The Catholic Church and Poland's Return to Europe

By Byrnes, Timothy A. | East European Quarterly, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Catholic Church and Poland's Return to Europe

Byrnes, Timothy A., East European Quarterly

Six years after the dramatic fall of communism, the Catholic Church continues to play a very active role in Polish politics. The church, through Primate Jozef Cardinal Glemp and the other bishops, participates in the political process in order to advance the institutional interests of the church itself; to imbed Catholic moral teaching into the fabric of Polish law and public policy; and to warn against the election of political candidates whom the church deems antithetical to its own interests and to the interests of the Polish nation. The church's leaders view themselves as having been central agents in the great political transformation that has taken place in Poland. And they are now insisting that they play an equally central role in determining the direction that transformation will take in the future.

Evidence has emerged recently, however, suggesting that the church may have overplayed its complex and, in fact, tenuous position in Polish politics. The church acted very aggressively to advance its institutional and policy interests after the fall of communism, and a backlash has apparently set in. The post-communist (and anti-clerical) Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) now dominates the governing coalition in the Polish parliament (Sejm). And even more significantly, the SLD's Aleksander Kwasniewski defeated Lech Walesa in a closely contested presidential election despite the church's clearly expressed opposition to Kwasniewski's candidacy.

Moreover, public opinion polls suggest directly that the people have grown wary of the church's influence. Seventy-five percent of respondents to a recent poll, for example, said that the church "should not engage in politics." And 73% said that the church should not endorse political candidates.(1) In addition, a sizable majority of the country consistently dissents from the church's passionately advanced opposition to abortion.(2)

Given these qualms on the part of the public, and given the potentially counterproductive nature of the church's recent political interventions, why does the church continue to assert itself so aggressively in Polish politics? Why does the church insist on pushing its agenda so hard in the face of growing opposition and resentment? The church persists in this fashion because its goals reach well beyond the confines of Polish domestic politics to the future shape of European society. Pope John Paul II and many of the Polish bishops see their homeland as sitting once again astride the great religious and political divisions of the European continent. They want an authentically Catholic Poland to serve as an instrument of the re-evangelization of the Orthodox East, and as a spiritual and moral exemplar to the secular West. They insist with unshakable fervor, therefore, that Poland retain its national Catholic heritage, and that it resist acceptance of what John Paul II has called Europe's "civilization of desire and consumption."(3)

The Catholic hierarchy's aggressive pursuit of political influence in post-communist Poland, in other words, is deeply grounded in that hierarchy's view of Poland's role in European history. The pope and bishops do not want the newly democratic Poland merely to "return to Europe."(4) They want the new Poland to reassert its Catholic character, and in the process to invite Europe - East and West, Catholic and Orthodox - to rediscover its common Christian roots. Such a grand, even grandiose, sense of its own mission continues to lead the Catholic Church to reject out of hand any political accommodation with Poland's secularist, post-communist regime.

Catholic Poland

The Catholic Church's prominent role in contemporary Polish society is the result of three historical developments(5): the identification of church and nation through Mieszko I's baptism in 966; the association of the church with Polish nationalism during the partitions, occupations, and foreign dominations of the last two hundred years; and the creation of a nearly homogeneous nation by the murder and expulsion of Polish Jews during and after the war, and by the ethnic migrations involved in Stalin's movement of Poland's borders to the West.

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