Rome's Most Faithful Daughter. The Catholic Church and Independent Poland, 1914-1939. By Neal Pease. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. 312pp. $26.95.
Much has been written about the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Polish history and the importance of Catholicism for Polish national culture and identity. One of the few things that the international public knows about Poland is that it is a religious country, dominated by Catholicism of a rather traditional variety. Yet this knowledge is rather superficial and highly mythologized. In Poland, the role of the Catholic Church, especially before communism, tends to be seen in a simplified way, dominated by the concept of a monolithic Polish Catholic nation. It is, therefore, very important that a serious, competent academic study of relations between the Polish state and the Catholic Church should be written. Neal Pease's book fills this gap admirably. It is an excellent piece of scholarship, essentially historical but with much sensitivity for political and social issues. The author gives us a thorough, beautifully written and clearly structured presentation of Polish independence after the end of the partitions and before the outbreak of World War II. The book is chronological. Particular chapters reconstruct the sequence of events and try to find logic in the development of relations between state and church, while also focusing on key factors and crucial events that determined these relations and also constituted essential moments of the Polish inter-war social and political history.
The first chapter of the book describes competently the position of Catholicism and the Roman Catholic Church in Poland at the time when the nineteenth-century European status quo was coming to an end with the outbreak of the Great War. Pease gives major credit to the Catholic Church, which it undoubtedly deserves, for its role in the process of Polish nation formation, but he also sees the complexity of relations between the Polish Catholic hierarchy, its supreme authorities in the Vatican, and the three great European states that took part in the occupation of the Polish ethnic territories. Pease offers a fresh look at the subject, which is usually seen in a simplistic way: the Polish nation and its church against oppressors, especially non-Catholic Prussia and Russia. The reality, as he describes it, was much more complicated, with politics and diplomacy intervening and the Polish Catholic Church finding itself, more than once, in a difficult, even embarrassing position, when the war was changing the political picture of Europe, and not entirely in the way the bishops initially expected. Pease also tells a story of two great personalities- Pilsudski and Dmowski- who shaped Polish politics in the twenty years of independence and portrays them, in the context of their religious affiliation and relations with the Catholic Church, in a more nuanced way than is usually done in historical literature. …