The Church as Opposition in Poland

03/06/2015 09:48 am ET | Updated May 06, 2015

Before the Solidarity trade union emerged in 1980, Poland's primary non-state institution -- and often anti-state institution -- was the Catholic Church. Catholic intellectuals created discussion clubs and published periodicals. Churches were relatively safe places to voice dissent. John Paul II, originally Karol Wojtyla, became the first Polish pope in 1978 and inspired many in his home country to take a public stand against the Communist regime.

One of the most prominent voices of Catholic opposition was Tygodnik Powszechny (Universal Weekly), which published some of Karol Wojtyla's early writings as well as the poems of Czeslaw Milosz even when he was in exile. Established after World War II, Tygodnik declared its independence by refusing to publish Stalin's obituary in 1953. Under the editorial direction of Jerzy Turowicz, the newspaper served as both a forum for discussions of reforming the system and, later, a place to push for more radical change. Poland's first non-Communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, came out of the Tygodnik milieu, as did a number of leading politicians.

Maciej Kozlowski, when I met him in Krakow in 1990, was a prominent journalist and editor at Tygodnik who had just joined the ministry of foreign affairs as a newly minted diplomat. He served in the Polish embassy in the United States, became the ambassador to Israel, and was responsible for Middle Eastern affairs on his return to Poland.

"The whole Catholic Church was a kind of opposition," Kozlowski told me in an interview in August 2013 in Warsaw. "The major question was: How far would we in Tygodnik and the church engage in anti-government activity? When Tygodnik was closed [during Martial Law], the office wasn't closed. It became a kind of underground saloon. People were going there from all over Poland. Underground literature was being distributed there. We knew that the authorities know about it. But they were pretty reluctant to go very openly against the church. We had a kind of shield, particularly because of the pope. Arresting someone from Tygodnik would have crossed a line."

Kozlowski joined Tygodnik when it reopened in 1982. "When it was reopened, Tygodnik walked a fine line between publishing officially and supporting the opposition," he continued. "We changed the layout of the front page. At first our name, Tygodnik Powszechny, was in black letters on white background. Then we changed it to white letters on black background, as it is done in obituaries. It was a distinct sign, but censorship couldn't do anything about it. Also, Krzysztof [Kozlowski] had a column, Events of the Week. At the top he put, 'the 43rd week of Martial Law.' It was a kind of a game."

Tygodnik was very supportive of the Round Table process. "Now the war cry is to 'abolish the republic of the Round Table,'" Kozlowski said. "But at Tygodnik we were all for it. Tygodnik was always for peaceful transformation. It's now attacked for that, for cooperating with the Communists. Publishing a legal paper under Communism is called collaboration. In any case, we were very engaged as a result."

After the convulsive years of 1989-90, Tygodnik began to suffer increasing attacks by the right wing of the Catholic Church, the same constituency that listened to Radio Maria, an ultra-conservative radio station. The content of the periodical began to edge to the right as well as it took more conservative positions on social issues.

More recently, Kozlowski said, it has veered back toward the center. "I read Tygodnik from time to time, not regularly, and I see that the paper is trying to come back to its previous positions," he reported. "It writes about pedophilia among the clergy, for instance. Of course, they are strong enthusiasts of the new pope. And once again Tygodnik is attacked by this part of the church. Tygodnik, though, lost its credibility in the eyes of a certain group of people."

Kozlowski also has had to endure attacks for his purported collaboration with the Communists. Indeed, as a result of these charges, he was forced to retire from the foreign ministry.

"One of the employees of Tygodnik, Roman Graczyk, a right-wing activist, wrote a book about the prominent figures of Tygodnik and their collaboration with the secret police. He accused four prominent people of collaboration. This book had a big impact. Some people condemned Graczyk. Others said that these people at Tygodnik claimed they were opposition, but look, they were collaborationists. Graczyk read my files very carefully, and he defended me. He said, 'This is a person who refused to collaborate.' The judge said that the law is such that even one contact with the secret police is enough. And I had three. I said, 'No, I'm not going to cooperate.' But I met with him, so I'm an informer."

