Religion and Values in Public Life: A Forum from the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School,
vol. 3, No. 3, Spring 1995.

Poland's Ambiguous Revolution

Edward E. Roslof, visiting lecturer in the history of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.

Janine Wedel's The Unplanned Society … [is] weaving essays and interviews from twenty Poles into a compelling tapestry. Her contributors - sociologists, clergy, politicians and journalists - describe their society from the inside. They tell how people actually lived under a system that claimed total authority but was in reality incapable of exercising any form of positive control over Poland. Wedel, who is an anthropologist, connects these wide-ranging native observations with introductions and annotations that enable the non-specialist to understand the complexities and subtleties of Polish life.

Religion is not the central focus of Wedel's study, yet the important connection between Catholicism and Polish self-identity and culture is clearly made. Under communism, the church was the only organization within the country that enjoyed political independence. As such, it attracted those dissatisfied with the regime and helped protect them as they worked for political change. Not all actively involved in the church, however, came for political or religious reasons. Barbara Lewenstein and Malgorzata Melchior's chapter, entitled "Escape to Community," describes the desire for a "protective community" among those who joined the "Oasis" Catholic youth movement. In other chapters, laity and priests alike give candid assessments of a church that challenged the political status quo while simultaneously assimilating the bureaucratic techniques of the communist government.

This combination of anthropological observation and sociological analysis provides a more meaningful critique of both Polish history and communism's legacy since 1989. Wedel successfully takes her readers "under the surface" of state institutions, thereby showing where Catholicism interacted with various levels of society. Her contributors emphasize the Catholic church's position as “the only legitimate institutional alternative to state authority" before the 1989 revolution. Poles turned to the church not necessarily from a deep commitment to Catholicism per se but because they had no other options. Now they can choose, and many of the Polish reformers running the country do not need or want the church to be involved in politics. Such a presentation of recent history explains the current conflicts between secular and church officials over divorce, mandatory religious education, and abortion. Anti-Catholic sentiments among ordinary Poles emerge as liberal Ideas on the separation of church and state, not as the vestige of Communist attacks on religion.

Wedel's The Unplanned Society places religion within the more complex matrix of Polish social structures. Her work provides more ambiguous judgments of history, judgments that reflect the ongoing dialectical relationship between Christianity and culture in contemporary Poland .

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