Polish Cleric Collaborates With Regime: Not a New Issue
The Mass intended to celebrate Stanislaw Wielgus’ appointment as archbishop of Warsaw couldn’t have been more awkward. Outside the cathedral, supporters and detractors grappled in the rain. Wielgus, instead of celebrating his appointment, resigned from the front of the church. The congregation began shouting. Polish President Lech Kazynski stood to applaud the announcement, but faltered when he realized that most within the cathedral were against it.The issue, the article makes clear, is hardly peculiar to Catholicism, and hardly peculiar to Poland.
As a priest, Wielgus had collaborated with the Communist Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa secret police. His role in the secret police came to light recently as his promotion approached. After Gazeta Polska published its exposé, dug out of old KGB records, he issued a series of denials, each denying less than the one before it, and finally a last-minute resignation.
The author, Susan Wunderink, gives examples from the Episcopal Church in the Sudan, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Hungary.
But then there is history:
The conflict over what to do with Christian leaders who cooperated with anti-church governments began in the 300s. Roman governors of North Africa, acting on Emperor Diocletian’s 303 edict against the Christians, burned Scriptures, destroyed churches, and massacred believers. Some Christians held firm and were killed; some gave up false copies of Scripture; some surrendered completely. When the surviving bishops gathered at a synod in Cirta in the year 305, accusations began to fly against nearly everyone in attendance. As in post-Communist Eastern Europe, those who had betrayed others, those who had endured persecution, those who had been marginally affected, those who had secrets, and those who had none all had to rethink what it meant to be the body of Christ. No one was exempt from such introspection: neither the repentant nor the unrepentant, the broken nor the unbroken.We tend to think of clerics who collaborate with tyrannical regimes as analogous with conservative Protestant clerics caught in sleazy sexual sins. Both can be forgiven — indeed should be forgiven. But they have disqualified themselves for leadership roles in the Church.
Those who yielded to the pressure under such circumstances often see their actions as justified. Wielgus insists that his actions did not harm anyone (although in his apology, he admitted to harming the church). Similarly, in an account of the events at Cirta, Secundus of Tigisis accused almost all the bishops of betrayal—and in turn was accused himself and told to leave to God the judgment of others’ deeds under persecution.
One group which emerged from the Cirta synod believed that those who sinned after baptism were not a part of the pure church. To them, there was no restoration for Christians who fell (“traditores”), even for those who were repentant. Works by traditor bishops were invalid, this group argued, and the church needed to purify itself of its betrayers. (The group became known as Donatists, because they supported a bishop named Donatus instead of a bishop consecrated by a reported traditor.)
Augustine fought long and hard against the Donatists, whom he called “enemies of Christian unity.” The church’s holiness, he said, was assured by Jesus and not dependent upon imposed purity. “The time will not come for the church as a whole when it will be utterly without spot or wrinkle,” he said. But while it’s impossible to exclude sinners from the church, Augustine argued, repentance and almsgiving are necessary for restoration. He wrote treatises, letters, even a popular hymn to oppose the Donatist view of fallen Christians. Eventually, he succeeded, with the Donatists themselves being condemned as schismatics and heretics—and once again persecuted by the (then Christian) Roman empire.