When Father Waclaw Hryniewicz, a 73-year-old professor from Poland's Catholic University of Lublin, was reprimanded by the Vatican early last year for an article on ecumenical relations, there was consternation in the local Church.

But some Catholics think the Polish Church should be prepared for more critical voices in coming years, as the country's traditional Christian culture comes into contact with a Western-style pluralistic democracy.

"We expect criticism and can deal with it," said retired Auxiliary Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek of Sosnowiec, who heads the Church's Concordat Commission overseeing relations with the state. "But attitudes differ here when it comes to knowing how to react. While some bishops see every difference of view as a potential schism, others accept that every institution needs a creative variety of voices and opinions."

Father Hryniewicz, a former consultant to the Vatican's office for Christian unity who headed the Catholic University's Ecumenical Institute until retiring three years ago, was called to order in 2007 for his article in Open Theology, a London-based online theology journal. It criticized the Vatican for a June 2007 document on non-Catholic denominations, accusing it of "stressing what divides rather than unites" and of "regressing" to an ecumenism and ecclesiology predating the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.

When told he must rewrite the essay at the insistence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the theologian refused and was warned by his order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, that he now faced "canonical sanctions."

When news of the dispute broke, Father Hryniewicz's Lublin superior, Archbishop Jozef Zycinski, accused Open Theology of mistranslating the priest's article and insisted his views would have been "totally different" if he had had more time to consider.

However, the theologian stood by his criticisms.

"I expressed my conviction in line with my conscience as a person who has dedicated 40 years of his life to the ecumenical labor of reconciliation," Father Hryniewicz wrote in Poland's Catholic Tygodnik Powszechny weekly.

"For many years, I've carried within myself a living consciousness that we are all just clumsy pupils when faced with the great mysteries of life and death. This impels me constantly toward modesty and cognitive humility."

Recent controversy

Now 73 and ill with cancer, Father Hryniewicz isn't the first senior priest to run into trouble with Church leaders in Poland, where more than 95 percent of the population are baptized Catholics.

Liberal causes that interest some Western Catholics, such as female ordination or voluntary celibacy, are rarely, if ever, discussed here.

But fundamentals of Catholic faith are sometimes at issue. Tomasz Weclawski, a prominent professor of dogmatic and fundamental theology and former seminary rector in Poznan, quit the priesthood in March 2007 over his views on Jesus and the origins of Christianity, later leaving the Catholic Church. He changed his name, too, he said, to escape hostility.

Piotr Sikora, who teaches fundamental theology and Christology at Krakow's Papal Theology Academy, was made to apologize publicly for an article in Poland's mass-circulation Gazeta Wyborcza daily, for claiming there was "no such thing as Church teaching," and that it was contrary to the New Testament to distinguish between "a teaching Church and taught faithful."

But many of the critiques instead have focused on Church governance. Some priests, for example, have gotten in hot water for speaking out about clergy suspected of collaborating with Poland's communist-era secret police. The most prominent, Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, who was twice banned from speaking to the media, claims he was recently threatened with defrocking.

Under communist rule, when internal disagreements could be exploited to damage and weaken the Catholic faith in Poland, the Church was compelled to discourage debates that might be seen as undermining its unity. Today, though, its rights and freedoms are secure. With priestly vocations dropping and public confidence jolted by a spate of negative publicity, a more open discussion of how the Church conducts its mission might provide much-needed fresh air and energy. Stanislaw Obirek, a former Jesuit who gave up the priesthood in 2005 after publishing a critical article about Pope John Paul II, agrees.

"As secularization challenges the Church's influence here, it will need to find ways of dealing with controversial issues and topics, particularly since they're likely to be raised increasingly in the secular media," Obirek told OSV. "If we want theology to develop in Poland, Catholics must be free to speak up with intellectual integrity."

Back in Lublin, Father Hryniewicz told Archbishop Zycinski and other Church leaders at a symposium last year he hoped the Polish Church would become "more conciliatory and sympathetic toward people," and show more of a readiness "for mutual acceptance."

Defending doctrine

But some Church leaders say the problem with some internal critics is not the criticism itself but the tone and approach of it.

Father Dariusz Kowalczyk, the provincial of the Jesuits' Wielkopolska-Mazowiecka region, thinks the strong, emotive language often used by critics like Father Hryniewicz has caused unnecessary offense.

"I understand Father Hryniewicz's good intentions, and I bow my head before his erudition. While I would obviously like us all to be united, it would be dishonest to Church tradition and Christ himself to build this unity by force at the cost of truth," Father Kowalczyk told Gazeta Wyborcza.

"But the Church has to be a guardian of faith, developing and interpreting it in the context of new times. This is an eternal, and a real, problem."

Bishop Pieronek, who has himself sharply criticized the Polish Church -- accusing it in an interview of failing to implement Vatican II and allowing its thinking to be "dominated by categories from the past" -- thinks most Church leaders are ready to accept contrasting views.

But the kind of radical debates that attract Catholics in the West, he argues, are of little interest to Church members here, where most make a clear distinction between loyal criticism and outright opposition.

"You either believe or don't believe, so the Church's doctrine has to be accepted -- it isn't open to negotiation and change," the bishop told OSV.

"But the Church is ready to embrace different viewpoints, provided they're not directed at damaging its authority or part of an open struggle to undermine it. What's said in New York or San Francisco doesn't necessarily have to be repeated in Warsaw and Krakow."

Poland: Quick glance

Population: 38 million (CIA World Factbook)

Roman Catholic: 96 percent

Since the end of communist rule, Poland's Church has struggled with anti-Semitism among some clergy. A dispute over a Carmelite convent outside the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz resulted in the convent's removal, but several years later the Church was forced to speak against Catholic protesters who posted hundreds of crosses outside the camp. A nearly eight-year national synod process concluded in 1999 with calls for priests to live less luxurious lifestyles and to keep parish finances open. The Polish Church continued to be a source of missionary priests in more than 90 countries. Church leaders were also dogged by allegations of spying under the communist regime, a charge that led the newly appointed archbishop of Warsaw to resign in early 2007 shortly before his installation.

-- 2009 Catholic Almanac

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.