Orientalist Dreams of Poland as Catholiclandia (Part I)

The Papal States . . .

The Papal States . . .

. . . have Pope money!

. . . think the pope is money.

There are plenty of stereotypes floating in the seas of religious punditry. The so-called pundits are usually anchored in quite a circumscribed set of prejudices they project onto Poland. Both liberal and conservative leaning theologians like to think of my home country, for very different reasons, as a kind of Catholic Disneyland. Upon closer inspection these flattened Western pictures of Poland mirror what Edward Said labeled as Orientalism. They paint a picture of an exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous culture. Poland as a mythical Catholiclandia is a haven for conservatives (where they have no NYT), while it’s a reactionary hell for liberals (possibly the only hell they believe in).

At the Dominicans in Krakow.

RJN singing the praises of Poland in Poland. The picture he presented was a bit fuzzy.

I remember seeing Richard John Neuhaus in Krakow (Summer 2007)  and being pleasantly surprised  by his Jack Nicholson voice. He spoke enthusiastically about Poland’s vibrant Catholic culture and its strong alliance with the United States against the secular-exception of Western Europe (in the context of a worldwide sea of religion) and added a few words in defense of capitalism. It was a (too?) bold reversal of the secularization thesis, which usually has Poland and the United States as the exceptions (in the tiny island of what used to be Western culture). I asked the poet Artur Grabowski what he thought of what Neuhaus said and he replied with, “I wish it were like that” (rough!). In retrospect it seems RJN was projecting a positively backward exoticism not only onto the homeland of Wojtyla, but also the USA.

Authors such as Hans Küng adopted different reductionist projects. Their Orientalist version of Poland was usually attached to an animus toward JP2 and an oversimplified picture of Poland’s past. They were convinced that someone who earned his chops in a black and white struggle against the commies couldn’t sees Poland as a place Church during the Communist era was clearly too simple. John Paul II didn’t connect with the complexities of the late modern West (questionable, but hey). My favorite example of this type of Orientalism was Peter Hebblethwaite who spent years hating John Paul II’s Polish stupidity. For years he was always the guy on CNN predicting who the next pope would be. The irony is he died before his book on the “next pope” was published, not to mention about a decade before John Paul II died.

With that quick setup  let’s start with the reasons why Poland, like Brazil, is not a Catholic utopia (and that’s OK):

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

Fr. Jozef Tischner grasped Solidarity.

1) Clericalism:  Fr. Jozef Tischner, Solidarity’s chaplain, Poland’s leading phenomenologist, spent the better part of his life fighting against Polish clericalism. The writings Poland’s leading literary figures, world class writers such as Witold Gombrowicz (atheist) and Czeslaw Milosz (Catholic), contain their fair share of anti-clericalism. With the help of phenomenology, personalism, and the mystics John Paul II put stress upon active lay holiness in ways unseen until his papacy.  Poles (including Polish clerics as you can see from the examples above) have always been healthily suspicious of Catholic clerics. You can figure out some of the reason for it by continuing to read below.

It's complicated.

It’s complicated.

2) Diversity: Until very recently Poland has always been a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. This probably has something to do with the fact that for the better part of Poland’s history, pretty much since it came into existence in 986, the papacy usually sided with Poland’s enemies. This started with Rome’s favoritism toward the Holy [sic!] Roman Empire. Polish tolerance toward the Radical Reformation showcased its traditional tolerance until the Jesuits showed up. Poland also took in all the Jews who were expelled by Western Europe right around the same time. Nineteenth century Polish Romanticism, a significant political/literary movement (one of JP2’s greatest intellectual influences), also tended antagonize the hierarchy with its tendencies toward socialism and resistance against authoritarian regimes. Kloczowski’s A History of Polish Christianity is a magisterial overview of the variety of Polish Christianities, its history of religious pluralism and tolerance, plus it also covers intra-Polish-Catholic diversity.

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: "God's spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people."

Mickiewicz to Pius IX about the 1848 Revolution in France: “God’s spirit is in the hearts of the Parisian people.”

Next I’ll tackle the following two interconnected phenomena: the collapse of Solidarity and the growing influence of Neo-Con inspired consumerism. [Catholiclandia II is now available here.]

