An exemplary defense of human dignity and freedom

“The Primate of Poland”

Is a non-violent solution to conflicts possible? At a time of global escalation of violence, the film “The Primate of Poland” by filmmaker Michal Kondrat shows the example of peaceful resistance of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski in the face of communist repression. Aware that even good ends can be perverted if force is used, the Polish Catholic guide firmly defended freedom and human dignity with the means of the unarmed: hope, patience, brotherhood and a faith that fell in love with the heart of a nation by not shrinking from imprisonment or suffering. His fight, decisive to make Karol Wojtyla a pastor of the Catholic Church, provides valuable bioethical keys.

The burden of the past that falls on the future challenges us to incorporate the notion of debt¹ as an essential resource and need for a story to preserve what should be unforgettable, so that atrocities and shameful events for which they have paid with their lives are not repeated millions of human beings. It is very different from abuses of memory, manipulation, or ideological instrumentalization. It is about fair and, therefore, ethical memory that is a fundamental link with the past, in the same way that it appeals to hope as an essential hinge that links us to the future.

This is the exercise, in addition to being very timely ethical, that the Polish filmmaker, Michal Kondrat, does in his film The Primate of Poland, about the inspiring life of the cardinal, Stefan Wyszynski (Slawomir Grzymkowski). The Catholic priest and theologian was a key figure in the Cold War, after World War II, starting with the Yalta Conference, in which the US and the United Kingdom left control of Poland in the hands of the Russian dictator, Joseph Stalin. The general secretary of the Polish communist party, Władysław Gomulka (Adam Ferency), under the orders of Stalin, led for decades a dictatorship of terror and domination with hidden microphones, police kidnappings, misery, arbitrariness and harassment of those who spoke of God or did not have the party card.

The film begins with the torture in a Warsaw prison of the bishop, Antonio Baraniak (Jacek Borkowski), a close collaborator of Cardinal Wyszynski. He is about to finish a three-year sentence of house arrest, after the failure of the extreme measures in other prisons with which the communist government unsuccessfully attempted to break his faith and weaken his growing popularity.

The film does not dwell on the violent episodes, except when it documents the bloody police repressions in Gdansk and Gdynia against the workers and peasants of the Solidarity union, led by Lech Walesa. The Catholic Church actively participated in the birth of this organization with Christian roots, with which it shared its tenacious fight against communism, as well as the demands for freedom of association and improvement of the social conditions of a hungry and poor population.

The means of the unarmed

“The fate of communism must be decided by the nation, but if Poland becomes more Christian it will become a moral power and communism will fail,” confesses Stefan Wyszynski, dedicated to an exemplary defense of freedom and dignity because he does not let his ends obfuscate the means to undermine the Gomulka regime. The priest leads a peaceful resistance movement based on spreading education and critical thinking, through homilies at masses and other liturgical ceremonies. He uses all his expertise and wisdom to prevent the party from infiltrating the Church, negotiating the autonomy of religious publications, the release of priests and seeking, at the same time, to protect the Polish people from repression and conditions of freedom of cult.

The Polish government agrees to make some concessions, interested in using the cardinal’s influence on the people to recommend voting in the elections. We need you to collaborate with us. “Religion classes will end up turning young people into atheists,” the dictator jokes in one of the scenes in the film. But the firmness of the Catholic leader ends up driving the communist party to despair, which intensifies censorship, confiscates the sermons and subjects the cardinal and his collaborators to constant surveillance using hidden microphones.

Stefan Wyszynski bases his peaceful resistance on what the philosopher Gabriel Marcel calls “the means of the unarmed”: hope as an active virtue in times of discouragement, creative patience and fraternity. At the end of his essay Homo Viator, Marcel offers a definition of hope that is close to what we can see in the film. Hope is essentially the availability of a soul, intimately engaged in an experience of communion². Simone Weil also alludes to the enigmatic way in which human life, deprived of strength and resources, can make its way, finding in fraternity modes of compassion and gratitude capable of cushioning the experience of heartbreak. According to Weilian thought, fraternity frees the selfish self from its ties to place it in an area of ​​dependence on the other, an essential requirement to preserve humanity.

The fraternal movement begins in the family community of Wyszynski, made up of priests and a team of courageous women – secretaries, typists, nuns and teachers – who clandestinely photocopy the cardinal’s sermons to distribute them among the population and draw lots with great creativity for the attempts at government control. This spirit that is gaining followers is seen in the massive mass to celebrate the millennium of the baptism of Poland. The act challenges the ban of the totalitarian communist regime. Thousands of citizens prefer to gather to pray at the Jasna Gora sanctuary than to support the government’s counterprogramming with a parade of tanks and soldiers. “Revenge is a resource of fools. Evil is defeated with good and truth”, is a phrase with which the priest prevents hatred and the temptation to respond to violence with more violence from contaminating his followers.

Although the plot of the film focuses on Wyszynski’s life, it also offers testimony of Karol Wojtyla’s first steps until his election as Pope, with the name of John Paul II. “There would be no Polish Pope if it were not for your faith, that he did not shrink from imprisonment and suffering.” In this way, Wojtyla recognized in one of his first interventions the important legacy of his mentor. He personally entrusts the young priest with the search for support between Catholicism and European democratic governments to defeat communism in Poland. Wojtyla’s support for the Solidarity union is essential in the fall of the Gomulka dictatorship.

Bioethical assessment

Peace is a central issue of bioethics, since one of its tasks, as an ethic of life, is the survival of humanity and this is only guaranteed through the defense of peace, human dignity, social justice and equality of people. The arms culture, as stated by the Valencian philosopher and jurist, Jesús Ballesteros, is based on the erroneous theory of deterrence: “if you want peace, prepare for war.” But good goals, such as the defense of fundamental human rights, can even be perverted when violence is resorted a means ³. Kondrat’s film values ​​peaceful resistance to promote social change, defend human rights and challenge totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt’s theory on these forms of government based on terror and domination retains its relevance intact 4. The film responds with a resounding affirmation to the question posed by Walter Benjamin: is a non-violent solution to conflicts possible? In personal relationships, examples abound that agreements arise where the culture of peace and love of neighbor is made available as a pure means of understanding.5

Equally important is the filmmaker’s effort to show where the power of Stefan Wyszynski’s personal example lies. Javier Gomá’s thought provides important clues by underlining that even the smallest act formulates for the community a project of transcendence and meaning6. The exemplary life of the Cardinal of Poland invites us to promote a culture of peace in times of violence, intolerance and polarization, butwe all are also, without exception, capable of overcoming existential vulgarity, living in accordance with values ​​and virtues such as hope, patience and brotherhood that elevate us above fatalism and are essential in the eradication of hatred and indifference to the suffering of others.

Amparo Aygües – Master’s Degree in Bioethics from the Catholic University of Valencia – Member of the Bioethics Observatory – Catholic University of Valencia

[1] Ricoeur, P. (1999). Reading past tense: memory and forgetting. Reef.

[2] Marcel, G. (2005). Homo Viator. Prolegomena to a metaphysics of hope. Follow me.

[3] Ballesteros, J. (2006). Rethink peace. Eunsa.

[4] Arendt, H. (2006). The origins of totalitarianism. Alliance.

[5] Benjamin, W. (1995). For a critic of violence. Leviathan.

[6] Gomá, J. (2023). Universal concrete Method, ontology, pragmatics and poetics of exemplarity. Tauru