Barack Obama, Władysław Gomułka and the Attack on the Catholic Church

This July at a conference at Mundelein Seminary I heard Cardinal George state that the Church is in a more perilous position in this country then it has ever been. In February he said the Church is being despoiled of her institutions and that the new HHS mandate is nothing short of a demand for the Catholic Church in the United States to “give up her health care institutions, her universities and many of her social service organizations.” He predicted that if the HHS regulations are not rescinded a Catholic institution has the choice to secularize itself, pay exorbitant fines forcing it out of business, sell the institution, or close down. He pointed out that freedom of worship was guaranteed in the Constitution of the former Soviet Union, however, “the church could do nothing except conduct religious rites in places of worship—no schools, religious publications, health care institutions, organized charity, ministry for justice and the works of mercy that flow naturally from a living faith. All of these were co-opted by the government. We fought a long Cold War to defeat that vision of society.”

These comparisons to the former Soviet Union are quite chilling, and although they are easily dismissed, they are quite apt. I have been reading about Poland’s history under Władysław Gomułka, the first Secretary of the Polish Workers Party from 1959-1970. Because he replaced hardline Stalinists, Gomułka was a candidate of hope and change. But as George Weigel explains, the Gomułka “thaw” simply “led to a period of ‘maturity’ for polish communism. There were no longer mass murders, or open and brutal mass coercion….  [But] the regime still remained determined to bring the church to heel while weaning the Polish people from traditional religious loyalties.” The struggle entered a “more subtle” and “dangerous phase.” (The End and the Beginning, p. 51)

These terms are strikingly similar to Cardinal George’s warning of the “more perilous” state of the Church in this country. Barack Obama, the candidate of hope and change, has led to a more “mature period” of the secularization of the country.  It is instructive to consider Cardinal Wojtyla’s responses to the attacks by the Gomułka regime. An immensely helpful work by Father Boniecki, The Making of the Pope of the Millennium: Kalendarium of the Life of Karol Wojtyla, provides a window through the iron curtain. Let us consider the year 1967 when Archbishop Wojtyla was named a cardinal by Pope Paul VI. The harassment of the Church by communist authorities was palpable, despite “Gomułka’s thaw.” There was the on going battle with the regime concerning the right to build a Church in Nowa Huta, the new town outside of Krakow supporting the Lenin Steelworks. The authorities would grant no permit to build a church; there were violent street protest over the erection of a simple cross in a public space. Wojtyla continued to press for the building of a Church in the town. (In 1977 Cardinal Wojtyla blessed a new church in Nowa Huta).

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In June the authorities in Krakow closed the Rhapsodic Theater, co-founded by Wojtyla during the Nazi occupation. Wojtyla wrote in protest to the “minister of Culture”: “The activity of the Theater is very dear … it played an important role in the service of Polish culture.” He subsequently wrote to the ousted director, M. Kotlarczk, that this great wrong was “motivated by ideological rationalizations … [and] proves there is a lack of freedom in the ideological sphere.”

Cardinal Wyszynski was denied a passport to travel to Rome for the Synod of Bishops.  In protest and in solidarity with the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Wojtyla refused to travel to Rome and he spoke out concerning their “right and the obligation” to attend the Synod. Pope Paul VI expressed his “bitterness” at this attack on the Church and he also expressed his bitterness at “the harmful conditions that have been forced upon the Church … where its due freedom is denied; where the Church is the object of unjustified suspicion, moral and legal pressure, and anti-religious opposition.”

The icon of our Lady of Czestochowa could not be transported across Poland to celebrate the Visitation. In a sermon to his priests Wojtyla said that this act of suppression of a popular religious custom was a “clear insult to things we hold holy.” It was a violation of religious feeling and not in compliance with the constitution or the rule of law. The freedom to venerate the image across Poland stood as a “proof and a gauge” of religious freedom. He petitioned the Chairman of the council of Ministers for respect of “these rights of a moral and a social nature.”

In 1966 the famous philosopher Leszek Kolakowski was expelled from the University and exiled in 1968. Wojtyla visited the Jagiellonian University where he received the following toast from a professor: “after the thorough laicization of our university, after the exclusion of theology from within its walls, there remains not a trace of the official influence of the ordinaries of Krakow … one does not have to hold an official position in order to be a mentor of minds searching for truth.” He acclaimed Wojtyla “an inspirer and protector of Polish learning, ever faithful to the Church.” Cardinal Wojtyla spent much time during the year attending conferences, speaking about theology and the lay apostolate.

