For a national capital, Warsaw is very new and, finally, unconvincing as a city. After World War II, it was rebuilt from almost total rubble. Apart from the reconstructed Old Town, it is with some exceptions an exhibition of ugliness. The Communists, it seems, were at war with all three transcendentals”the good, the true, and the beautiful. Stalinist monumentalism consorts with state-architecture gray in large stretches of concrete slabs, all conspiring to suppress the difference and surprise that make space human. One welcomes even the McDonald’s and Marlboro billboards that, since the revolution of 1989, have provided a breath of color and relief from sameness.

A three-hour train ride to the south is Cracow, magnificent Cracow. Spared the physical ravages of the war, it is a maddeningly delightful melange of architectural styles, of churches, priories, schools, and castles; of nooks and crannies stuffed with the national memorabilia of more than a millennium. Cracow gave to the world its cardinal archbishop, Karol Wojtyla. Not far away is the shrine of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Also not far away, in a different direction, is Auschwitz.

It was this writer’s first time in Poland, and impressions came fast and sometimes confused. The fall elections were only just past, and the good guys”those who favor a free economy and democratic interaction between religion, culture, and politics”were discouraged. The other guys had won. They are called post-Communists and represent themselves as democratic socialists. They had not won big, getting only about 35 percent of the vote, but a complicated system of apportioning parliamentary seats gave them a large majority. Almost nobody we talked with”politicians, clerics, intellectuals, journalists”thinks there is a real danger that the new government will turn toward authoritarian rule, never mind return to the totalitarianism of the past. But they are understandably depressed to see the apparatchiks of the old regime riding high in newly democratic Poland.

It is the more depressing to our friends because almost everything since the Pope’s first visit in 1979 and the insurgency of Solidarity had been so exhilaratingly hopeful. When communism collapses and the Russians leave and Poland is free, everything, absolutely everything, will be possible, they had told themselves. And now this. Explanations of what went wrong abound. The two most frequently encountered are, first, that the right-center forces (meaning liberal democrats) wasted their electoral impact by fragmenting into a multitude of parties; and, second, that Church leadership frightened the voters by giving an unseemly appearance of ambition for political power.

Slowly the reality is sinking in that it is part of democratic “normality” to screw up and lose from time to time. The post-Communist alliance with another leftist group, the Peasants’ Party, may well prove a shaky combination. The hope is expressed that the alliance will fall apart and there will be new elections within two years. Perhaps both the liberal democrats and Church leadership learned something from this round and will do better next time. That is the comforting idea encountered in the aftermath of this electoral disappointment. An American invited to talk about democratic theory and practice comes away with a more hopeful sense of the Polish situation than that evinced by many of his Polish interlocutors. At least that is true of this American.

Poles are determined to demonstrate that they are full participants in the democratic West, and to do so immediately. That is why the recent election was not just a disappointment but an embarrassment. What must democrats in the West think of us now? We in the West should think they have made a fine beginning and have suffered a temporary setback. The labyrinthine and bloody history of Poland has provided slight experience with the basic ideas and practices of democratic governance. Even among sophisticated intellectuals, one is caught by surprise in discovering large lacunae in the understanding of how democracies work. There is a frequent and sometimes touching eagerness to emulate the United States. Certainly that is not to be discouraged entirely, for America is history’s most spectacular experiment in democracy. But one feels obliged to point out our problems, especially when it comes to the role of religion in a free society.

More on that, but first an aside about Auschwitz. When you go there, keep in mind that there is Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II, the second more commonly known as Birkenau. In many ways, the second is more important and one should visit it first. Only in the shadow of the brutal wasteland of Birkenau, where the killing was wholesale and savage beyond description, can one understand Auschwitz I. The first Auschwitz, unfortunately, is where most of the tourists go. Entering through the gate bearing the infamous legend Arbeit Macht Frei , one comes upon the blocks or barracks neatly arranged along tree-lined streets that might be considered pleasant if one didn’t know what happened there. There is a coffee and souvenir shop, and hordes of impatient schoolchildren being shuffled through exhibits that, so far as one could see, failed to evoke awe in the face of unspeakable evil.

