Rome's Most Faithful Daughter: The Catholic Church and Independent Poland, 1914-1939

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Rome's Most Faithful Daughter: The Catholic Church and Independent Poland, 1914-1939. By Neal Pease. (Athens: Ohio University Press. 2009. Pp. xxiv, 288. $49.95 cloth; $26.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-821-41855-0 cloth; 978-0-821-41856-7 paperback.)

Despite the centrality of the Church in Poland's troubled past and the fact that Poland is the only European country where Catholicism retains a prominent position in public life, there is surprisingly little scholarship dealing with the history of Catholicism along the Vistula. Neal Pease's new book is the first to explore the relationship between the Holy See and Poland during the first half of the twentieth century, but it would sell the book short to praise it just because it filled an empty spot in the historiography. Rome's Most Faithful Daughter is elegantly written, scrupulously researched, and persuasively argued. Above all, it manages to strike a rare balance while dealing with a topic that is replete with polemical landmines.

The title of the book is ironic, because Pease's primary contention is that interwar Poland and the Holy See had a far more troubled relationship than is usually assumed. Contrary to the image of Poland as a homogeneously Catholic country that could be counted on to support the Holy See's goals and ideals, the position of the Church in pre-World War II Poland was actually quite ambiguous. As Pease points out, the educated elites of Poland were subjected to the same secularizing trends seen elsewhere in Europe, so by the time the country was restored to the map of Europe in 1918, a large segment of the political leadership was ambivalent about Catholicism, if not downright anticlerical. Józef Pifsudski, a cofounder of the Polish Socialist Party and by the 1920s a leading advocate for what would be called multiculturalism today, dominated the state. When Pifsudski led a military coup to prevent the right from taking power in 1926, the regime and the Church seemed headed for a showdown. The stage was therefore set for a great deal of church-state tension, particularly when the country's new constitution enshrined a range of liberal civil rights rather than setting up Catholicism as the official state religion. …