Finally, Gomulka and the communist government used the Leninist technique of “splitting from above and below” to divide the Church and to confuse the faithful. Norman Davies, in God’s Playground: A History of Poland, explains that the communist party sought to destroy their rivals by creating factions and bogus organizations. They first destroyed political rivals, and then turned on the Church. They created shell organizations with names like “Veritas,”  “Pax” or “Caritas.” Their aim was to “destroy the reputation of the hierarchy and to create a bloc of Catholic opinion which was prepared to co-operate with the state on the Party’s terms.” (vol. 2, pp. 379-380) The Church responded by forbidding its members from participating in these groups. But most of all, Wojtyla offered his people real Catholic teaching as an alternative to the pseudo-Catholic and humanitarian propaganda.

In his homily on New Year’s eve, December 31, 1967 Cardinal Wojtyla summed up the situation quite incisively: “We are the witnesses of an attack on faith … the position that faith and religion are unworthy of a human being; that faith and religion are contrary to a person’s reason, and above all, to his social mundane involvement. We are witnesses at every step, of the so-called process of secularization, which in large part is calculated, and forced upon people of faith. They are still being given the right to profess their faith, but in a way that forces them to keep their religious convictions in the depths of their souls, within the four walls of their houses, or in church. But anywhere else—no. Public life will be overtaken by the process of secularization; and so: not in schools, not in hospitals, not in summer camps [youth programs].” Cardinal George’s warning of 2012 strikes a note so similar to Cardinal Wojtyla’s warning of 1967. What can we learn from this parallel?

Norman Davies dryly observes that, “Gomulka remained an orthodox, disciplined, and philistine communist.” So too Obama promised hope and change, but we now see that he is but an “orthodox, disciplined and philistine socialist.” He, his Democratic Party and the biased media consistently resort to the splitting technique to “destroy the reputation of the hierarchy and to create a bloc of Catholic opinion which is prepared to co-operate with the administration on the Party’s terms.” Obama appeals to the academy’s native anti-Catholicism to promote his agenda and relies on Catholic institutions to lend their support to his positions. His party’s endorsement of homosexual rights and homosexual marriage continue to drive out Catholics from social services and adoption services. And now his “Obamacare” and its strident imposition of abortion and contraception services will drive Catholics once and for all from health care and perhaps education as well. As Wojtyla said: “We are witnesses at every step, of the so-called process of secularization.” What is to be done?

Wojtyla provides a four point plan for our Bishops to follow: (1) appeal to the rights of law and morality to fight the unjust attacks on its actions and institutions; (2) be a teacher above all, explaining the true faith and its applications to all spheres of life (Cardinal George and Archbishop Chaput are to be commended for their role as teachers like Wojtyla); (3) use dramatic opportunities to express solidarity with those Catholics who are being attacked and those institutions being subverted; celebrate milestones and heroes of the faith in this country; perhaps some equivalent to the Catholic league should be a part of every diocese in the country to respond quickly and vigorously; (4) strongly challenge and counter the “splitting from above and below” and be ready to impose the doctrinal and practical discipline required to maintain the unity of faith. This task must be the most daunting because Catholics in this country voluntarily split the Church and claim legitimacy for their dissent. Most of the Catholic universities have voluntarily split off. Catholic politicians have split off, especially the Democrats who advocate the most blatantly anti-Catholic policies. They must be roundly and repeatedly denounced. I hope that the Bishops would re-consider denial of communion to those politicians on account of scandal (i.e., splitting). Other Catholic organizations must be led by fully faithful Catholics. And of course, the diocesan offices must be filled by those who clearly support Catholic teaching and can give a coherent public witness.

The deepest lesson of all was taught by Cardinal Wojtyla on the day of his return from Rome after receiving the red hat from Pope Paul VI (July 9, 1967). He said: “I come from the grave of St. Peter to the grave of St. Stanislaw with new duties, with new responsibilities. By placing a Cardinal’s red biretta on my head. The Holy Father wanted to tell me that I should place an even greater value on blood. Above all that I should value the blood of my redeemer; that for the price of our redeemer’s blood I should take a stand in the Church of God even if I have to spill my own blood.”

From Gomulka to Jaruzelski, the communist leaders of Poland could not contain the prayerful and vigorous witness of Cardinal Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II. May the leaders of the Church in our country now stand up to Barack Obama and his party’s attacks on the faith.


  • John Hittinger

    John Hittinger is a professor in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St Thomas, Houston and the author of Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. He is the founder and director of the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World and president of the International Catholic University, founded by Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He is also developing a MA in John Paul II studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

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