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The Polish Catholic Church

Certain characteristics of Polish Catholicism to explain its unique resilience in a population bombarded for decades with state-sponsored atheistic propaganda. Polish Catholic religiosity focuses more strongly on the Virgin Mary and the saints than on the direct relationship of the individual to God or on abstract religious doctrine. The most important pilgrimage destination for Polish Roman Catholics is the image of the Virgin (called the Black Madonna) at Jasna Góra Monastery in Czestochowa. The image is believed to have rescued Poland miraculously from invasions by the Tatars and the Swedes, and some Solidarity leaders wore replicas of the icon.

Especially for less-educated Poles, Mary represents a tangible yet mystical connection with God much preferable to contemplation of abstract theological doctrine. During the communist era, this more immediate and anthropocentric religiosity seemed uniquely resistant to replacement by the intellectual doctrine of atheism. On the other hand, in the early 1990s, once the specter of state-sponsored atheism had disappeared, this immediacy promoted individual expression of beliefs in ways that questioned the church's authority over secular social ethics. Thus, the official church that had protected the spiritual interests of all Poles under communism risked separation from the everyday religious practice that retained great meaning for the average Polish Catholic.

Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, the Catholic Church was not only a spiritual institution but also a social and political force. The dynamics of church-state relations in Poland after the communist era were shaped by the multifaceted identity the church had assumed during many decades when conventional social and political institutions were suppressed. That identity, called by one scholar a "civil religion," combined religious and political symbols in Poles' conception of their national history and destiny. Important aspects of this social and political role remained intact after 1989, fueling a controversial new drive for church activism.

The first impetus for an expanded church role was the social repression Poles experienced during the era of the third partition, from 1795 to 1918. In this period, the partitioning nations severely limited freedom of organization, education, and publication in Polish territory. With the exception of the post-1867 Austrianoccupied sector, public use of the Polish language was also forbidden. These restrictions left religious practice as the only means of national self-expression and the preservation of social bonds among lay Catholics. From that situation came a strong new sense of national consciousness that combined nineteenth-century literary, philosophical, and religious trends within the formal structure of the church. In 1925 the newly independent Polish state signed a concordat that prescribed separate roles for church and state and guaranteed the church free exercise of religious, moral, educational, and economic activities.

Although Poland enjoyed fourteen years of independence between the signing of the concordat and the Nazi invasion, the special role of the church continued and intensified when postwar communist rule again regimented other forms of self-expression. During the communist era, the church provided a necessary alternative to an unpopular state authority, even for the least religious Poles. Between 1945 and 1989, relations between the Polish Catholic Church and the communist regimes followed a regular pattern: when the state felt strong and self-sufficient, it imposed harsh restrictions on church activities; in times of political crisis, however, the state offered conciliatory measures to the church in order to gain popular support.

When the "reform" regime of Edward Gierek came to power in 1970, it took conciliatory measures to enlist church support. The 1970s were a time of bargaining and maneuvering between a state increasingly threatened by social unrest and a church that was increasingly sure of its leadership role but still intent on husbanding its political capital. Between 1971 and 1974, the church demanded the constitutional right to organize religious life and culture in Poland, using education institutions, religious groups, and the mass media. Major protest documents were issued in 1973 and 1976 against the weakening or withdrawal of state guarantees of such a right.

In 1976 church support for workers' food price riots began a new phase of political activism that would endure until the end of communist rule. In late 1977, a meeting of Gierek and Wyszynski, prompted by continuing social unrest, promised a new reconciliation, but the church continued its harsh criticism of state interference in religious affairs.

In 1978 the selection of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Kraków as pope opened vital new lines of communication between Polish Catholics and the outside world and gave the Poles a symbol of hope in a period of economic and political decay. In 1979 the triumphal visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland boosted the Polish cultural self-image and turned international attention to Poland's political and spiritual struggles.

