Catholicism is a majestic religion. It got its name from the Greek word katholikós. It means: pertaining to the whole, universally applicable, all-encompassing. This was a religious and for a long time also a secular claim to power. The Catholic faith should be the universally valid one.
This has also led to the fact that the religious practices of the Catholic Church are almost identical worldwide. But the dark side of Catholicism is also widespread around the world. For example, the sexual abuse committed by members of the Catholic clergy, priests and others.
It can no longer be denied that the abuse brought the Church into disrepute. And the Church, albeit hesitantly and evasively, has begun to grapple with it seriously, albeit not with the same intensity everywhere.
In Ireland or Germany abuse is a far bigger public issue than in other countries. For example in Poland. There, Catholicism is not simply a religion in a secular society. Rather, it is something of a state religion, ennobled by its history of resistance during decades of communist rule.
In addition, the current national-conservative PiS government sees an ally in the Catholic Church in the fight against Western modernity and its pluralization of lifestyles. In any case, she tries to use the church for this.
In the PiS milieu, criticism of the church is therefore considered an unpatriotic offense aimed at the foundations of the state. After all, people in this milieu are not the only ones who pride themselves on the fact that it was Pope John Paul II who came from Poland and who, with his firm faith, made a significant contribution to freeing Eastern Europe from the ice of Soviet rule.
Karol Józef Wojtyła, canonized just a few years after his death, is an undisputed national hero in Poland. Of course, rumors have been circulating for years that Wojtyła, as Archbishop of Kraków, reacted to cases of abuse in the 1960s in a similar way to church dignitaries in other countries. He did not remove those suspected of abuse and those convicted from church service, but covered up the events. In some cases he had transferred those concerned to other dioceses, where they continued to work as clergy.
In one case he wrote a letter of recommendation to Cardinal Franz König in Vienna for an incriminated priest without informing him of the allegations against his protégé. The Polish private broadcaster TVN24, which is critical of the government, recently broadcast a film in which these allegations are raised and substantiated. A book by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek, who works as a correspondent in Warsaw, has just been published in Polish. It is luridly titled Maxima Culpa. John Paul II knew”.
It is not yet clear whether the allegations are actually true. Another problem is that Overbeek, like the broadcaster TVN24, relies not only on witness statements, but also on documents from the - not necessarily trustworthy - communist secret service SD.
But without waiting for a clarification, the PiS government immediately took the side of the deceased pope and started a veritable culture war. The Foreign Ministry said the film, broadcast by the TV channel, could have an impact "identical to the objectives of a hybrid war intended to create divisions and tensions in Polish society."
In this way, the "ability of the Republic of Poland to deter a potential adversary" could be weakened. Prime Minister Morawiecki became even clearer in a specially recorded video. He said: "Today, war is not only fought beyond our eastern border. Unfortunately, there are milieus that are trying to trigger a non-military, civil war in us.” And the President of the Sejm, the parliament, said in a televised speech: “John Paul II is our identity, what unites us and holds us together ."
This reveals the whole misery of a state whose largest governing party does not shy away from immediately launching an implacable counterattack to well-founded, even if unproven, allegations against a national hero. And to basically declare all critics, but above all their sympathizers, to be enemies of the people.
That the state has to be neutral in religious and judicial matters is a modern achievement. And it is one of the strict rules to which the EU member state Poland must also be bound. It is a scandal that the Polish government, in its national-conservative wrath on sovereignty, is unhesitatingly disregarding it.
The matter is made even more indecent by the fact that PiS circles are not afraid to draw a connection to the Ukraine war. All of Polish society, including the opposition, supports Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression. The government, however, in an adventurous volte against its better knowledge, insinuates that the critics of possible misconduct on the part of Archbishop Wojtyła want to weaken Poland's readiness to defend itself. destabilize, decompose.
This is a memorable example of how destructive absolute patriotism, no longer bound by the rules of civil society, can be. Of course, there are also bright spots in Poland. For example in the person of Adam Michnik, the founder and longtime editor-in-chief of “Gazeta Wyborcza”, Poland's largest daily newspaper.
Michnik is a national force in Poland. He had been in opposition to the regime since the 1960s and maintained contact with the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, who later emigrated, and other members of the opposition. Sentenced to prison several times, he joined the Solidarność trade union in the early 1980s, sat at the round table and founded a newspaper on behalf of Solidarność, which later became the “Gazeta Wyborcza”.
Michnik's voice, who is still as unconventional as he was 30 years ago, counts in Poland. Far beyond the opposition milieu. Now Michnik, who is not a member of the church, has also commented on the Wojtyła cause. And defends the deceased pope, as he also expressed understanding for some functionaries of the communist era after 1989.
Of course, he sides with Wojtyła in a fundamentally different way than the PiS does. He believes it is possible that the allegations against the late pope are true. In the interview he says: “I understand that the time for reckoning has come. But for me it is unacceptable to reduce the Polish Pope only to pedophilia scandals.”
He remains one of the most outstanding public figures in 20th-century Polish history. Michnik: "There are no people who don't make mistakes, are made of stone and are holy in every respect." And he refers to Wojtyła's importance for the Polish opposition: "I owe him too much and I think that Poland owes him too much to reduce to this one point. At the same time, I recognize that as the head of the church he bears some responsibility for these terrible mistakes.”
That may sound like an overly forgiving one-on-one. But Michnik goes one step further. What is taken for granted today, he says, was not the case forty years ago. Abuse was no more an issue than homosexuality. Michnik: "It wasn't talked about. Moreover, it would have been tactless to mention someone's sexual orientation. It's completely different today. From that perspective, you can blame me for not fighting for LGBT rights. Well, I wasn't fighting, I was a slave to the zeitgeist, believing that it was a purely intimate affair."
Pope Francis responded to the allegations against Wojtyła with very few sentences. He said: "I don't know the case, but it was the usual." Also, each epoch "must be interpreted with the hermeneutics of the respective time". In other words, what was not considered wrong then cannot be condemned today.
Adam Michnik is far removed from such indifference. He neither wants to whitewash Wojtyła nor gloss over his lack of attention from today's perspective. Rather, he pleads for a certain leniency in dealing with past transgressions or omissions.
For a mild and reflective caution that does not imply exculpation. But she tries to understand other times and their values from within. And she asks if it's possible that Wojtyła didn't deliberately and knowingly cover up. But that simply didn't see, couldn't see what stands like a giant elephant in the discourse room today: the scandal of sexual abuse. The line between understanding and irresponsibly forgiving or apologizing is very narrow, especially in the case of sexual abuse. But sometimes it might be helpful to try to walk it.
For example, in view of colonialist stereotypes or the love of Germans for cars and autobahns that some people find so absurd today, or the once undivided belief in the blessings of technical progress. This could bring a little more looseness, justice and historical sharpness of judgment into our historical and identity-political debates.