Role played by the Catholic Church in the Polish and Philippine Springs



Upon the invitation of the Council for Foreign Relations, Polish Nobel Laureate and former Polish President Lech Walesa gave a talk at the University of Asia and the Pacific recently. The distinguished personality was credited with having successfully empowered the trade union movement in Poland, whose rugged determination produced a strong countervailing force to a repressive government.

Working in the Lenin Shipyard as an electrician, Lech Walesa became a trade union activist who was arrested several times. Through his strong labor movement, creative diplomacy and the help of the Polish Church, the astute negotiator was able to force the Communist regime to sit across the negotiating table and hammer out the groundbreaking Gdansk Agreement in 1980 between the workers and the government. This was the initial salvo that produced development leading to the full flowering of democracy in his native land and the withdrawal of foreign troops.

President of Poland Lech Walesa not only successfully negotiated the withdrawal of foreign troops from his country, he also engineered the transition of Poland from a socialist to a market economy, the holding in 1991 of the first completely free parliamentary elections and last but not the least, restored the respect for life by promoting pro-life legislation.

To the credit of President Lech Walesa, he produced a formula for a peaceful transition from oppression to freedom without the use of force. Indeed, this was the same formula successfully applied in this country in the so-called EDSA Revolution.

There is a strong commonality between the Polish Spring and the EDSA Revolution, which followed later.

Both were determined to promote regime change through peaceful methods.

Secondly, it was anchored on the social doctrine of the Church, which is the promotion of freedom and Christian solidarity.

Thirdly, it benefited greatly from the intervention of the Church, St. John Paul, in particular.

Lastly, it restored democratic space after decades of political repression.

The success of the solidarity movement was anchored on a tactical alliance with the Church of Poland and the leftist intelligentsia. It is a fact that when a wave of protests took place in the town of Gdansk in 1980, the workers were being assisted by elements of the Polish Church and well-educated professionals. In the case of the Philippines the support of Cardinal Sin, plus that of influential chambers of business like the Makati Business Club, the Management Association of the Philippines and Financial Executives, not to mention the disgruntled officers of the RAM, turned the tide in favor of the opposition.

During the EDSA Revolution, the nuns, locked arm-in-arm, stood before the tanks of Mr. Marcos even as the RAM and elements from the NPA provided security cover for the marchers. Curiously enough, radicals from the left and the right joined the economic elite to present a united front against the government. This unique collaboration between the conservative and leftist groups made for a strange collaboration of unique bedfellows, ideologically speaking. The same situation obtained in Poland, where Left-inclined proletariat linked arms with conservative forces allied to the Church.

In Poland, as in the Philippines, the Church gradually evolved in its relationship with the government in power, from one of critical collaboration with the government to a more decisive supporter for the forces of the opposition. Critical collaboration in the beginning was shown in the tolerance of the political order, even when the Philippine government went after the clergy, and in Poland, where an atheistic Marxist regime went hammer and tongs against the Church.

In Poland, the Church became a catalyst for the progress of the opposition movement, while in the Philippines, she lent her voice to the opposition, giving it full moral support. In Poland, the Church became a refuge for many from oppositionist Catholic press, despite its many restrictions. Through her priests and bishops, she also lent support to the Solidarity movement, while working as mediator between members of the opposition and the Communist government. Similarly, in the Philippines, it was precisely the Church, using its mass base, which made the organizing of a huge gathering of people possible in such a short period of time. Moreover, aside from the Catholic Radio station “Veritas,” which was closed by Marcos during the People Power Revolution, the events were brought to the public by Radio Bandido, a radio run clandestinely by the Jesuit, James Reuter SJ.

In the case of National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), which facilitated the accurate and fast counting of the votes that allowed the opposition to overcome the overwhelming power of the administration, it was undoubtedly thanks to the commitment of priests and bishops, which produced a network of half a million volunteers, who conducted their own ballot count independent of that provided by the government-run COMELEC. It will be recalled that it was the NAMFREL which would later uncover the many cases of abuse and falsification of the electoral votes.

The important role played by the priests and bishops, such as Cardinal Jaime Sin, in lending moral and spiritual support to the civic initiatives organized by the opposition cannot be overstated. Moreover, the role played in Poland and the EDSA Revolution in the Philippines by the Polish pope, St. John Paul II, cannot be ignored or exaggerated. Indeed, his visits to Poland in 1979, 1983 and 1987 and to the Philippines in 1981 not only inspired but also forced both national governments to be open to compromise as both governments wanted to look good in front of the foreign press. Before the Papal visit to the Philippines, Marcos lifted Martial Law and created a small democratic space which lifted, if only slightly, the yoke of oppression, whilst in Poland, in keeping with agreements made earlier, Martial Law was formally lifted and many political prisoners released after the Pope’s second visit to Poland in 1983.

In sum, the role in the political liberation of both Poland and the Philippines does demonstrate the important role that the Church can play in the sociopolitical field, if it wishes to do so.


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