The next year, the church lent vital moral support to the Solidarity labor movement while counseling restraint from violence and extreme positions. In 1981 the government requested that the church help it to establish a dialog with worker factions. Needing church approval to gain support among the people, the government revived the Joint Episcopal and Government Commission, through which the church gradually regained legal status in the early 1980s. In 1981 the Catholic University of Lublin reopened its Department of Social Sciences, and in 1983 clubs of the Catholic intelligentsia reopened in sixty cities. Twenty-three new church-oriented periodicals appeared in the 1980s, reaching a total printing of more than 1.2 million copies in 1989. Nevertheless, state censorship, paper rationing, and restriction of building permits provoked serious conflicts with the Polish government in the last decade of communist rule. Wyszynski died in 1981. He was replaced as primate by the less dynamic Cardinal Józef Glemp, who attempted to continue the dual policy of conciliation and advancement of religious rights. By 1983 several activist bishops and priests had broken with an official church policy they saw as too conciliatory toward the regime. In a 1984 meeting with Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski, Glemp again attempted to obtain official recognition of the church's legal status as well as freedom for imprisoned dissidents.

Later that year, the murder of dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko by Polish security agents fueled a new confrontation between church and state. The Jaruzelski government, which had met with Glemp seeking the legitimacy that would come from renewed diplomatic relations with the Vatican, abandoned its conciliatory tone and returned to the pre-1970 demand that the church limit itself to purely spiritual matters and censure politically active priests. During 1985 and 1986, the church hierarchy replied with renewed demands for the release of political prisoners and for constitutional guarantees of free assembly. By the end of 1986, 500 political prisoners had received amnesty, and Pope John Paul II's second visit to Poland included a meeting with Jaruzelski--signals that relations were again improving.

The last two years of communist rule brought intensified bargaining as social unrest continued to weaken the government's position. The church demanded that the government open dialogs with opposition organizations, arguing that social and economic problems could not be solved without considering all views. When national strikes hit Poland in mid-1988, the church attempted to arbitrate between labor organizations and the government and to prevent labor from adopting radical positions.

The Polish Episcopate, the administrative body of the Polish Catholic Church, took part in the talks that began in September 1988 between Solidarity representatives and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Those talks ultimately led to restoration of Solidarity's legal status. In early 1989, round table discussions between church and state representatives yielded a new law on church-state relations passed by the Sejm (the lower legislative house) in May 1989. The religious freedom guaranteed by that law allowed the church to resume officially its role as intermediary between the state and society. The law also set the stage for organized activity by the Catholic laity never permitted in the communist era. The Vatican resumed full diplomatic relations with the Polish government two months later. The approach of the Polish Catholic Church to the Polish state changed drastically after 1989. The church's influential role in promoting opposition views, its close relationship with Solidarity, and its mediation between factions in the tumultuous 1980s brought it enhanced political power in the postcommunist system. In 1989 virtually every significant public organization in Poland saw the church as a partner in its activities and decisions.

One result of this identification was that when the Sejm began deliberations on a new constitution in 1990, the Episcopate requested that the document virtually abolish the separation of church and state. Such a change of constitutional philosophy would put the authority of the state behind such religious guarantees as the right to religious education and the right to life beginning at conception (hence a ban on abortion). Throughout the communist era, the separation of church and state had been the basis of the church's refusal to acknowledge the authority of atheistic political regimes over ecclesiastical activities. In justifying its new approach to the separation doctrine, the Episcopate explained that the communist regimes had discredited the doctrine as a constitutional foundation for postcommunist governance by using the separation of church and state to defend their totalitarian control of society against church interference.

As a political matter, however, the unleashing of stronger church influence in public life began to alienate parts of the population within two years of the passage of the bill that restored freedom of religion. Catholic intellectuals, who had shared opposition sympathies with the church in the communist era, also had opposed the autocratic rule of Cardinal Wyszynski. Many people feared that compromise between the church and the communist state might yield an alliance that in effect would establish an official state church. Once the common opponent, the communist system, disappeared in 1989, these fears revived and spread to other parts of Polish society.

In the period that followed, critical issues were the reintroduction of religious instruction in public schools--which happened nationwide at church insistence, without parliamentary discussion, in 1990--and legal prohibition of abortion. Almost immediately after the last communist regime fell, the church began to exert pressure for repeal of the liberal communist-era abortion law in effect since 1956. Between 1990 and 1992, church pressure brought three progressively tighter restrictions on birth control and abortion, although surveys showed that about 60 percent of Poles backed freedom of individual choice on that issue. By 1991, the proper boundary of church intervention in social policy making was a divisive social and political issue. At that point, only 58 percent of citizens polled rated the church the most-respected institution in Polish public life-- second behind the army. By contrast, one year before 90 percent of citizens polled had rated the church as most respected.

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Page last modified: 09-08-2012 19:41:59 ZULU