Poland is one of the most religious countries in the world. Although the country claims no official religion and its Constitution assures freedom of religion for all, the nation is particularly proud of its Catholic religiosity. As one commentator rightly states, the “tight bond between the Roman Catholic Church and the Polish nation is a widely known fact” (1).
The Catholic Church has a rich history in Poland. During the Communist era, the Church stood as a symbol of intellectual freedom, but the communist governments and the Church repeatedly clashed over who was the legitimate representative of the Polish nation. The Church came to be, for most Poles, a bastion of freedom and a source of protection from and opposition to communist authorities (2).
The relationship between the Church and communist governments was a tumultuous one since it consisted of both conflict and coexistence. At times, the communist governments would attempt to weaken the role of the Church in Polish society, but then on occasions sought to cooperate with the Church, especially when the need arose to deal with internal crises. Where the communist governments and Church did clash, the former suspended the latter’s radio programmes, censored publications, nationalized hospitals, took over charitable organizations, and expropriated the Church’s land.
But the communist authorities found themselves increasingly dependent on the Church to stabilize domestic crises, which allowed the Church to gradually gain greater political influence. Later the Church emerged out of the communist period as the highest moral authority in Poland and became the country’s most powerful institution. This was, of course, not an opportunity the Church would ignore since it intended to further expand and secure its privileged position in the new democratic environment, which involved political engagement. The Church became a heavily politicized institution in the post-communist period.
Today Poland is one of Europe’s most religious countries (3). The overwhelming majority of its population ascribes to Catholic Christianity. Other religions exist but constitute an extreme minority. Combined, the likes of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism account for less than 0.1% of the country’s population and only 3.1% of Poles do not belong to any religion.
Religious Nationalism: Church and Politics
The Church has attempted to secure a leading role in Polish society, in both public and private spheres. This was especially so after the fall of communism when it sought to obtain an influence over the emerging democratic institutions and the policy-making in the country.
One of the surest signs of religious nationalism is when a religion becomes inseparable from the political. Since the fall of communism, the Church in Poland has attempted to shape democracy according to its vision. This has been particularly evident during elections and election campaigns in which it became a vocal participant. Priests would favor certain candidates. The Church supported parties and coalitions it felt represented its values. It also actively campaigned for favored candidates during Sunday masses and priests urged parishioners to vote for certain contenders. These views were posted on announcement boards where election advertisements and posters were displayed. School children were also sent home with the task of convincing their parents to vote for a given presidential candidate, being told that by doing so they would please the Holy Father. The Church’s involvement in the political sphere was justified on the grounds that the country’s Catholics have a duty and right to defend Christian values in public life. Even today there are concerns with the Church displaying election posters on parish property or discussing elections during mass (4).
But the Church’s involvement in politics has not always been popular. A poll in 1992 conducted by Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej (CBOS) found that an overwhelming majority of Poles (81.3%) opposed the Church’s direct engagement in political life (5). Another CBOS poll in 1996 indicated that an overwhelming number of respondents (85.8%) declared that they were against the Church’s direct participation in political life. But despite these negative public attitudes toward the Church’s political activism and involvement in politics, the Church does not intend to give up the fight to secure a leading role in public life.
Today the Church continues to have considerable political influence, no doubt helped given many view it as a symbol of authentic Polish heritage and culture. Ever since the end of communism in 1989, the Church and government have become intertwined and many politicians know that if they want to meet success they require the support of the Church. Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), for example, is strongly aligned with the Church and has nurtured an increasingly nationalistic atmosphere.
In Poland, one can find clear Catholic nationalistic sentiments, especially since religion is a pillar in Polish nationalism. MP Dominik Tarczynski of PiS, a party that was elected in 2015, referred to Poland as a “Christian and Western civilization…” (6). There has been concern that since the PiS’s parliamentary victory in 2015, radical nationalist organizations have been more visible in the country.
Christian religious symbols and anti-Western liberal sentiments have made their way into political rallies. The far-right leader Robert Bakiewicz, in the presence of a crowd of 60 000 Poles, cried: “You know what Marxists and Lefties are afraid of?” “They are afraid of this,” as he holds up a crucifix and kissing it. Bakiewicz refers to his followers as patriotic Catholics active in a crusade against cultural Marxists, although they have been criticized for their fascist tendencies (7).
Many Poles fear being under siege by the dangers of modern culture and supposed anti-Christian conspiracies. In the 1990s, one Bishop expressed concern that there was a growing acceptance of a “new model” consisting of “secular, leftist, libertarian” values (8). Nationalism poises itself in opposition to perceived threats to the values (nation, religion, traditional family, history) believed to constitute the foundation of European civilization and Polishness (9). Highly valued by nationalists are European civilization, religion (Christianity), nation, and family. The likes of materialism, relativism, egalitarianism, and liberalism are perceived to destroy the community and must be opposed.
