "too poor to enjoy the freedom bestowed by the market."

She was critical of "the West," which is perceived as "resenting any challenge to its affluent standards" and wanting to keep the poor out by tough immigration laws.

Her final section described the "new triumphalism" emerging in the church since 1989. The church is perceived as repeating its prewar mistakes by siding with the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor.

Many are leaving the church today, she reported, not because their Christian faith is weakened but because they think the church has "changed" and now seems intent on preserving its privileges and extending its power.

"If the church," Babiuch asked, "seeks to strengthen its power through legal and institutional mechanisms, can it be doing so because it is strong or really because it is weak?" The relevant question should have been about the truth of these assertions. Are Eastern Europeans really drifting away from the church because they prefer Christian values to their institutional embodiment?

Jerzy Stroba, archbishop of Poznan, had a different reaction. He seized the microphone to denounce what he took to be a description of Poland derived, he said, as Babiuch's quotations proved, from non-Catholic sources.

One example: Jacek Kuron, minister of Labour in the outgoing government, wrote in Gazeta Wyborza last February: "If we dismiss communism as nothing more than some crass embodiment of evil, we will understand nothing as we enter this postcommunist period."

Babiuch was making the point that some people actually believed in Marxism for ethical reasons. The fact that it proved so bitterly delusive is no reason to deny the fact. Leszek Kolakowski's question - from the 1970s - remains sharply relevant: "Does the church oppose Marxism because it is atheistic or because it is totalitarian?"

It was a particularly delicate moment to raise such issues - on the eve of an election in which the Solidarnosc-inspired party risked defeat and the former communists, the Democratic Left Alliance, were poised for a sensational comeback. The chief objection to Babiuch was that she was right on target, as the Sept. 19 election results showed.

But Stroba was not arguing against Babiuch's views. He was questioning not just her right to speak but her right to be there at all. Why was this unauthorized laywoman pronouncing on the Polish church?

He was backed up by Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, former archbishop of Berlin, who declared that she was speaking of the church "from the outside" and that her sociological approach failed to respect the "mystery" of the church. That is a familiar tactic for shutting people up. The Stroba and Meisner interventions illustrated another point, which Babiuch made and found confirmed, to her cost: that the church in Poland (meaning chiefly the bishops) "prefers to discredit people rather than to tolerate any discussion of its moral and theological teaching."

It regards "criticism of the church as criticism of Christianity itself." Character assassination and mudslinging have replaced rational debate.

Hume came next. "My speech will be less interesting," he began with studied understatement, before delivering what he privately called his "swan song." It was a masterly synthesis of what can be said on the healing and making whole of Europe. Neither East nor West possess "a monopoly of wisdom, courage or charisma." One can understand the indignation of Stroba, a former vice president of CCEE, who in planning meetings had opposed the whole concept of an "enlarged" symposium.

He wanted a traditional think tank for bishops with a few carefully selected experts, without the offstage noises that inevitably come from the presence of priests, religious, laity and - above all - the press.

But one can also understand the distress of Hume, who had invited Babiuch in good faith and yet unwittingly provided ammunition for those who say that the old regime of the CCEE (symbolized by himself and Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the ousted president) was "too Western."

The problem was that the symposium was planned by the "old guard" but carried out under the presidency of Vlk, who confessed that be was "still a novice and an apprentice" as president. A diffident and pious man, he grew in stature as the symposium went on. Can the Czechs as "West Central Europeans" (as a Viennese layman described them) act as mediators in creating "solidarity within the church," which cannot be assumed and has to be worked for? An unscheduled speech from Fr. Tomas Halik, until this year secretary of the Czech bishops' conference and now active in the Charles University in Prague, suggested a positive answer to this question. He maintained that there had not been enough theological reflection on the long years of communist persecution. It would be "false and laughable" to typecast the church in Czechoslovakia as "the church of martyrs," whose role was merely to bring authentic faith to the decadent godless West.

