Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Still The World's Most Catholic Country

by Philip Earl Steele


An analysis of the health of Catholicism in Poland at the turn of the third millennium.

Larger Work



30 - 35

Publisher & Date

The Morley Institute, Inc., Washington, D.C., June 2001

Vision Book Cover Prints

I live with my family outside Warsaw, and on Saturday mornings my children and I — a Presbyterian in this Catholic country — never miss watching the magnetic Sister Mariola, who hosts the children's Bible show Ziarno (The Seed) on Polish television. Adult Poles have an easy time keeping up with the doings of our favorite Pole, Pope John Paul II; almost no broadcast of the evening news is complete without at least a snippet from his busy schedule. Despite four decades of communist rule, John Paul's homeland may still lay claim to the distinction of being the most Catholic country on earth.

Evidence of the vitality of the Catholic Church is everywhere in Poland today. You see it in the youthful priests and nuns bustling about the streets, or on the Saturday before Easter, when entire families stroll together to church carrying a bit of bread, a boiled egg, a piece of meat, and a few grains of salt nestled in a wicker basket to be blessed for their Easter breakfast. You can also see it in the droves of pilgrims who flock to the monastery at Jasna Góra ("Shining Mountain") where the Black Madonna, the famous icon that has long been a symbol of Poland's nationhood, is kept.

When I moved to Poland eleven years ago, the country was in the throes of an economic and political transformation. I wondered: Would Westernization spoil the richness of Poland's historic faith? At the back of the beautiful church of St. James in Warsaw, where I attended Good Friday services that first year, 1990, I saw a haunting reminder of just how closely the Polish nation and the Catholic Church were connected in the minds of Poles: a replica of the lifeless body of Christ lying on the Polish flag. It was a fitting symbol of a church and nation that had suffered together.

But Poland is no longer a suffering nation. Its economic growth is among the highest in Europe, and the effects of globalization are visible. Poland belongs to NATO and is on the verge of joining the European Union. When that happens, the Poles will have achieved the goals they set when they headed down the road to democracy and a market economy.

Although the heroic Poland of Solidarity, the movement to throw off Soviet shackles that was born with the 1980 strike in the Lenin Shipyards of Gdansk and blessed by John Paul, seems a long time ago, the Catholic Church remains vibrant in Poland. Today an astonishing 58 percent of the population attends Mass at least once a week. Though the equation Pole = Catholic is not exact, it is so close to the mark that any Pole who bristles at that description "doth protest too much." Nearly 19 of 20 Poles are Roman Catholics. The Eastern Orthodox are the second largest religious group, with some 600,000 believers — or 1.5 percent of the population. Jehovah's Witnesses are a distant third, with 120,000 members — about 0.3 percent of the population. Lutherans make up the largest of the traditional Protestant denominations, boasting around 85,000 members of a total of 150,000 Protestants. Unbelief is almost nonexistent. Atheists make up a mere 0.6 percent of the Polish population, despite the decades of communist rule.

But these numbers, though impressive, don't reveal the scope of Catholicism in Poland. Just thinking about the subject, I am beset by a chaotic array of images and associations that speak to how deeply the faith is embedded in daily life: Poles celebrate not so much their birthdays as their imieniny, or "name-days," taken from the calendar of saints. The festivities almost always include a rousing rendition of the toast "Sto Lat!" (May you live a hundred years!). On Christmas Eve, when Poles have gathered in their family circles, they participate in a beautiful ceremony called "sharing the wafer." Each person holds a thin white wafer of unleavened bread. Everyone walks about, and family members approach one another face to face, each extending to the other the wafer that he or she holds. Then breaking off a small corner of the other's wafer, they wish each other health and happiness as they eat the piece. Superficially, the wishes may seem formulaic. But that simply bespeaks the depth of this Polish tradition. Besides, little twists of personal inventiveness dispel any feeling that the wishes are rote or forced.

This, of course, is Polish religion at the popular level, and it owes much of its amazing strength to the indomitable Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski (1901-1981). Wyszynski, who spent several years under house arrest by order of the communist government, became primate of Poland in 1948. His strategy for preserving the Catholic faith in an atheistic regime was to stress the cultivation of the folkways of popular devotion. Wyszynski understood how much these practices meant to the average Pole. Even during Stalin's lifetime, Poles by the millions dared to make pilgrimages to their beloved Jasna Góra. In the year following World War II, for instance, more than four million Poles — a sixth of the population — visited the monastery. The fruits of Wyszynski's wisdom can be seen everywhere in daily Polish life.

But that is not the whole story, and the rest is somewhat more ambiguous. This is the Catholic Church at the level of the Polish intellectual. The big question for Polish intellectuals in the post-communist era is church-state relations: How high and how permeable should the wall between church and state be in Poland? Over the past year the debate has reached a rhetorical crescendo. Two camps led by Catholic laymen of Poland's chattering classes vie for dominance.

