"Government Will Defend Polish 'Morals.'" The story in the Herald Tribune underscores the sneer quotes around morals. As it happens, the prime minister had told the parliament in Warsaw that "the government will defend Polish culture and morals." One imagines an editor in Paris debating with himself whether he might go with the headline "Government Will Defend Polish 'Culture.'" No, the insult would be too gross. Pretensions to morals is fair game, however. Especially when the morals in question clash with those espoused by the Herald Tribune.
I was pondering the story over breakfast in Krakow last week. The derision of the HT was provoked by the Polish government's opposition to same-sex marriage, which is favored by some more progressive nations of the European Union. The story noted that the current Polish government is in a coalition that includes parties that are "widely viewed as anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual." That is a particularly suggestive observation when one is reading the paper about an hour's drive from Auschwitz.
Half a century later, and opposition to same-sex marriage is mentioned in the same breath with anti-Semitism. The implied equivalence is staggering. Those backward Poles: They killed Jews then and now they think marriage is limited to a union of a man and a woman. What else would you expect?
Of course, it was the occupying Germans who killed millions of Jews at Auschwitz and elsewhere--and millions of Poles along with them. As Samuel Oliner documented in great detail in The Altruistic Personality, thousands of Poles risked their lives and many died in rescuing Jews from the Holocaust. There is, to be sure, another and darker side to the story, as Polish-born Jan Gross of New York University has been reminding us. His latest book, Fear, on Polish anti-Semitism after World War II, will be examined in a forthcoming issue of First Things.
The heartening fact today is that Poland is demonstrating a resolve to resist the demoralization and cultural ennui of most of Western Europe. My fifteenth year of teaching in Krakow at the Tertio Millennio Seminar reinforced the impression that, in contrast to the dispirited ethos of the EU, of which it is a member, Poland will continue to be different in very constructive ways. Catholicism has everything to do with that difference.
Our Polish students in the seminar often sound very much like American students in complaining about a militantly secularist climate in the universities. The hoary traditions of secularist ideology, however, have a somewhat harder time of it in Poland. The ancien régime of painfully remembered oppression there is the thoroughly secularist era of communism and, before that, the barbaric paganism of the Nazis. Catholicism, by way of sharpest contrast, was the force of faith, national identity, and often heroic resistance.
Add to that the fact that the most admired and influential Polish intellectual of the century is Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. Yet there is no denying that many educated Poles suffer from what might be described as a cultural crouch, a deeply internalized sense of inferiority. Some committedly Catholic intellectuals reflect an insecurity about their place in the intelligentsia, leading them to emphasize more than necessary their distance from the cultural conservatism of what is still called the peasantry. Moreover, the long experience of being history's victim sometimes results in an overcompensation in depicting Poland as the crucified Christ of the modern era.
After the fall of communism, it was commonly said that Poland wanted nothing more than to be "a normal society." Now there appears to be increasing skepticism about the definition of normality proposed by the denatured secularism of the EU. More than just resisting that model, Poland seems determined to offer, by word and example, an alternative way of being a European nation among the nations.
Another change should be mentioned. When we started the seminar, there was among Polish students an admiration, bordering on adulation, of almost all things American. They have by no means succumbed to the vulgar anti-Americanism that passes for political thought in much of Europe, but there is now a more critical appreciation of the American achievement and its place in the world, and that is, all in all, a good thing.
I should mention that the Tertio Millennio Seminar, from which I returned this past Saturday, is not limited to Polish students. There are also students from Hungary, Estonia, Russia, Slovakia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere, as well as some very gifted Americans. The seminar has over the years helped shape hundreds of talented young people, mainly Catholic, who have caught the vision of the Church's social doctrine and are making a difference in myriad vocations of Christian discipleship. They are the kind of young people not likely to be intimidated by supercilious sneer quotes applied to the realities of faith, culture, and morals.
In addition to which:
From the beginning, First Things has been a collaborative enterprise. It is not just a magazine but--as we rather pretentiously put it--a universe of discourse. Which is another way of saying that it is a moveable feast of personal and intellectual friendships. From time to time, we'll be posting here pictures of some of the people who sustain the First Things conversation.
Fr. Ed Oakes (left) in Thomistic rapture, to the fascination of Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School.
To access the running gallery, click here.
His "unmistakable" voice has been mistaken. Despite the man's own words, the Left still claims Bob Dylan as one of their own. Stephen Webb of Wabash College reviews Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews, a collection of previously unpublished conversations with the musician, in the current August/September installment of First Things. A convert to Christianity, Dylan consistently refused to conform to the 1960s liberalism with which he is often, and wrongly, associated. Listen again to Dylan: "I hate to keep beating people over the head with the Bible, but that's the only instrument I know, the only thing that stays true." Why aren't you a subscriber?