The Polish Catholic Church in Pre- and Post-1989 Poland: An Evaluation(1)

By Hetnal, Adam A. | East European Quarterly, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Polish Catholic Church in Pre- and Post-1989 Poland: An Evaluation(1)


Hetnal, Adam A., East European Quarterly


In Poland's over one-thousand-year history, the Catholic Church has played an important role.(2) An accidental decision of a Kievan prince and a Polish prince has strongly influenced the destiny of two kindred Slavic peoples: the Russians and the Poles. The former became part of Eastern Christianity and the latter of its Western counterpart. Since embracing the Christian faith the Russians have turned East and the Poles West. Because of this, two distinct civilizations gradually emerged, which have become deeply impregnated in the Polish and Russian national characters.(3) Gradually the Poles and Russians came to view each other with distrust, sometimes with contempt, and frequently with hostility. Periods of friendship or reconciliation between these two Slavic peoples were rare; and hostility or distrust frequent. One should explain, however, that Russo-Polish relations never reached the level of the Serbo-Croat hatred.

In their long history, Poland and Russia waged numerous wars. For some time, the Poles triumphed, but then Russia got the upper hand. This was particularly true with Peter the Great and his successors. Together with Prussia and Austria, Russia partitioned Poland-Lithuania, erasing it from the map in Europe in 1795 for 123 years.(4) The last Polish triumph over Russia came in 1920. It was largely due, however, to the Russian Revolution and particularly to the subsequent bloody, long, and exhausting Civil War of 1918-20.

As stressed above the Russian Orthodox and the Polish Catholic Churches came to identify themselves fully with each respective nation. According to its Byzantine tradition and humility, the Russian Orthodox Church has never challenged secular authority. It humbly accepted periods of tyranny, even as inhumane as those of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin. The Russian Orthodox Church even reconciled itself, after a while, with the militant atheistic Bolshevik regime, claiming that bad or tyrannical regimes signified God's anger against sinners. In agreement with this view, instead of revolting, the ruled were supposed to amend their ways and humbly accept whatever came, thus sincerely seeking God's forgiveness.

The Catholic or Latin Church was built on different traditions. Although it sought cooperation with temporary power, it was read to fight for its own place in society, challenging the government occasionally, and even deposing tyrants. The right to revolt against tyranny can be found in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, still considered to be the greatest Catholic theologian. Although not everything is clear in this respect, the right to challenge secular authority, under certain circumstances, is within the Catholic tradition. Powerful popes more than once humiliated strong or tyrannical rules. The best example of this was Canossa, where in 1077, Emperor Henry IV (1056-1106) begged Pope Gregory VII for three days for forgiveness. Then John I of England had to humiliate himself before Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), the most powerful pope ever.

Although mostly friendly, reciprocal state-church relations in Poland also witnessed periods of tension, hostility, or distrust. Under King Boleslas the Bold (1058-79), a conflict occurred between the monarch and Bishop Stanislas of Cracow. Its end was tragic, and it resembled, to some extent, Thomas Becket's assassination in England. The impetuous king apparently killed the bishop with his own hand, then faced a revolt and finally sought refuge in Hungary, where he died under mysterious circumstances (perhaps poisoned) in 1081.(5)

During the period of fragmentation, numerous Church leaders supported the idea of Poland's reunification. Particularly active in this respect was Archbishop Jakub Swinka of Gniezno (1283-1314), who in addition promoted some kind of early Polish nationalism, chiefly directed against ethnic Germans. Only those knowing Polish could hold church offices under him.(6)

Some time later, during the Renaissance and Reformation (Poland-Lithuania became a real haven for religious dissenters and Jews) most Polish Church leaders accepted, though with some reluctance, religious tolerance.

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