The Polish Catholic Church and the State

Poland Table of Contents

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.

Church and State Before 1945

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.

The Early Communist Decades

The Polish Catholic Church suffered enormous losses during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II. Its leadership was scattered or exterminated, its schools were closed, and its property was destroyed. Ironically, in the war years this destruction fostered the church's conversion from an aloof hierarchy with feudal overtones to a flexible, socially active institution capable of dealing with the adversity of the postwar years. In the first two postwar years, the church enjoyed considerable autonomy. In 1947, however, consolidation of the East European nations under the hegemony of the Stalinist Soviet Union led to the closing of Polish seminaries and confiscation of church property in the name of the state. The state abolished the concordat and assumed legal supremacy over all religious organizations in 1948.

In the decades that followed, the church adapted to the new constraints, pragmatically reaching compromise agreements with the state and avoiding open confrontation over most issues. Between 1948 and 1981, the church was led by Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, an expert on Catholic social doctrine whose commanding personality augmented the power of the church hierarchy as a direct conduit from the Vatican to the people of Poland. As a general policy in the early communist decades, Wyszynski avoided fruitless direct campaigning against communist oppression. Instead, he stressed the church's role as advocate of Christian morality. Nevertheless, the cardinal's criticism of PZPR party leader Boleslaw Bierut earned Wyszynski three years under house arrest (1953-56), as well as international stature as a spokesman against communism. During this period, a total of 1,000 priests and eight bishops were imprisoned, and convents were raided by the police in the communist drive to destroy completely the authority of the church in Polish society.

Wyszynski was released in 1956 as a result of severe social unrest that forced a change in party leadership. The release was followed by a church-state agreement significantly relaxing restrictions in such areas as religious teaching and jurisdiction over church property. This agreement marked a general softening of state religious policy at the end of the period of hard-line Stalinism. Ten years later, the church's lavish celebration of the millennium of Polish Christianity strengthened the identification of Polish national consciousness with the church and, in the process, the state's respect for the church as representative of national opinion.

Relations in the 1970s and 1980s

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.

Church and State after 1989

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.

The church responded to the conditions of the reform era in other ways as well. It campaigned vigorously (but unsuccessfully) to prevent dissemination of pornographic materials, which became quite abundant in all East European nations after 1989 and were viewed as a moral threat. The church strongly defended aid for the poor, some aspects of which were suspended in the period of austerity that accompanied Poland's drive toward capitalism, although some policy makers saw welfare programs as remnants of the communist state. Following the issuance of a papal encyclical on the condition of the poor, Cardinal Glemp stressed the moral dangers of the free market.

After 1989 the church had to cut its highly professional publication operations drastically. In 1992 the church discussed improving access to the lay community, however, by publishing a mass-circulation newspaper and establishing a Catholic press agency. Glemp also considered decentralization of the church hierarchy and establishment of more dioceses to reach the faithful more directly.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress