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The Pope's New Divisions

WARSAW: Drunken, libertine priests: throughout the ages such images have been stock calumnies against the Catholic Church. No surprise, then, that Catholic Poland was shocked last week by studies revealing that the number of priests with severe drinking problems is about twice that of the male population. Something is wrong with the Church, people mutter, but no one is quite sure what.

Catholicism adrift? Even in Poland? Unthinkable just ten years ago. Across Eastern Europe and the developing world the Church gained enormous, fresh prestige for the role Pope John Paul II was perceived as playing in communism's demise. Now, like some unemployed Cold War general, the Church appears disoriented by the peaceful transition to democracy.

Political disputes and political divisions between bishops and priests are blamed as one source of the rot in Poland, but I doubt their importance. Differences between priests and other priests, and priests and politicians, are deep, but they are powerful everywhere. Witness the anti-abortion debate in America, the global debate about priestly celibacy or the role of women in the Church, or the ongoing slanging match between the Cardinal of Vienna and one of his subordinate bishops.

Poland has its peculiarities. Sowing discord is a group of priests loyal to the schismatic church started by that renegade French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, in the 1970s. This "Movement of St. Joseph", however, is but a fringe group, attracting people who consider even Pope John Paul II too liberal, and who revile the changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council 35 years ago. Groups like these yearn to establish a distinct national church for Poland, and are among those defiantly planting crosses at Auschwitz.