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Kristeva’s Declaration of Dependence: On JP2

Kristeva in Assisi

Kristeva in Assisi

The only thing better than exposing famous atheists as believers as I did with Sartre and Camus is enlisting the help of atheists in unpopular ecclesial causes.  I sense the tide has turned, especially for Neo-Cons, on John Paul II.  Their attempts to baptize capitalism and every American war with the aid of JP2 have fallen short.  A surprising number of them now busies themselves taking the same sorts petty pot shots at Wojtyla they once hated from liberal Catholics (I won’t stoop to linking their attacks).

I would argue being in the crosshairs of both sides of the theological spectrum is a good place to be.  But don’t let me make the argument.  I’ll let Julia Kristeva, an atheist, feminist, and psychoanalyst make it for me. (She also appeared at the 2011 World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi.  You can read her call for peace between humanists and religionists here.)

Why is John Paul II significant according to her?

“‘Don’t be afraid of Christianity, and together we won’t fear religions!’ I find myself wanting to say to my agnostic, humanist, atheist friends. We hail from the same continent of thought, we often rise up ‘against’ each other because we are in reality ‘right against’ one another; let us continue our analyses . . . And I have a dream: may true complicities, essential in our face to face with the rise of barbarity, be woven not only, and to my way of thinking less, between Christianity and the other religions today tempted by fundamentalism, but between Christianity and this vision to which I adhere that grows out of Christianity, although it is detached from from it today, and has the ambition to elucidate the perilous paths of freedom. In his person and his acts John Paul II made this possible. Far more than sainthood, this pope has shown us his universal dimension.”

She made this statement in reaction to the pope’s passing and after re-reading his phenomenological treatise Person and Act, which is unfortunately only available in a botched translation entitled The Acting Person (which still might be available somewhere online).  However, Kristeva forgets how the “continent of thought” she’s talking about was created by the Christian revolution and cannot be detached from it so easily.

Let’s not get bogged down in the details, but it is true that without the fundamental Christian revolution we wouldn’t notice whole classes of people.  The Greeks, Romans, the Enlightenment (we should remember on the Fourth of July), and Nietzsche didn’t make much of the weak and dependent other than sporadically wanting to eliminate them.

And so it’s important to note Kristeva also thinks the greatness of John Paul II consists in his witness of weakness:

“[I’m never sure whether the original French or the translation is jumbled when it comes to Kristeva.  But I’m sure you’ll get the point, ed.] On that day, and up to his death, we saw a handicapped man expose himself.  All those handicapped citizens, their families, and those with whom I work to have the rights of these excluded people, not like the others, recognized, know the difficulty, or even the impossibility of ensuring that the dignity of the most vulnerable, those who make us face up to deficiency and psychic or physical death, was respected.  Whereas society, dogged by the cult of performance, of excellence and enjoyment, makes manifest the shortcomings of this culture of mutual assistance and, beyond, of the identification with the suffering of Christ on the Cross or the ease in Christian sadomasochism that John Paul II successfully maintained even on his deathbed, the body of the handicapped pope was and remains and invitation to know life up to its limits.  And to develop this solidarity with people who are dependent–the handicapped or the aged–which modern humanism has so much difficulty doing.”

You can read more of her thoughts on Catholicism, especially John Paul II, in her collection of essays, This Incredible Need to Believe.

"Ecce homo," says Kristeva

“Ecce homo,” says Kristeva

Colm Tóibín’s Regensburg Moment & Macauley’s Catholic Dissidents

576px-StPeter_Regensburg

Regensburg solid.

Colm Tóibín’s The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe is a real treat.  There’s nothing like seeing the familiar, in this case Catholicism, from an eccentric standpoint.  It’s a roller-coaster ride where the memoirist  simultaneously plays the role of Catholic insider and outsider.  Tóibín frequently rubs me the wrong way with his pronouncements about Polish Catholicism (which I partially registered here).

His speculation that John Paul II would not even know how to fathom the profound depths of Bultmannian demythologization in the watered-down secondhand version Tóibín got from the first-rate second-rate theologian Norbert Brox is (hopefully) unintentionally comical.  Note the Dowdish bathos (again, comedy?) when he obliquely references Hamlet in  his evaluation of Brox vs. Wojtyla:

“It struck me that these new ideas [of gnostic provenance, only about 1900 years older than Bultmann (my own interjection)] were being fostered once more in the fertility of the German mind, and were so far from what is dreamed of in John Paul II’s philosophy that he probably would not know how to counteract them.”

