In May 1953, the Polish government ordered the implementation of a decree giving the state the authority to appoint and remove Catholic priests and bishops throughout the country: The Catholic Church was to become a subsidiary of the Polish state; its clergy would act as agents of state power; and its educational and charitable activities would be approved (or rejected) by a state intent on bringing the most important institution in Polish civil society to heel. The bishops of Poland, who had tried for years to find a modus vivendi with the Communist regime, now drew the line. Meeting in Kraków under the leadership of the country’s primate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński, the Polish episcopate issued a memorandum deploring the government’s attempt to turn the Church “into an instrument of the state” as a violation of the natures of both church and state. The memorandum concluded memorably: “We are not allowed to place the things of God on the altar of Caesar, Non possumus! [We cannot!].”
Americans accustomed to religious freedom may, at first blush, find it hard to imagine any possible analogy between our situation today, in the midst of the debate over the HHS “contraceptive mandate,” and that of Poland’s Christians in 1953; of course those brave men and women faced challenges far beyond those facing American believers today. Yet the structure of the moral and political argument, then and now, is eerily similar. In both cases, an overweening and arrogant government tries, through the use of coercive power, to make the Church a subsidiary of the state. In both cases, the state claims the authority to define religious ministries and services on its own narrow and secularist terms. In both cases, the state is attempting to co-opt as much of society as it can, while the Church is defending the prerogatives of civil society.
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