East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

The East European Church After Communism:
Seeking New Ways to Serve--Or New Enemies to Fight?

Jolanta Babiuch

Editor's note: While the author treats  Polish Catholicism primarily, her call for a church focus on people's needs, rather than on the return of property and privilege, can well apply to other countries and other confessions.

As confidence fades in the rapid success of what optimists still persist in calling Eastern Europe's "transition," the church's role as a stabilizing element has become increasingly important.  Yet today many of those who came to the church under Communism are leaving it again.  They are not leaving, for the most part, because their Christian faith has grown weaker, but because their understanding of that faith has set them apart from the church.  Many believe that, in the new conditions, the church has changed for the worse and that it no longer offers a dependable cradle for their religious and spiritual sensitivities.

Today, the church should be rebuilding itself on the foundations laid during its years of trial.  It should not be attempting to return to the conditions of the pre-Communist era, repeating the same mistakes and discarding more recent experiences.  But that is precisely what the church is widely perceived to be doing.  Let us consider some of the ensuing dangers.

The First Danger: A Preoccupation with Structural Expansion
The first danger is that the church is believed to be preoccupied with its structural expansion at the expense of its contact with society. It is, of course, understandable and necessary that, after the collapse of Communist rule, the church should rebuild its own battered infrastructure. But it would be a mistake, just the same, to concentrate on strengthening its institutional face while ignoring the doubts and anxieties of the society within and around it.

In several East European countries, the church has faced accusations of triumphalism.  But is the church not, in reality, succumbing to a kind of defeatism?  If it seeks to strengthen its position through legal and institutional mechanisms, can it be doing so because it is strong, or really because it feels weak?  The weakness and disorientation have emerged because the church has lost the initiative.  It feels isolated and under pressure, and appears to have been lulled into silence on the many grave new problems confronting society--poverty and unemployment, nationalism and xenophobia, insecurity and hostility to refugees.

Once again, as in the period up to the Second World War, the church's higher echelons appear lacking in social sensitivity.  The respectful attitude to believers which characterized the years of Communism seems to have evaporated.  Instead, the church gives the impression of no longer wishing to work with individual sensitivities, preferring to discredit rather than tolerate any discussion of its moral and theological teaching.

Yet it is surely a sign of the times that the world, and young people particularly, expects a new experience of the church--one that places religious needs first and national and political exhortations second.  If part of society is abandoning anything in the sphere of Christianity, it is not abandoning the Christian faith but only the institutional form currently given to it.  One would be hard pressed to find any accompanying criticism of the value of religiousness and Christian spirituality.  It is, therefore, quite wrong to regard criticism of the church--criticism accepted with equanimity in the West--as an attack on Christianity itself.

The Second Danger:  An Overzealous Search for External Enemies
The second danger may be described as an overzealous search for external enemies and an accompanying tendency to label these enemies in vague, imprecise terms.  In place of the enemy called Communism, society is exhorted to see a new enemy called "liberalism," whose methods of persecution have changed but whose hostile intentions remain much the same.

In practice, nothing like this "liberalism" exists in Eastern Europe, and to propound this mythical threat is to confront Catholic believers with a false choice:  for the church against pluralistic democracy, or for pluralistic democracy against the church.  For 50 years, the church has lived under the strain of a real assault, against which it had to defend its members and resist the pressure to be silent. But it can be argued that the attacks being made on it today exist more in imagination than in reality, that the "enemy" is largely self-created--and perhaps even largely self-willed.

Above all, the church should not need an enemy to play the role of liberator. For long years, every priest was called to uphold the faith and defend authentic values.  In those days, the church was forced to be a church of struggle and resistance.  It now needs to become a church of trust and reconciliation.  As long as it concentrates excessively on perceived threats and dangers, its inner work is certain to suffer, because it will be unable to ask necessary questions about its own weaknesses and inconsistencies.

The Third Danger: The Pursuit of Power and Property
A third danger concerns the now widespread perception that the church is no longer siding with the poor and has allowed itself to be identified, as in prewar times, with the pursuit of power and property.  Certainly, most claims about the church's wealth are at best distorted.  But aspects of the church's economic engagement have been handled with unwarranted clumsiness.  The social sensitivity surrounding such questions must be taken into account, especially while much of society struggles with its own worsening position and receives no advice or encouragement about how to cope with the economic rigors.  There is urgent need for concrete and purposeful action or the crisis will continue in a struggle for wealth and domination in which the church becomes, at best, an idle bystander, and, at worst, a co-opted accessory.

Above all, we must evaluate responsibly the lessons taught by the Communist experience.  If we choose to see it as nothing more than a savage, meaningless historical hiatus, we may assume we have nothing to fear, and even less to learn.  But this would be a dangerous misunderstanding. Social fault-lines which Communism successfully exploited included a sense of separation which had grown throughout the nineteenth century--between social justice and Christian morality, and between secular radicalism and paternalistic reform.  This gap should not be allowed to widen again. Nor, in condemning Communism, can we be blind to the iniquities of the world it supplanted.  Eastern Europe's historic tragedy has lain in being condemned to perpetual backwardness on the continent's margins, and in the powerful yearning of its social discontents for revolutionary panaceas and miracle cures.  Today, many East Europeans believe this tragedy is being repeated.  If the church will not listen to the voices of warning, will anyone else?

Excerpted from World Today, November 1994, 211-15; reprinted in Milton F. Goldman, Russia, The Eurasian Republics, and Central/Eastern Europe (Guilford, CT: Dushkin Publishing, 1996); reprinted with permission of managing editor, World Today.

Jolanta Babiuch is a lecturer in sociology at Warsaw University, Poland, currently specializing in business ethics.

Jolanta Babiuch, "Seeking New Ways to Serve--Or New Enemies to Fight?" East-West Church & Ministry Report, 5 (Winter 1997), 5-6.

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1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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