Today the role of the Catholic Church in Polish statecraft is a matter of some debate, but 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to overlook the church in the political arena. The ruling Communists recognized the church as a hostile yet powerful player; for Solidarity, it was a potent if at times uncertain ally.
In 1989 Josef Glemp was in his eighth year as the head of the Polish church, steering a careful course between the regime and opposition through difficult times, most notably the introduction of martial law in 1981 and the 1984 murder by state security officers of the popular dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko. While Lech Walesa viewed the interests of the church and Solidarity as the same, some dissidents suspected the Catholic leadership was too willing to settle for peaceful coexistence with the Communist government.
But according to some historians, by 1989 Glemp recognized that an agreement with the regime was possible, and he didn’t want it to happen without church involvement. The primate played an important role in preparations for the Round Table, which paved the way for the multiparty elections of 4 June 1989. Following the peaceful transition of power, Glemp came to be seen less as a conservative unwilling to confront the regime in support of the opposition and more as a long-term strategist whose non-confrontational approach helped smooth the road to democracy.
Glemp, who had been made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1983, remained the primate of the Polish church until 2006, and as such played a role in the key social and cultural controversies of post-communist Poland. He has been dogged for yeas by allegations of antisemitism, accused by Jewish groups of insensitivity to their concerns during the rancorous arguments over the construction of a Catholic convent outside Auschwitz in 1989 and the unauthorized erection of crosses near the camp nine years laters.
His attitudes toward Poland’s all-but-vanished Jewish community resurfaced in the firestorm over Neighbors,  a 2001 book detailing how Catholic Poles massacred hundreds of Jews in the town of Jedwabne during World War II. Pre-war conflicts between Poles and Jews had an “economic basis,” Glemp told the Catholic news agency KAI. “Jews were cleverer, and they knew how to take advantage of Poles. That, in any case, was the perception.”
In 2005 Glemp was publicly critical of the Catholic and stridently conservative Radio Maryja, saying it was causing a rift in the church. Politics intervened again just as he was leaving office, when the man named to succeed him as archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, was accused of collaboration with the communist-era secret police. Glemp defended Wielgus, saying the accusations against him were exaggerated, but Wielgus resigned only a month after his appointment.
Through the two decades of democracy, as the Polish Catholic Church gradually receded from its former position as the dominant reference point for many social groups, Glemp’s influence faded, but his presence is still felt. This year, remarkably for any cleric – much less a cardinal – he appeared in a feature film, playing himself in the biopic Popieluszko. In the view of some commentators, Glemp’s screen appearance was an act of homage to the charismatic priest by a church leader who had been criticized in the past for not doing enough to protect Popieluszko in the tense period leading up to his murder.