These revelations are usually followed in the memoir by serious (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) reluctance to submit to Catholic discipline and mysteriously combined with mind-numbingly uncritical acceptance of Primal Scream therapy along with a heavy dose of ketamine.

I’m having too much fun here, but he does get serious and insightful:

“‘Protestants one, Catholics nil,’ I said to myself as I went to midnight Mass the following evening in the Catholic cathedral in Regensburg. But then I thought about it: they won on music and sheer, solemn style, and their churches were charming and pretty and neat. But their churches were small. Our Catholic cathedral in Regensburg, on the other hand, was a big soaring, shadowy Gothic structure, by far the most imposing building in the city.  They had Bach; we had buttressing.”

[Video courtesy of Fr. Joseph Koczera, SJ who runs a respectable and noteworthy blog “The City and the World.”  Give it a spin here.]

The solidity of the popish institutional buttressing came into sharp focus in yet another great column by Philip Jenkins, “Macaulay’s Catholic Dissenters” over at Real Clear Religion.   Borrowing heavily from Macauley’s review of von Ranke’s book on the popes, Jenkins notes Rome’s effectiveness in flexibly absorbing and directing the energies of eccentric figures and movements in ways Protestantism doesn’t:

“Macaulay notes that Christianity inevitably inspires great thinkers and activists, what we might call spiritual entrepreneurs. The enthusiasm of such individuals can make them hard to live with, and institutions find it very difficult to keep them within reasonable bounds. As these people know, absolutely, that they are serving God, they see no point in following merely human instructions. Inevitably, charismatic or prophetic individuals often desert their former institutions to set up new churches, sects or denominations, and that process has recurred frequently within the Protestant tradition. In fact, it is a trademark of that tradition.

The Catholic Church, in contrast, has always shown its ability to absorb an amazing range of dissidents. Its inclusive powers are not absolute — witness Martin Luther, and the various spiritual leaders condemned as heretics throughout the years. But in countless cases, the church succeeded. The Catholic genius was to provide means to absorb and channel virtually any form of charisma or inspired spirituality, while at the same time presenting itself as an unchanging and even inflexible hierarchical institution, semper eadem–always the same. We think how the wild, anarchic, spirituality of St. Francis was channeled and disciplined into the Franciscan Order. Eventually, even a pope would take his name.”

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (2017) Jenkins has the following to say to his Protestant colleagues:

“Macaulay’s vision [of Catholicism] could offer a practical recipe for modern-day churches contemplating how to survive and flourish in apparently impossible circumstances.

Not that this is new, but the formulation is striking.  Many Protestants have been moving toward a rapprochement with Rome ever since the pathbreaking pontificate of John Paul II.  This is evidenced by initiatives like Evangelicals and Catholics Together, or the intellectually vibrant Anglican and Roman Catholic scholarly cooperation under the banner of Radical Orthodoxy.  There are also many recent instances of Protestant intellectuals crossing the Tiber, among them, Christian Smith (the sociologist), Paul J. Griffiths, and Reinhard Hutter.

Get it?

Get it?

This institutional flexibility is the best example of Hegel’s most famous concept, Aufhebung, that I can think of.  What a great historical irony given how Hegel saw Catholicism as but a stage on the way to universal Protestant individualism!

Yet a Chrome browser auto-correct reminds me that indeed some things are necessarily rejected in the dialectic. Whenever I try to type “syncretism” into this very blog entry it gets a red underlining. The suggested replacement is, get this, “cretinism.”

So perhaps Alasdair MacIntyre is a necessary supplement to what I’ve been saying here? In this video he reminds us that Catholicism always defines itself as being an alternative to, “instead of,” some other movement. The most famous example is Augustine who chose Catholic Christianity instead of continued adherence to neo-Platonic gnosticism. A more recent example is pope Francis continuing the severe critiques of capitalism of his two predecessors by presenting Catholicism as an alternative.