One camp is led by a prolific writer and intellectual named Jaroslaw Gowin. He worries about increasing secularism in Poland. Gowin, who is editor-in-chief of the influential monthly Znak, a journal with roots going back to the 1940s, argues that the values on which a successful democratic society rests do not come from democracy itself. Rather, these values come from traditional sources, and in Poland, those are Christian sources. If Poland relies solely on "procedural democracy" and its attendant "cultural liberalism" — the Polish name for what is known in the United States as "secular humanism" — this camp cautions that a moral vacuum will result. Much of Gowin's thinking may aptly be compared to that of the American Catholic neoconservative, Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, who worries about the banishment of religion from the public square in the United States.

In the other corner is Roman Graczyk, the religious affairs writer for Poland's largest national-circulation daily, Gazeta Wyborcza. He and his camp hope for something resembling the strict French model of total separation of church and state. Graczyk argues that democracy in Europe is founded on moral principles contained in national and international charters that guarantee respect for human rights. He points to the independence of modern courts and to the fact that within Europe, citizens of a given country may take rulings from even the highest courts in their land to the European Tribunal in Strasbourg.

Opponents argue, with sound reason, that France and Poland have little in common that would justify such a high wall of separation between church and state. France has a huge Muslim population and more than 18 times the level of atheism as Poland. Church attendance rates are only one-sixth those of Poland. More significantly, France's centuries-long anticlericalism is the very antithesis of the Polish view of the Church as the champion of national identity and independence.

The logic of the Francophiles would seem to militate against Poland's 1992 statute on public broadcasting that requires respect for "the Christian value system as the basis of universal ethical principles." The Francophiles had also urged that crosses be removed from public places and that the words "so help me God" (now administered voluntarily) be eliminated from oaths of high office. The Francophiles sometimes paint their opponents as advocates of a "theocratic" government. But of course the Znak camp by no means aims to make divorce illegal, permit only Catholics to vote or hold office, outlaw contraceptives, penalize women who have had abortions, or mandate the eating of fish on Friday.

Including religion in the curriculum of state-supported schools, a matter of intense bickering between the two camps, was implemented in the 1990-1991 Polish school year. The Church's stance was that, after decades of compulsory atheistic instruction under communism, the teaching of religion classes was a necessary corrective. Religion courses are offered as electives, with parents having to affirm their consent. In 1991, the Constitutional Tribunal, Poland's highest court, upheld the teaching of religion in school. And not only do 95 percent of Polish parents choose religion classes for their children, but the students rank them as the classes they "least dislike."

It should be no surprise that another hotly contested issue in Poland is abortion. During the communist period, access to abortion was easy. That was slated for change with the new democratic government. However, because of the contentiousness of the issue, it was not until January 1993 that the Sejm (Poland's parliament) managed to enact new-and still binding-abortion regulations. This law, which, after Ireland's, is the most restrictive in Europe, limits abortion to a very small number of situations.

In 1996, the then-governing party coalition passed a revision of the abortion law, which President Aleksander Kwasniewski signed in November of that year. Among other things, the revision added the mother's material situation as a reason for permitting abortion. However, this new provision was promptly challenged in the Constitutional Tribunal, on the ground that Poland's new constitution guarantees the right to life from conception.

In May 1997, the tribunal handed down a decision to overturn the new law, ruling that an "unalienable right or freedom may not be made subject to the will of lawmakers," and that the right to life may not be denied by reason of a subjective, unverifiable assessment of the mother's material or personal circumstances. Gowin, of Znak, hailed the reversal as "Poland's most outstanding contribution to the political culture of the uniting Europe."

He further noted that studies from 1999 have shown that whereas 38 percent of Polish society favors permitting abortion on the grounds of the mother's personal situation, 47 percent opposes it. These figures show that Catholic values have made important inroads during the 1990s. The numbers were 65 percent in favor of abortion for those reasons versus 20 percent against it eight years ago, when the law came into effect. Perhaps more important, the group to have most changed its opinion over that time was teenagers.

All this raises the question: How long can Poland remain the most Catholic country in the world? When you glance around the rest of Europe, there seems to be little reason for hope. To many, it seems that what lies in store for Poland 20 years from now is what we see in Holland or England today, where only a percentage or two of the population maintains an active tie to any church. Gowin recalls the notion popular a dozen years ago in some quarters that Polish Catholicism was like a mummy. Sealed up for ages in a tomb, it would simply disintegrate when exposed to the open air.

But that hasn't happened. Not only has Mass attendance not dropped during the 1990s, but the number of those receiving Holy Communion has nearly doubled — as has the number of Polish Catholics involved in such Catholic movements as Focolare and Oasis. Some 1.5 million Poles are now involved in those movements. Leading elements within the clergy, as well as broad segments of Poland's laity, would dearly like to believe that Poland is poised to enter Europe as an example of Christianity's vitality and viability in an otherwise postmodern, post-Christian culture. No doubt millions in Poland would be inclined to agree with Rev. Dariusz Oko, who recently remarked that "despite all, the Church is still the most beautiful, the most healthy, and the most idealistic thing we have."

One might add that it's also the most Polish thing they have.

Philip Earl Steele is a lecturer at Warsaw University and senior language editor of the monthly philosophy journal Dialogue and Universalism and the Polish foreign policy quarterly Polska w Europie.

© 2001 The Morley Institute

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