Catholicism and Polishness

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Catholicism and Polishness

As we read all the news accounts about the horrifying march of the far-right in Warsaw on November 11, let’s take a moment to remember that they do not represent Poland. They might be the loudest, and they might have support in the current government, but they have little in common with the vast majority of Poles. The Law and Justice Party is doing its best to ruin Poland’s reputation by enabling racists and fascists, but there is another Poland that continues to deserve our respect.

In September a survey by CBOS asked Poles how they planned to celebrate the (supposed) centenary of Polish independence. The top-line result was striking: whereas in 2008 a majority (51%) said that they had no plans to celebrate independence day at all, this year a mere 28% admitted their apathy. However, we shouldn’t make too much of this: 43% of those who were planning to mark the occasion said they would do so by displaying a national flag on their home (a decade ago, only 15%did that).

The other difference that seems significant is that in 2008, 36% reported that they would attend a Catholic mass to mark independence day. We can probably equate this third of the population with those who believe that Polishness and Catholicism are fundamentally the same. Or perhaps some people answered this way because they felt, in 2008, that such a response would be well received by survey-takers—that is, they were following the script of what one was expected to do on a national holiday. Either way, by 2018 that figure was down to 29%, and this survey was taken before the cultural earthquake caused by the release of the movie Kler (The Clergy).

I finally got a chance to see that movie last week, because only then did it arrive at a cinema in Ann Arbor (as part of a magnificent annual event, the Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival). I’m still processing the emotional body-blow that this film delivers, but I have no doubt that it will be remembered as one of the most important cultural moments in recent Polish history. The film has already set box-office records, with just under 5 million tickets sold in Poland alone. When it premiered in the UK, it had the biggest international opening weekend of any Polish film, ever. I trust that everyone will acknowledge that not all Polish priests are like the trio of morally fraught characters represented in the film. Nonetheless, the movie does reflect an aspect of the Church that is undeniable, and that has never before been exposed so powerfully in any artistic medium. In Kler we see a bureaucracy concerned first-and-foremost with its own institutional strength and reputation, willing to cast virtually all other considerations aside in pursuit of its narrowly defined organizational interests. Anyone who has followed the sex-abuse scandals in the US, Ireland, or elsewhere will find the story painfully familiar. Even if it is true that priests are no more or less guilty of transgressions than any other subset of the population, few others are protected by a similar culture of defensiveness and denial, and in few countries is the Catholic Church as powerful as it is in Poland.

Or rather, was powerful. As I have been arguing for a long time, Poland has never been as Catholic as the national mythology suggests. Over the past decade, however, it has grown even less so. Barely a third of the population attends mass on any given Sunday, with somewhat higher figures on Christmas and Easter. Every other measure of religiosity shows the same trend: Poland is secularizing with stunning speed.

The Church appears to be extremely powerful now because it is so closely tied to the current far-right nationalist government. But that is an extremely superficial strength.When the clergy opted for an alliance with the ruling party, they began a process that can only end badly for them. Since partisan political messages have grown routine and most priests have abandoned even the pretense of impartiality, those opposed to the current government (that is, a majority of Poles) have found it intolerable to attend mass. Church attendance and support for the ruling party are roughly at the same level, and they will survive or collapse together.

The claim that there was a time when the Church served as a genuinely national institution, across all partisan lines, was always more myth than reality. But now it isn’t even a myth. The popularity of Kler might be the straw to break the camel’s back of Catholic hegemony, insofar as it brings to the open something that’s been happening for many years.

Polish Catholics worry about following the “Irish path,” referring to the sudden secularization of that country after the clerical sex-abuse scandals broke. In fact, I think the Church will be lucky if it maintains even Irish levels of support over the coming decades. Catholicism is already a sectarian faith in Poland, encompassing only the supporters of one political party. When the current regime loses power—and it must, eventually—the Church will come down with it. In reality, it doesn’t have that much space left to fall.

About Author

Brian Porter-Szucs

Brian Porter-Szucs is a Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where he specializes in the history of Poland, Catholicism, and modern economic thought.