The right-wing Law and Justice Party victory in the 2015 parliamentary and presidential elections has opened a new chapter in the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state in Poland. For the first time after the fall of communism, the governing party is openly instrumentalizing the Church for its own political ends. A central figure in this endeavor is Father Tadeusz Rydzyk—a businessman, priest and founder of the politically charged Radio Maryja station. Rydzyk is supported by a large part of episcopate, although there is a significant number of leaders who fear such entanglements could lead Polish Catholicism into a major spiritual crisis and a loss of respect for the Church.
Respect for the Polish Catholic Church is linked to the role it played during communism, when the Church provided a necessary alternative to the totalitarian state and gave many Poles a sense of freedom and dignity. The Church lent vital moral support for opposition movements such as the massive Solidarity movement in the 1980s, explored in detail by Jose Casanova in Public Religions in the Modern World.
The story told by Casanova would have not been possible without the close cooperation and dialogue between the Church and the emerging democratic opposition on the left. Referred to as the “laique left,” this mostly nonreligious group was strongly influenced by ex-communist Leszek Kolakowski (who later almost became a Catholic). In 1976, agnostic ex-Marxist and rising democratic opposition leader Adam Michnik wrote the most important exploration of the dialogue between the Church and Polish left: a book that was a manifesto against political atheism entitled The Church and the Left. Both the Church and nonreligious intellectuals were genuinely interested in dialogue, and Michnik’s book helped form an alliance and reconciliation between the Church and the left that greatly contributed to the overthrow of communism.
Despite the book’s significance today, distrust from both sides has strained and suspended a healthy dialog between the Church and non-Catholics. Liberals and the left fear a Church that will conserve a nationalist and exclusively Catholic society; the Church fears elites who will accelerate Western-style secularization. Ironically, the religiosity of Polish society follows neither of the above-mentioned trajectories. In the 1990s, sociologists expected that Poland would become a secularized society similar to those in Western Europe. The increased power of the Church during the Cold War was viewed as temporary and in relation to its opposition to communism. But the reality is much more complicated.
Social secularization actually began spreading throughout the Communist period, but the movement was halted and partially reversed when John Paul II became a pope and, to a large extent, inspired the Solidarity movement. Thus Poland never experienced a significant wave of secularization. Although the numbers have decreased over time, today a majority of Poles consider themselves Catholic and many of them attend Sunday mass. Despite the secularization of the young urban middle class, Polish youths are generally much more conservative than their Western counterparts.
Jarosław Kaczyński, Law and Justice Party leader and de facto leader of the government (both the president and prime minister are his subordinates), has recognized the Catholic Church’s political leverage. This was not always the case. Referring to the nation’s influential conservative party in the 1990s, Kaczyński famously remarked that a Christian-National Union would be the quickest way to dechristianize Poland.1Cited for example here: Dominik Zdort (2012), Kompendium patriotyczne, Wydawnictwo M: p. 60. He was also critical of Father Rydzyk and Radio Maryja.
But at some point Kaczyński understood that the Church might serve as a useful tool for his political ambitions. After 1989, many who had once cooperated with the Church abandoned it. Non-believers no longer found reasons to side with a conservative Church and eventually turned towards the post-Solidarity left or political center (especially during the abortion debates of the 1990s). Kaczyński recognized these trends and began to promote a vision of Polishness rooted in Catholicism. The ideology of national democracy shaped a large part of Polish society for decades, beginning with the writings of Roman Dmowski who mixed ideals of “Polishness” and political Catholicism in “Thoughts of a modern Pole.”
This tradition, however, has always been weaker than the romantic ideal, which mixes strong religious feelings (often at odds with the institutional Church) and messianism – the idea that Poland is a protagonist of world history. This interpretation of Polish history has had a powerful influence in shaping generations of Polish statesmen and Church figures (including John Paul II) and has little to do with the ethnic ideal of “Polishness” as envisioned by national democrats.
The strongest bonds between the Law and Justice Party and the national-conservative wing of the Church emerged after a plane crash in Smolensk killed then-president Lech Kaczyński (Jaroslaw’s brother) on April 10, 2010. A curious sort of religion was created to turn those who had died into martyrs and called for religious celebrations on the tenth day of each month in remembrance of the victims—the celebrations served also as political rallies for Jaroslaw Kaczyński.
But these relationships are in peril today, particularly after the election of Pope Francis. The Pope condemns the idea of a confessional state and praises the separation of Church and state in order to ensure religious freedom. Pope Francis has not addressed the situation in Poland, but his remarks about the Church’s mission are at odds with the vision of Catholicism as a quasi-state religion a la Kaczyński. Some Poles hope the Pope will take a stand during his visit to Krakow in July during World Youth Days, although it seems more likely that the Pope will avoid any confrontation with the Polish government.
It is not clear whether the clergy in Poland will buy into Kaczyński’s strategy. There are many Church leaders who believe the current government is not in line with the Church’s mission, particularly when it comes to refugees. The Church pushed back against the government, and a majority of the public, when it supported the Pope’s appeals and welcomed refugees. The Church has offered support by organizing masses, providing practical help and housing, and sending the episcopate’s president Stanisław Gądecki to visit Syria. While they talk a lot about the fate of Christians there, they also support people of other religions. With some important exceptions, the Catholic Church in Poland follows papal recommendations for dealing with refugee crises.
The Church also came out against a citizens’ project calling for a more restrictive abortion law, which currently allows abortion in three cases only: when the life or health of a mother is in danger, when the pregnancy is a result of a rape or when the fetus is seriously malformed. The Church did not change its view on abortion, but says the criminalization of abortion in such cases would be harmful to women. And it condemns the few, yet rising, instances of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.
A Hobbesian vision of a church as subordinate to the Leviathan has clearly emerged in the last months after the elections. The state church might have been a rational choice in England torn by religious wars of sixteenth century, but in twenty-first century Europe it is a dangerous vision for the Church, which risks losing its spiritual authority. Although a schism seems to be very unlikely, a further confessionalization of Polish state is quite probable. The question now is whether Catholic hierarchs in Poland will reject such a dangerous vision, and the lure of symbolic and financial gain, in favor of what is right for society and the Church. It is also necessary and important that believers speak out about the dangers of the politicization of Catholicism and the significant breaches to articles of faith in post-Vatican II Catholicism.