I have known a host of martyrs," he said, "who were much humbler" than those who now claim to pontificate in their name. Precisely because the church in Czechoslovakia was weakened on the institutional level, it bad a deeper experience of koinonia, which brought a new relationship between priests and laity.

In the underground church, to reveal that one was a priest was to entrust one's life to others. (Halik was secretly ordained in 1981 by Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek, Vlk's predecessor. See NCR, Sept. 10.)

The church was experienced as "a brotherly and sisterly community, which acted as an alternative not only to communism but to the consumer society. Members learned that the "church is reborn once again in every baptized person." If the "exchange of gifts" is to mean anything, it must surely begin here and on this level.

Halik did not say, though he implied, that it would be a great mistake for the church to throw away this moral capital for the sake of the restoration of its property.

I met Halik one afternoon as I set off to Prague Castle to discuss such matters with Havel. "He needs the friends he met in prison," Halik remarked.

One of them is the Dominican provincial, Dominik Duka, who once discussed Christian and human values with his fellow prisoner, Havel, and now has the less congenial task of recovering Dominican properties.

How far such thoughts were shared in the discussion groups, from which the press was excluded, I don't know. But Henryk Muszynski archbishop of Gniezno, offered another view of the Polish church, which was considerably less aggressive than the view of his fiery Poznan brother.

The Polish church had been isolated for so long, he pointed out, not only from the West but also from the neighboring churches, which were falsely regarded as forming a single "bloc" with the same characteristics. This was far from true.

Now, said Muszynski, with the breakdown of the barriers, "the differences between us have been put in perspective because today we are largely confronted by the same problems."

He did not identify the problems. But be answered Kolakowski's question by saying that Solidarnosc was, first of all, a movement against totalitarianism but also against "the atheistic regime of so-called scientific socialism."

That the East-West divide no longer determines the pastoral priorities of Europe was one of the points made in the preliminary paper - totally ignored except by the religious - based on Belgian Jesuit Fr. Jan Kerkofs'European Values survey.

His threefold typology cuts across the usual frontiers: there are countries of religious tradition (for example, Poland, Spain and Ireland); thoroughly secularized countries (France, Hungary and Lithuania); and "mixed" countries where a critically religious tradition survives (Austria, Holland and the United Kingdom). I would not go to the stake for the accuracy of these generalizations, and they could be dismissed as merely "sociological." But the point is that they do not overlap with the divisions of Cold War Europe.

Where does this leave CCEE? The question is asked literally. Havel in welcoming the symposium members in Hradcany Castle, rejoiced that Vlk was president and that its secretariat would soon be moving to Prague.

He was jumping the gun. The choice lay between staying in Sankt Gallen in Switzerland, moving to Rome or Prague.

The case for Sankt Gallen is that under Msgr. Ivo Furer it has worked efficiently, been financially supported by the Swiss bishops and is handily placed for Geneva, headquarters of the Council of European Church with which it is in liaison. The case for Rome is that it would "make things easier to control," although Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome, did not impress, appearing merely as the unimaginative hatchet man of the Roman Curia.

The case for Prague is that it would be symbolically significant: 15 delegates were transported by military airplane on Sunday to Velehrad, tomb of St. Methodius, coequal patron of Europe with his brother, Cyril, and St. Benedict. A Polish priest from Krakow has already arrived to "help" Cardinal Vlk.

In the end, the bishops decided to keep the secretariat in Switzerland until 1996. So they will be in position to prepare the second conference of all European churches proposed for 1996 by Dean John Arnold, an Anglican and president of CEC. Its theme will be "Reconciliation." Vlk gave him a bear hug or kiss of peace.

Postscript: American-born, Scottish-educated Francis J. Meehan, U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980-83 ambassador to Poland, was present as adviser to the Scottish bishops. This gave the Scots an advantage.

All episcopal conferences, claimed Paris Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, are equal from the smallest (like Slovenia) to the greatest (like Germany or Poland). But, as George Orwell remarked in Animal Farm, "some are more equal than others."
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Title Annotation:Prof. Jolanta Babiuch
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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