One unfortunate exhibit has large drawings of beastly Nazis beating frightened inmates. Whatever the intention, it tends to reduce what happened to a cartoon strip. More formidable are the rows upon rows upon rows of identification photographs of men, women, and children. Just the name, when they entered the system, when they died. But one must stop and study the faces; this cannot be hurried. More formidable, too, is the cell of Father Maximilian Kolbe who volunteered to die in another’s place. There John Paul II knelt in prayer, and one joins in his petition, remembering the portraits and little shrines to Father Kolbe that are to be found in almost every church in Poland.

If Auschwitz I is too much an antiseptic museum, bordering at points on turning the horror of the Holocaust into kitsch, Birkenau is unremitting truth. If it is true that humanity cannot bear too much truth, perhaps that explains why so few go to Birkenau, which is only a five-minute drive from the more visited Auschwitz. There is a suitably brutal monument to the dead, but apart from that there are no exhibits at Birkenau. Not even photographs of the victims. After a while there were too many of them and the Nazis deemed taking identification photos to be too expensive. It used to be said that as many as four million died in Auschwitz-Birkenau”Jews, Polish Christians, Gypsies, political criminals, homosexuals, others. Now your guide tells you that the accepted figure is somewhat over one million. When the ghastly business was at full throttle, perhaps even the efficient Germans were not counting very carefully. Whether we have the exact count does not seem to matter very much. We know that they have all been counted.

Birkenau is in ruins; vast, sprawling fields of crumbling barracks, and the gas chambers, and the crematoria. Unlike Auschwitz, Birkenau’s deteriorated condition places it in a specific moment of time. Here, you know, fifty and more years ago the deed that defies moral imagination was done. There are occasional little signs in several languages: “It is Dangerous to Walk in the Ruins.” It is. One thinks about those who were killed, about those who did the killing, about the revisionists who deny that it happened, about one’s own capacity for suffering, for evil, and for self-deception. You want to get out of the place, but then are drawn back to look again, to touch again the crumbling wooden bunks, the long concrete latrines where thousands of naked bodies squeezed their way to a hole, human beings maintaining the dignity of going to the toilet before they die.

The nuns are gone from the convent bordering Auschwitz. This is an exceedingly delicate subject among Poles, many of whom felt unfairly put upon by “international Jewry.” The controversy over the convent no doubt fed residual feelings of anti-Semitism, a prejudice that in Poland is commonly described as “anti-Semitism without Jews.” On the other hand, we met a nun in Cracow who is promoting Jewish-Christian dialogue. It turns out to be Jewish-Christian dialogue without Jews, which seems somewhat more improbable than anti-Semitism without Jews. The entire subject may not be closed. Near Birkenau is another chapel, belonging to the local parish. Some Poles fear there will be agitation for removing that, too. One hopes that doesn’t happen. Whatever one thinks about the nuns having to leave the convent, it raises the question of whether there is any part of the Lord’s earth that is beyond sanctification by prayer and sacred sign. Neither Christians nor Jews are of one mind on that. Christians, however, might remember Golgotha. In the Christian account of things, the most sacred site in the universe is the place where God was killed. One ponders such things while wandering around Birkenau. It is dangerous to walk in the ruins.

