Catholicism and Poland's National Soul

By Halaba, Malgorzata | Conscience, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Catholicism and Poland's National Soul


Halaba, Malgorzata, Conscience


Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland

Brian Porter-Szucs

(Oxford University Press, 2011, 296 pp) 978-0195399059, $55.00

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BRIAN PORTER-SZUCS' FAITH and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland is a comprehensive study of Poland's Catholic church over the last two centuries. It explores the development of different schools of thought within the church, as well as the complicated relations between the church and the state at different stages in Poland's history.

It is not an exaggeration to say the book is a must-read for Polish scholars and politicians alike because it deals beautifully with a number of stereotypes that contemporary Poles--Catholic or non-Catholic--have to face. One of these preconceptions is that Poland equals Catholicism--that the Catholic church has always been the cradle of Poland's independence and national spirit.

Porter-Szucs easily proves that both of these ideas are slightly exaggerated, to put it mildly.

First, there has been a great deal of religious diversity in Poland over the centuries. Until the end of the 18th century, the Republic of Poland and Lithuania was a mixture of Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, Armenian Catholics and even Muslims.

Many of today's Poles also believe that ever since the 19th century--when Poland was partitioned and occupied by Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire--the church has been the center of national resistance and played a key role in saving "Polishness." This is not quite true, Porter-Szucs argues--religion was far less important to "national survival" than is usually assumed. Even during the worst years of denationalization, the church was never the only space within which Poles could express and cultivate their ethnicity. In fact, sometimes the opposite was true: the "official institutions of the church tended to oppose the patriotic cause throughout the 19th century, and the Catholic hierarchy became one of the few consistent bastions of loyalism in partitioned Poland," Porter-Szucs says. He adds that the strong link between faith and fatherland emerged only in the beginning of the 20th century, and that "it would be many decades before it became unquestioned common sense that Poles were necessarily Catholic."

However, this popular myth does seem to be set in stone when it comes to the church in Poland's present political and social life and the hierarchy's strong influence over contemporary destinies. The overwhelming conviction that the Catholic church played a pivotal role in regaining Poland's independence and "preserving the nation" subsequently led to the general acceptance that the church leaders have the final say over every issue--be it abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, education or a TV program. The hierarchy, on its side, has started to believe the nation would cease to exist save for its constant intervention.

Obviously, such an attitude has led to serious consequences, especially for women's reproductive rights. In Poland, abortion and contraception have long been less of an individual matter and their repression more like a national raison d'etre, replacing the threat of personal damnation with the danger of national decline. Thus, Porter-Szucs says, when the debate over abortion and birth control intensified in the 1990s, ending with an abortion ban, the focus moved from religious judgments of individual women who have abortions to abortion being discussed as a matter of public policy with consequences for the national soul.

The view that childbearing is not a matter of individual choice, but rather an obligation toward the nation, is strengthened by the cult of the Virgin Mary. On Polish soil this has developed into the female ideal: the Mother-Pole (Matka-Polka). …

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