Critics, however, have noted the racism and bigotry expressed in the ranks of Bakiewicz’s followers and others like him (10). Konrad Dulkowski, of the Centre for Monitoring Racist and Xenophobic Behaviour, argues that these groups institutionalize hatred and violence towards immigrants and others who challenge traditional conservative values. Witnesses have come across souvenir stands selling anti-Muslim t-shirts and angry young men have been heard chanting “faggots forbidden.” We must also note in Polish nationalism the demonization of homosexuals. Homosexuals and immigrants become enemies as they are viewed as personifying characteristics and phenomena seen as harmful and threatening. For example, stories circulate of supposed dangerous refugees imposing their culture and taking over social housing and jobs while liberals intentionally attack Polish tradition.
There are also trends towards White nationalism and advocates have openly chanted racist slogans calling for a “White Poland.” One witness claims to have seen priests going along with these sentiments (11). Close connections between the Church and nationalist groups such as ONR, National Radical Camp, and All Polish Youth have been documented. All Polish Youth, for example, operates under the slogan of “Great Catholic Poland,” a nationalist pedagogic about Catholicism being the only authentic religion in the country. The leader of the All Polish Youth movement, Mateusz Marzoch, refers to his philosophy as “Christian nationalism,” by which he means his principles are built upon the Catholic faith.
It is likely because of nationalist propaganda that acts of violence have been experienced by religious minorities. Muslims have been widely stereotyped and abused verbally and physically. Islamophobic sentiments are considered socially acceptable and there have been attacks on mosques (12). Converts to Islam have been considered traitors to Poland’s values, culture, and heritage. Statistics suggest that sixty-four percent (64%) of Polish people consider Muslims to be intolerant of customs and values other than their own while fifty-one percent (51%) agree that Islam and Muslims encourage violence (13).
Poland’s government has expressed concern that immigrants will undermine the country’s Catholic identity. Muslim immigrants are particularly opposed, especially on grounds that they bring with them violence, terrorism, and the desire to impose sharia law in the country. The state, however, denies that blocking immigrants has anything to do with religion.
Treatment of LGBT Persons
When democracy came to Poland in 1989, several foreign Western liberal values accompanied it, such as feminism and gay rights. But such values have been resisted by politicians and members of the Church because they are perceived to undermine Christian values and the things Poles hold sacred. Radical nationalists have also resisted liberalism by turning to tradition (14).
The PiC is considered by many to be authoritarian and anti-LGBT. LGBT rights and “gender theory” have been depicted as a “threat to the nation” and various localities have declared their region free from “L.G.B.T. ideology” (15). In the run-up to the 2019 parliamentary election, the leader of Poland’s ruling coalition claimed he would fight “political correctness” and “homo-propaganda.” A speaker in parliament declared that LGBT ideology was a “nihilistic concept” intended to destroy society. There have been claims and promises to prohibit the “propagation of LGBT ideology” in public institutions. A national conservative newspaper, Gazeta Polska, has put its weight behind the support for “L.G.B.T.-free” zones. It has been estimated that LGBT-free zones cover nearly one-third (31.3%) of Poland’s territory and are inhabited by more than twelve million people (approximately 31.7% of the country’s overall population) (16).
Anti-homosexual rhetoric and sentiments have also been advocated by figures in the Church, which has been of concern since the Church’s statements carry considerable weight for millions of Poles. The Archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jędraszewski, claims his country is facing a “rainbow plague” of gay ideologues pushing for same-sex marriage and adoption rights. These he deems a plague: “It wants to make us support something that takes away our souls. It is a great danger. So we need to defend ourselves just like against any other plague” (17). These sentiments have gone unchallenged by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and public authorities. In August 2020, the Episcopal Conference adopted an official position on LGBT+ issues and called for the creation of “counselling centres” designed to “help people who want to regain their sexual health and natural sexual orientation.”
Critics claim that the Church contributes to homophobia with its talk of a “rainbow plague.” A prominent member of the Catholic League of Polish Families, Wojciech Wierzejski, described gays as “deviants” and stating that, in referring to a particular parade, marchers “should be beaten with batons” (18). Wierzejski has been singled out for inciting violence against homosexuals and lesbians.
Pride marches have been condemned, opposed, and banned. Where they have taken place, counter-demonstrations have turned violent and it is believed that anti-gay political propaganda is to blame (19). Although the Polish government allowed gay rights advocates to organize an Equality Parade (the government also allowed a right-wing, anti-gay group to protest the event), counter-protestors threw eggs and rocks at the marchers.
Arguably the most controversial and socially divisive issue in Poland is the Church’s involvement in the matter of abortion. It has indeed been divisive as a CBOS poll conducted in February 1993 suggests. It was found that fifty-eight-point-two percent (58.2%) of respondents opposed the Church’s position on abortion and only thirty-three-point-two percent (33.2%) supported it (20). The Church and pro-life supporters have always opposed abortion. Calls to ban the practice came to the forefront in the mix of important political issues to emerge after the fall of communism.