Here is MacIntyre:

And so in the end . . . “Let me tell you, I stand with two-thousand years of darkness and bafflement and hunger behind me. My kind have harvested the souls of a million peasants! And I couldn’t give a [rat’s ass] for your Internet-assembled philosophy!” Check out the whole “Evil Vicar” clip below:

One More Nortre Dame Book on/and the Legacy of Solidarność

solidarity

Last night I went back and checked the Notre Dame Press overstock site on a hunch.  I wanted to check whether they publish one of the few books I know of in English about the legacy of Solidarity from a theological viewpoint.  Indeed, they do.  Beyer’s Recovering Solidarity describes its task as follows:

“Using Poland as a case study, Beyer explores the obstacles to promoting an ethic of solidarity in contemporary capitalist societies and attempts to demonstrate how the moral revolution of the early Solidarity movement can be revived, both in its country of origin and around the world. Recovering Solidarity is widely interdisciplinary, utilizing Catholic social tradition, philosophical ethics, developmental economics, poverty research, gender studies, and sociology.”

The “gender studies” stick out like a sore thumb.  Gender studies don’t seem to apply to 80’s Poland, which, I suppose, is all the more reason to inflict it upon those people and times (yet, what Beyer wrote about John Paul II in the Huff Post here is on the mark).

sign of cross

This dissonance was amplified by my bedtime reading of Colm Tóibín‘s The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe.   The subtitle might be a slight misnomer, especially since the chapter on Poland, “The Memory of War,” deals with the author doing his best to ignore and dismiss everything about Polish Catholicism.  That’s because he’s mainly there as a globalist tourist expecting to have an Auschwitz epiphany.  He initially bypasses the great centers of Polish culture, nearly a thousand years of history, and heads straight for the crematoria as if there’s nothing else to see in Poland.

In my darker moments I feel the Germans won the memory wars by planting their worst concentration camps in Poland, instead of on their own soil.  This intuition is best exemplified by the New York Times “Polish concentration camps” controversy.  Not that Tóibín is any different from our wedding guests in Krakow, some of whom headed for the sites of mass extermination the day after our nuptials.

Tóibín only changes tracks sporadically to become irked by the naive “mildness” of Poland’s practicing “Solidarity Catholics” of the 90’s and mocks them for their remembrance of the Katyń massacre.  He totally ignores the fact that in excess of 2.5 million Polish Catholics were killed during World War II, because their suffering somehow doesn’t count–even though Timothy Snyder points out they, not the Jews, were initially selected for extermination.  Perhaps the catholicity of suffering in history is too messy for us too take in?

I’ll come back to the topic of memory and World War II some other time, because I’m convinced that Eva Hoffman was right when she told me in private conversation that a balanced understanding of Poland’s history in the West is impeded by competing Jewish and Polish martyrologies locked in a zero-sum game.

There’s also a lot to be said about Tóibín’s discomfort with how much the liturgical calendar set the pace of life in 90’s Poland, and how much he could “relax, feel at home” (last words of the chapter) once he got back to the 24/7 consumerism of Western Europe. He might take comfort in the liturgies of capitalist secularism beginning to dislodge Catholicism in present day Poland.

The sometimes over-the-top clericalism of Polish culture might need some competition to clean house, but I fear the real gains of important historical episodes, for example, Solidarność, will be lost in the shuffle.  Dariusz Karłowicz, no stranger to these pages (I’ve written about his work here, here, here, and here), outlines the practical and theological contributions of Solidarność in an essay I translated a while back for the Tischner Institute in Krakow.  He concludes with questions I’d like to see Gerald Beyer’s book address:

“The qualified unity which shows itself during pilgrimages or f loods finds few outlets during day to day dealings with others. To judge from its past f lashes, the hidden potential of solidarity is still immense. Will it be utilized? Without a doubt, its guardian is Pope John Paul II. Will the Church be its future guardian or maybe the developing world of social institutions and non-profits? It’s hard to say.”

You can find the rest of this essay here on the Tischner Institute site.  There’s also an essay by the philosopher Charles Taylor I had to re-translate into English on the same site here (all because the original got lost and the Polish edition was the only one left).

z9433517AA,Ks--prof--Jozef-Tischner

Jozef Tischner, the chaplain of Solidarity. He had a way of grabbing your attention. More about him in future posts.