`HOW do you make a pig eat?'' the teacher asks. His students smile. One raises his hand to answer. ``Tell him in Russian, `Eat, eat,''' he explains. ``Then he'll eat.''
In this country ruled by Communists and allied to the Soviet Union, the joke is explosive. It would not be told in a state-run school. But this course on pig breeding is part of the curriculum at the parish-run Institute of Christian Culture here in Lubochnia, an agricultural village of 6,000 people some 60 miles south of Warsaw.
Poland's Roman Catholic Church is expanding its role in education. Until the formation of the independent trade union Solidarity in 1980, church schools were severely circumscribed, largely limited to catechism classes. During the next year, the Catholic Church won concession after concession from a weak government, particularly as regards freedom to teach its parishioners.
These educational activities survived martial law and Solidarity's demise. They even expanded. Much education that the now-banned union no longer could support was protected under the ecclesiastical umbrella.
Throughout the country, church schools now delve into secular subjects ranging from history to pig breeding. Church publishing houses print their own textbooks, and the Catholic University in Lublin has reopened faculties in law, economics, psychology, and sociology that had been closed since the 1950s.
At a typical meeting, a group of opposition journalists gathered to discuss current events in St. Maximilian's Church in the industrial town of Konin. They offered parishioners their views on the Iran-Iraq war and the coming American presidential election, while denouncing the Polish government's plans for economic and political reform.
Such church-sponsored seminars offer one of the best platforms for getting opposition views across to the public, leaders say. In November, Poles voted ``no'' to a referendum on reform, a vote surely influenced by what parishioners heard in church.
``Unlike in the West, where the church is primarily religious, the church here is a social church, a church of action,'' says Stefan Bratkowski, one of the participants at the St. Maximilian seminar. ``It has become the most interesting independent intellectual and social center in Poland.''
Much of the church educational network admittedly remains informal and irregular. Many parishes organize only a few activities, perhaps a single annual Week of Christian Culture or a single independent art exhibition. Few attempt education on the scale of the Institute of Christian Culture in Lubochnia.
Classes at the institute begin at the preschool level. They continue through eight years of primary and four years of secondary education, finishing with a year-long course for 19-year-olds on Christian ethics and family practices.
Adult education is also extensive. Students must complete seven semesters, which takes a minimum 3 years. The curriculum begins with conventional lessons in the Bible and Christian ethics and soon reaches into history and values. Lectures this academic year included such subjects as the ``Noncommunist Resistance in World War II,'' and ``Citizens' Protection Under the Law.''
``We have all types of students,'' says the Rev. Miroslaw Mikulski, the institute's director. ``The 70-year-old who didn't finish high school often sits next to the university graduate.''
Moonlighting professors from Warsaw universities do the teaching. Attendance is taken. Students are given a reading list and must pass written, graded examinations. Successful graduates receive a diploma, just as in state universities.
``Lubochnia is a model for the future,''explains Andrzej Stelmachowski, director of the Warsaw Club of Catholic Intellectuals. ``There only are about four or five parishes like it, but I hope there soon will be Lubochnias all over the country.''
That would take many more combative, courageous priests like Fr. Mikulski. Big, broad, and bald, he speaks like a gentle giant. But he can be tough. While at university, he did his thesis on ``The Morality of Boxing.'' He loves the sport, once having served as chaplain to the Polish national team, and he still practices when he has time.
``Boxing develops courage,'' he says. ``It was like that with my institute. I had to fight - fairly and well.''
Ever since he founded his institute, he has found himself in conflict with Lubochnia's Communists. The Communists first tried to compete by founding a new Rural Institute of Marxism-Leninism. It floundered. Local residents refused to attend. The church institute kept growing as secondary school teachers from the state school system even began attending.
The authorities then tried promoting a bar, the Mordavina, across the street. Mikulski took the authorities to court. Under Polish law, alcohol cannot be sold within the vicinity of a church. In November, the court ordered the bar to close.
``The state knows it can get a good income from drinking and that it can manipulate drunks,'' Mikulski says. ``I'll do whatever is necessary to protect the people.''
Every Sunday afternoon through the fall, winter, and spring, some 50 villagers forget alcohol and cram themselves into a small wooden building behind the parish's church. The coal-heated classroom is bare except for a blackboard, a small crucifix, and a picture of Jesus. Outside in the hallway, Mikulski sells books printed by the Catholic press.
``I'm not particularly religious, but the books and the courses are very interesting,'' says Jurek, a 35-year-old farmer. ``I learn about things like 1920 war against the Russians.''
On a recent Sunday, the subject wasn't so sensitive. Krzysztof Matenko from the Warsaw Agricultural Institute had come to lecture about pig raising. He explained how to separate a piglet from its mother, how to feed it, what breed to pick. The idea, he explained, is to help the farmers raise better, stronger pigs.
``I've never talked about pigs in a church,'' Dr. Matenko admitted afterward. ``But it's a good idea. How else will they learn about pig breeding?''
Mikulski agreed. ``The church needs to reach out to the people and make them aware of the world,'' he explained. ``Perhaps the next time we'll talk about [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev. But now we talk about pigs. After all, we must have food.''