Abortion is only permitted if there is a threat to the mother’s life, a fetal abnormality, or when pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest. A woman cannot receive an abortion due to fetal impairment or economic or social reasons. The PiS has supported legislation to ban abortion under all circumstances and anti-abortion campaigners have compared the practice to genocide and displayed graphic posters of fetuses alongside images of Adolf Hitler. There is in some regions the “clause of conscience,” which gives doctors the right to refuse an abortion on faith grounds. In one case, a pregnant woman from Krakow was refused an abortion despite providing a police report that she had been raped.
The various anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion laws and sentiments have been resisted. There is strong opposition to both PiS and the Church on these matters (22).
Many Poles are campaigning for stronger women’s and LGBTQ rights, as well as for the separation of Church and state. Hundreds of thousands of women have taken to protesting their country’s policies on abortion. Protests have also opposed the Church and its involvement in politics, education, and culture. Some demonstrators have taken to disrupting services, defacing church buildings, and confronting priests. There are accounts of churches being spray-painted with slogans. The phone number of an organization assisting Polish women seeking abortions was sprayed on a church wall.
Support for the Church has fallen in Poland, which is very surprising given that the institution wielded enormous moral authority for decades. According to a poll by IBRiS, only nine percent (9%) of young Poles (aged 18 to 29) view the Church positively (23). Almost half (47%) view the church negatively. Many Poles are leaving the Catholic Church. One priest noted that there had typically been in his parish one apostasy a year, yet claimed this number had recently jumped to three in one week (24).
Behind apostasy and the Church’s loss of support are internal scandals, clerical child abuse, tight alliance with PiS, penetration into politics, and its anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ stance. The Church’s reputation has also not been helped elsewhere either, especially given the views of some of its members on the coronavirus pandemic. Some bishops refused to close churches and priests have often spread coronavirus misinformation.
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights has opposed the emergence of a widespread pattern of stigmatization and statements targeting LGBTQ people in Poland by politicians, public officials, and opinion leaders.
- Chrypi´nski, Wincenty. 1989. “Ko´sci´oł a rza˛d ispołecze´nstwo wpowojennej Polsce.” Odnowa 8(15)
- Eberts, Mirella. 1998. “The Roman Catholic Church and Democracy in Poland.” Europe-Asia Studies 50(5):817-842. p. 817.
- Grzymala-Busse, Anna., and Slater, Dan. 2018. “Making Godly Nations.” Comparative Politics 50(4):545-564.
- Pawlak, Justyna, and Ptak, Alicja. 2021. As Poland’s Church embraces politics, Catholics depart. Available.
- Eberts, Mirella. 1998. Ibid. p. 828.
- The Newsmakers. 2019. Here’s why Poland takes in millions of migrants… just not Muslim ones. Available.
- Campbell, Eric. 2020. Poland’s government is leading a Catholic revival. It has minorities and liberals worried. Available.
- Porter, Brian. 2001. “The Catholic Nation: Religion, Identity, and the Narratives of Polish History.” The Slavic and East European Journal 45(2):289-299. p. 290.
- Kajta, Justyna. 2019. Radical Nationalism as a New Counterculture in Poland? Available.
- Campbell, Eric. 2020. Ibid.
- Ojewska, Natalia. 2018. Catholic nationalism: the church of the far right in Poland. Available.
- Radio Poland. 2014. Vandals attack historic Polish mosque. Available.
- CBOS. 2015. Komunikat Z Badan CBOS. p. 8.
- Kajta, Justyna. 2019. Ibid.
- Lucy, Ash. 2020. Inside Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones.’ Available.
- Commissioner for Human Rights. 2020. “Memorandum on the stigmatisation of LGBTI people in Poland.” CommDH 27:1-16. p. 5.
- Campbell, Eric. 2020. Ibid.
- Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. 2007. Poland: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Available.
- Santora, Marc., and Berendt, Joanna. 2019. Anti-Gay Brutality in a Polish Town Blamed on Poisonous Propaganda. Available.
- Eberts, Mirella. 1998. Ibid. p. 825.
- Hadley, Janet. 1994. “God’s Bullies: Attacks on Abortion.” Feminist Review 48(1):94-113. p. 99.
- Henley, Jon. 2020. ‘A backlash against a patriarchal culture’: How Polish protests go beyond abortion rights. Available; Korycki, Kate. n.d. Polish women reject the Catholic Church’s hold on their country. Available.
- Tilles, Daniel. 2020. Only 9% of young people in Poland view Catholic church positively, finds poll. Available.
- Kalan, Dariusz. 2021. Poles Lose Faith as PiS Drives Politicisation of Church. Available.