Death and dying and martyrdom are everywhere publicly present in Poland. In addition to Father Kolbe, there is at a parish church in Warsaw a shrine to Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a wildly popular dissident priest who was killed by the Communists in 1984. In the Warsaw cathedral one pauses to pray at the tomb of the archbishop hero of that era, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski. Above the tomb is inscribed Polonia Semper Fidelis ”Poland Ever Faithful. The faithful of Poland are a wonder to behold. At times in its history, the boundaries of Poland reached north to Lithuania and east to Ukraine, and the country contained large numbers of Protestants, Orthodox, and, of course, Jews. Within its present borders, the country is almost totally Catholic. In the cities it seems that Masses are going on perpetually, with churches packed and the intensity of piety palpable. We arrived at the Dominican church in Cracow in time for the regular Sunday evening students’ Mass: more than two thousand young people wedged into every available space and listening to Scripture and sermons as though their souls depended on it. In Poland one gets some sense of what is meant by a Catholic culture, and why there is such worry about the secularism and consumerism associated with the cultural invasion from the West.

Under the Communist regime, Cardinal Wyszynski ran a very tight ship. Some call it authoritarian, but few doubt that it was necessary to protect the Church against penetration and subversion by the regime. Decision-making was highly centralized and almost totally clericalized. The people understood that it had to be that way. In the words of George Weigel ( The Final Revolution ), the Church had a monopoly on virtue. It was the only space free from totalitarian control, and its borders had to be assiduously patrolled in order to keep it free. Now, says Weigel (in whose company we made this trip), the challenge to the Church is not only to surrender her monopoly but actively to cultivate other centers and institutions of virtue. Put differently, a time of unremitting confrontation must give way to a time of democratic participation. Not of course that the Church herself can be democratically governed, but she should acknowledge and welcome the integrity of decision-making by others in the spheres of politics, economics, and culture. In a free society, the influence of the Church is exercised not so much in direct relationship to the state as it is mediated through the activity of the faithful.

Bishops and priests, especially priests in the countryside, are having a hard time making this transition. They were formed by a mind-set that assumed that the role of the laity is to pray, pay, and obey”also in the realm of the political. There was merit in that during the years of oppression, but the mind-set is now a serious obstacle to the development of a democratic political culture. In June of 1993, the bishops conference issued an admirable statement on the Church’s nonpartisanship in the forthcoming elections. One is told that most bishops abided by the statement, but some bishops and priests joined the Church’s authority to nationalist parties that did very poorly indeed in the balloting.

“The Church,” says a former dissident and devout Catholic, “was heavy-handed when it did not need to be. Most of the people were ready to give the Church what it wanted, but they wanted to be asked nicely. It is supposed to be part of the new era that you discuss things rather than just demand things.” The sticking points in the Church’s role leading up to the elections were several. There was the concordat with the Vatican, which was negotiated in great secrecy and then”or so the complaint goes”presented as a fait accompli without the public discussion necessary for popular acceptance. Also, the question of whether the crucifix should be displayed in the parliament was politically exploited as a litmus test of whether politicians were or were not faithful to “Catholic Poland.” In addition, the Church wanted the return of its many properties”schools, monasteries, charitable institutions. There was little serious disagreement that they should be returned, but some thought the Church leadership was eager to the point of grasping. And, of course, there was abortion.

In the Communist era, abortion was the contraceptive of no choice for most Polish women. As in other parts of the former evil empire, abortion rates were astronomically high. The last government adopted laws protective of the unborn, and abortion rates dropped dramatically. But those who are suspicious of the Church’s political ambitions successfully portrayed such laws as an instance of the Church undemocratically “imposing” Catholic teaching on the country. Some who took that position are militants who believe in a secular state in a secular society. Unlikely though it may seem, there is a junior-league ACLU mentality among some intellectuals and politicians. As with the ACLU and its kind here, they agitate for a “separation of church and state” that is tantamount to the separation of religion from public life.

Others who resented the Church’s role in the abortion controversy, however, are committed Catholics who have no problem with the Church’s influence in public life but insist that it should be exercised in a different and more democratic manner. (One is also reminded that, even among the committed, there is a lively Polish tradition of anticlericalism that was only temporarily suspended during the Communist years.) In discussions it became evident that very few people on any side of the abortion question challenge the assumption that it is a matter of legislating “the Catholic position.” In other words, abortion is presented as a religious question. The alternative, of course, is to make the public argument that abortion is an assault upon the foundation of democratic beliefs about human rights and responsibilities. That alternative way of making the argument, needless to say, is not well understood here in the United States, so it is hardly surprising that it has not taken firm root in Poland after just a few years of freedom to engage in public debate. Hardly surprising, but still disturbing.