In a recent email, however, Kozlowski reports that Poland's Supreme Court cleared him of all charges of collaboration a few months ago.

We talked about his work on Christian-Jewish relations, the debate in Poland and Israel over the work of historian Jan Gross, and why a new liberal movement has yet to emerge in Poland today.

The Interview

I'm interested in the debate in Catholic circles in the 1980s, after Martial Law, about engagement with the government. There were some in the church working side by side with the government, and others very critical of the government.

Actually, at that time, there were very few working with the government. The whole Catholic Church was a kind of opposition. The major question was: How far would we in Tygodnik and the church engage in anti-government activity? When Tygodnik was closed, the office wasn't closed. It became a kind of underground saloon. People were going there from all over Poland. Underground literature was being distributed there. We knew that the authorities know about it. But they were pretty reluctant to go very openly against the church. We had a kind of shield, particularly because of the pope. Arresting someone from Tygodnik would have crossed a line. We knew that we could engage in what we did, but not in the name of Tygodnik, only on our own behalf. If someone wanted to engage that way, we informed Turowicz or Krzysztof.

From today's perspective, this regime was not so very oppressive. It was unpleasant. You could land in jail. But contrary to what we know from Russia in the 1930s or Poland in the 1950s, people here who were repressed received support, not from the whole society but from enough people to feel that support. The persecuted were not isolated. People released from jail came to Tygodnik to tell their stories.

So, when it was reopened, Tygodnik walked a fine line between publishing officially and supporting the opposition. We changed the layout of the front page. At first our name, Tygodnik Powszechny, was in black letters on white background. Then we changed it to white letters on black background, as it is done in obituaries. It was a distinct sign, but censorship couldn't do anything about it. Also, Krzysztof had a column, Events of the Week. At the top he put, "the 43rd week of Martial Law." It was a kind of a game.

When the Round Table idea first came up, which I believe was in the fall of 1988, was there a debate in Catholic circles or at Tygodnik about this strategy? Some people in Solidarity were skeptical. Were there also skeptical voices in Tygodnik?

No. At Tygodnik we were very much for it. Turowicz was the one who opened the negotiations. Mazowiecki, however, was skeptical. Now there is a lot of false interpretation of that time. We now live as in Communist times. In Communist time what was certain was the future. But history was changing all the time. Now it's the same in Poland, with all this discussion of Magdalenka....

They're still talking about Magdalenka? When I was here in 1989, a book came out about the secret discussions that took place there. People like Kaczynski are still talking about it?

Yes: the betrayal of Round Table. And now the war cry is to "abolish the republic of the Round Table." But at Tygodnik we were all for it. Tygodnik was always for peaceful transformation. It's now attacked for that, for cooperating with the Communists. Publishing a legal paper under Communism is called collaboration. In any case, we were very engaged as a result. After the first semi-free elections in 1989, Krzysztof became a senator. Hennelowa became a member of parliament. Turowicz was offered all possible options, but he refused. He said it was more important to publish Tygodnik.

Tygodnik was a very important part of these preparations because it was the only legally existing opposition body. I'm talking about the Tygodnik milieu, not just the paper. There was also Znak, Wiez, the Clubs of Catholic Intellectuals (KiK). That was the only legal opposition in Poland, actually in the whole system, because there was no such phenomenon in other countries. It was quite natural that the first government would be made up of these people. They actually formed the first non-communist government in the region

It had additional legitimacy because Poland is a largely Catholic country. At the time we talked, you said that Tygodnik continued to be a place where you could have a debate openly about a variety of issues such as abortion. The week before we talked there had been a debate in which you could be against abortion but also against the penalization of people who have abortions. Has that space for debate continued?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.