Ashton Weber | Tuesday, October 29, 2019
I filled the summer of 2017 with excerpts of writing by philosophers and revolutionaries and people who changed the course of history. I was completing the World Youth Alliance’s Certified Training Program, a three-month human dignity education curriculum. At the time, I was interested in pursuing a degree in international affairs and working in human rights law. Thus, a program that studied the philosophical foundations of human dignity, how it has been upheld or ignored historically and how it should be recognized internationally seemed like the perfect fit.
After one-and-a-quarter years in college, I don’t really see myself entering the legal arena anytime soon, but the program provided me with an interesting lens to view the world. A lens that still plays a large role in shaping my opinions of modern political and social issues and that now informs my view of Church reform, which has become the signature topic of this column.
Throughout the course of the program, I spent countless hours reading works by people whose impact I was familiar with and whose thoughts I had heard many times. Between the most well-known thinkers, I also read work from people who were brand new to me. One such work was the chapter “The Solidarity Decade” from the book “God’s Playground: A History of Poland” by a man named Norman Davies.
In the chapter, Davies introduced readers to an important piece of Polish history: Solidarność, also known as Solidarity. It was the first independent trade union in any territory controlled by the Soviet Union, and it eventually led to the fall of communism in Poland. When I first read the chapter, I was intrigued by the movement’s effectiveness, but I did not realize until recently how Solidarity could be a critical reference for reform across the world.
You may wonder: What exactly did Solidarity look like? Why does it matter now?? How, exactly, does this relate back to Church reform???
Fear not, all shall soon be revealed.
First, a brief Polish history lesson.
Poland has existed since 966, but it was not until 1918, when World War I ended, that Poland was established as an independent state. Its political atmosphere was volatile, and the country experienced frequent transfers of leadership until it eventually settled on martial rule. The state signed a non-aggression agreement with Hitler’s Germany in 1934, but … plot twist … Germany invaded Poland in 1939, kicking off World War II. Following the war, the country came under Communist rule in 1946, which it stayed under until 1989.
To frame this history in the context of the Church, it is important to note that Karol Wojtyla, Krakow’s Cardinal, was elected to become Pope John Paul II in 1978. The Pope returned to Poland in 1979, the year before Solidarity’s formation, and delivered the message, “Don’t be afraid; the fate of Poland depends on you,” which many see as instruction for the people to take direct action against Communism.
If you’ve studied European history at all, you’re probably aware that escaping Communism is an arduous process. For Poland, this was certainly the case. Strikes and protests consistently took place throughout the early period of Polish communist rule, but they came to a head in 1980. A rise in food prices brought the city of Gdańsk to the center of the conflict, as almost 17,000 shipyard workers there went on strike in their plant. Within the city, people banded to form an interfactory strike committee, and soon workers from various industries were striking across the country.
Solidarity was formed by representatives from 36 of the country’s trade unions and its membership reached 10 million by 1981. The movement advocated for free elections and trade union bargaining power as well as economic reform. As Solidarity’s following grew, the Soviet and Polish leaders were determined to quell it.
Martial law was adopted once again in December 1981, and Solidarity was declared illegal. It was officially disbanded in October of 1982, but its members were not discouraged, and they kept Solidarity alive underground.
During this time, JPII continued to preach and Solidarity continued to simmer. In 1987, the Pope spoke in Poland, encouraging people to embody solidarity as a principle, explaining that it allows people to coexist despite differences. A New York Times article released the day of his visit said, “He has not … called for a resumption of public activities by Solidarity. … While he left no doubt he was speaking about the banned movement … remarks dwelled primarily on the ideals embodied by Solidarity rather than its specific activities.”
As time would tell, Solidarity re-emerged the next year. After a new wave of strikes, the movement was finally legalized and permitted to endorse a candidate in the 1989 election. By the end of 1989, Poland’s first noncommunist premier since the late 1940s was elected.
JPII’s role in the fall of Polish Communism is a fascinating example of wide-scale reform. During the same 1987 visit, he called Solidarity “a model for all human rights struggles.” He recognized the need for people to band together and fight collectively against the throes of unjust leadership because the collective power of the common people is much stronger than the power of a few leaders.
A sexual abuse crisis is always an abuse of human rights, so I would argue that JPII would recommend Solidarity as a model for fighting against the modern Church abuse crisis. And I understand why. As I sat through panels last month, I frustratingly heard it repeated that everyone knows what Church reform should look like. We need more lay people involved. We need more women involved. And, for heaven’s sake, bishops need to be held accountable (!!!).
But, as I heard Juan Carlos Cruz express in a panel, many bishops feel no incentive for accountability.
“The stroke of a pen, it passes a law and this will end — that’s what I thought,” he said. “I went to the Vatican. I saw what happens, and trust me: no pen, no nothing can switch or change this attitude.”
If Church leaders will not reform themselves, laypeople must step into action. Following the model of Solidarity, Church members should put aside differences of belief and life experience and work together to take direct action.
But what could that look like? Maybe it’s not plausible to protest at the Vatican (it might be necessary someday), but it is possible to begin conversations within parishes and dioceses, to openly discuss issues with the Church hierarchy and to call local bishops to transparency. Silence is the most dangerous choice anyone could make in this moment.
It might be scary to take on such a powerful institution as the Church and to risk one’s security in a faith community. But, in the words of John Paul II, “Do not be afraid. The fate of [the Church] depends on you.”
Ashton Weber is a sophomore with lots of opinions. She is majoring in econ and film, television and theatre with a JED minor. Making new friends is one of her favorite things, so feel free to contact her at [email protected] or @awebz01 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.