Church leaders and perhaps most of the Polish people are puzzled and uneasy about “the separation of church and state” (the phrase is one of America’s less happy exports). They worry about the naked public square. The separation of religion from public life in Poland is neither practicable nor conceivable. The separation of religiously based moral conviction from political debate and decision is also profoundly antidemocratic. Bishops and intellectuals in Poland who have some knowledge of the American experience with “separationism” are not without reason for their fears. But some experiments must be tried and some risks must be taken if Catholic piety and teaching in Poland are to contribute constructively to the project of a free and stable society. It is almost impossible to envision a Polish society either free or stable without the support of the Church.

In 1978, in his inaugural sermon as Pope, John Paul repeatedly declared to the world, and very particularly to Christians under communism, “Be not afraid!” Today perhaps, the Pope’s message to the bishops and faithful of Poland is “Be not afraid of freedom.” The Gospel will prevail and the Church’s mission will be sustained. God has seen to that in the past, and He will see to it in the future. What the gates of hell cannot undo, neither tyranny nor freedom can undo. One powerful reason to be hopeful about Poland”and about other Catholic societies trying to cope with democracy”is that for the first time the project of the free society is firmly supported by the Church’s social teaching. That is one of the greatest achievements of this pontificate, as is notably evident in the 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus .

Until the Second Vatican Council and its further explication through this pontificate, Catholicism tended to view the free society”also known as liberal democracy”with deep suspicion, and with good cause. The ideas, language, and practice of liberalism dating from the French experience of 1789 were, more often than not, militantly anti-Christian and specifically anti-Catholic. It is not surprising that, among Church leaders and faithful in Poland, liberalism is a very dirty word. Neither here nor in Poland need there be any sense of urgency about rehabilitating the term. What is legitimate and important in the liberal project is articulated by this Pope in the terminology of “the free society.” As a necessary corrective to liberalisms past and present, the 1993 encyclical, Veritatis Splendor , offers a compelling argument that freedom depends upon and must be ordered to truth.

It is not too much to say that Catholic social teaching today offers the most comprehensive and convincing argument that we have for human freedom”religious, civil, political, cultural, and economic. Certainly there is nothing comparable in seriousness of argument to, say, Centesimus Annus or Veritatis Splendor from any other Christian communion. Regrettably, that teaching has not seriously been engaged by Catholic theologians, intellectuals, and educators either here or in Poland. The Poles have more excuse; they’ve been fighting for their lives in the years since the Council. Here, by contrast, we have a Catholic intellectual establishment that is for the most part so smug, so spoiled, so self-absorbed, so petty in its perpetually snide reaction to this “reactionary” Pope. (In that establishment, commentary on Veritatis Splendor has ranged from hand-wringing over whether the Pope is clamping down on dissenters to complaints that, God help us, the encyclical does not employ “gender-inclusive” language.)

So the Polish situation may in some ways be better than ours. They are in the early stages of building democracy with the full support of the Church’s official teaching. Unlike Catholics of an earlier time in this country, they do not need to worry about ecclesiastical censure when they advance the case for the free society. Also, those most effectively advancing the case there are determinedly orthodox theologically. They are fiercely loyal to the Church and the magisterium. One does not sense there any tension, never mind contradiction, between fidelity and freedom; the two are mutually reinforcing. As a result, it is possible that in the new world of Poland they will get the questions of religion and society”including church-state relations”more nearly right than we have succeeded in doing here. The world, and not least of all Americans, should watch with keen interest as Poland makes its way toward a society that is both Christian and free”the more securely free because it is Christian, and the more authentically Christian because it is free.

Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things .