Poland then. Britain now.

Thirty years ago, bringing Catholic literature into Communist Poland could get you into trouble. Strangely—scarily—defending Church teachings can pose new risks in Western countries today.

“You will be frightened,” Alex warned, “and you will sweat. So wrap the paper in a bit of plastic, cut from a plastic bag, before rolling it up and pinning it inside your clothes.”

This was useful advice, because when we stood at Warsaw Airport with a suitcase full of contraband books, I was certainly frightened. Officially, I should not have been. Where in the laws of the Polish People’s Republic, we were going to ask, did it say that we couldn’t bring in copies of books by Catholic authors as gifts to Catholic groups? The law firmly stated that Poland had freedom of religion. The books we were carrying were not obscene, did not advocate violence, did not promote evil ideologies or lifestyles. They included Paul Johnson’s History of the Modern World, a number of booklets by and about Pope John Paul—the Polish pope then reigning—and other Catholic literature dealing with social and moral issues. And the names and addresses to which they were to be delivered were of people whose ideas for their own country were not remotely those of traitors: they were young Poles interested in their own history, in their religious faith as Roman Catholics, and in ideas about peace and social harmony linked to Christianity, especially as understood by their compatriot pope.

The names and addresses were pinned inside my shirt simply because, in case of a search of suitcases, an address book, notebook, or diary seemed likely to be stolen, on the experience of previous couriers. But strip-searches of British people, in that era of Mrs. Thatcher and strong Western leadership, were much less likely to happen. I was not personally at risk, but I needed to have some care for my Polish contacts.

I need not have sweated. We passed through the airport without difficulty, met our contacts, and enjoyed some wonderful days in Warsaw and Krakow. I later described some of our travels, without the contraband details, in London’s Daily Telegraph. Especially unforgettable was a day at the great shrine of Czestochowa, where thousands—in fact, about a million—had gathered from across Poland to honor the Feast of Mary’s Assumption, and a courageous bishop preached on workers’ dignity and human rights. Our young Solidarity guide—the movement had been outlawed but was still going strong—struggled with the aid of a dictionary to convey to us what the bishop was saying, his excitement and intermittent cheering making the task virtually impossible. But we got the message. Next day, on the BBC World Service, we heard news of miners going on strike, and history rolled on into its next chapter.

There was a curious dignity about the Catholics of Poland at that time. They had been well-schooled by John Paul II on that unforgettable visit back in 1979 and they saw themselves as the custodians of something precious—a vision of life and its true meaning that could not be crushed by government diktat. And because Communism had been around for so long, and two full generations had struggled to live with it and transcend its cruelties, lies, and inanities, there was a deep resilience that allowed jokes and wry comments to replace bitterness, and practical, neighborly action to succor those in need. And there were plenty in need—Communism fostered poverty, inefficiency, and cheating, and everyday life brought hardship and difficulties. Ordinary families struggled in poor housing with few local amenities and half-empty shops. The worst features of Stalinism—the tyrant famously stated that trying to impose Communism on the Poles was like trying to put a saddle on a cow—had gone but the misery continued with various attempts at bureaucratic, hard-left socialism by sundry rulers. And always lurking behind them were the thugs of the KGB, the horrors of the Gulag.

And that was then. And now is now. Poland, thank God, is free, and history has moved on. The really weird thing is that, today, taking Catholic literature around has new risks in new places. In North Korea, of course, and in the countries under the grip of hard-line Muslim rulers. But also, scarily, sometimes even in the West. Quoting, for example, the Church’s teaching on marriage in Britain on some public occasion might get you, or the people who invited you, into trouble. A school governor, a local councilor, a mayor, an academic who openly affirms that true marriage is only between a man and a woman, and who brings this into some speech or lecture, might well be denounced, banned from speaking in the place again, or even sacked.

The current government in Britain is largely composed of decent men and women who want what is best for Britain. They seek to respond to current needs and to try to tackle issues as they arise—they are democratically elected and in many cases inspired by a genuine spirit of service and a desire to serve the common good. So the plan for a series of restrictions on what can be taught in schools and youth groups under the guise of “combating extremism” is not necessarily a bad thing. But under current plans, this set of regulations could pose problems for anyone affirming the Catholic Church’s teaching that homosexual activity is wrong, that those who struggle with such desires are called like everyone else to chastity and sympathetic understanding, and that sexual communion finds its rightful place only in the lifelong bond of a man and a woman in marriage, open to the transmission of new life and the establishment of a family. Using as teaching aids materials such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the CDF guidelines on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons might well be regarded as taboo.

We must hope that common sense will prevail, and that the British tradition of moderation and fair play will be the framework in which any discussion takes place. Democracy, and the common good, rest on a recognition of profound moral and spiritual truths—and in Britain this takes place within the rich heritage of a Christian culture stretching back centuries. We have been framing laws about all sorts of things connected to marriage, education, freedom, and how to communicate with each other for well over a thousand years. We ought to be able to cope.

And Pope—now Saint—John Paul told us not to be afraid, words that I recalled that day at Warsaw airport and still resonate today. The young Catholic journalist who took Catholic literature into Poland back in the 1980s is now, as a middle-aged writer, often invited to speak at schools and colleges and conferences in Britain, taking in materials to assist the discussion. These usually include materials from the great Polish Pope, and other Catholic writers, on marriage and family life, very much a current topic. Suddenly the other day I found myself with a vague, unstated feeling that the materials might be considered objectionable, that I should not make them too public as I carried them in. I stood with them in my briefcase, knowing that the booklets were not illegal, ready to ask exactly where in the law it states that I am forbidden to bring them, but feeling nervous. I told myself not to be daft, and I wasn’t sweating. But…

 

  


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About Joanna Bogle 61 Articles
Joanna Bogle is a journalist in the United Kingdom. Her book Newman’s London is published by Gracewing Books.