Book chapters

Crossing the Gods:
World Religions and World Politics

By N. J. Demerath III

Rutgers University Press

Copyright, 2001 by N. J. Demerath III All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8135-2924-7

Chapter Two - excerpt

During the 1980s Poland became an inspiration in Eastern Europe and throughout the West because of its successful struggle to overthrow its longtime Communist government. The Polish Catholic Church played a major role, in cooperation with the Solidarity labor movement. But while the story leading up to and culminating in 1989 is often told, I shall focus more on what has occurred since. What has happened to Poland's once potent union of sacred and secular institutions? Where does the Catholic Church now stand—or stand to fall—in Poland today?

Poland: Catholicism as Both Solution and Problem

There are even Polish jokes in Poland. Question: How many Poles does it take to change the world? Answer: one. Of course, part of the humor is a matter of pride in playing off of the Polish jokes whose answers involve so many Poles. But another part of the humor suffers in translation across both cultures and time. So does the punch line. In the 1970s the solitary referent might well have been the new Polish Pope John Paul II, the former Cardinal Wojtyla of Kraków. But by the late 1980s another figure fit so perfectly that the joke needed no explanation in Poland or in much of the West generally. This was Lech Walesa, the former shipyard worker in Gdansk who won a Nobel Peace Prize for leading the Solidarity workers' movement that ultimately brought down the Communist government put in place by the Soviets just after World War II.

But it was really more than a one-man job. Walesa and Solidarity needed help, and they got a great deal of it from the Polish Catholic Church. Whereas Catholicism was systematically suppressed in other Eastern European countries behind the Iron Curtain, the Polish Church had been allowed to continue functioning as a kind of safety valve to relieve pressure on the unpopular Communist regime. It was virtually the only institution in Polish society that retained some independent public stature. As a result, when John Paul II began to broker a cooperative relationship between the Church and Solidarity in 1979, some saw it as a heaven-sent collaboration. It also sparked widespread discussion of a new concept, "civil society," which referred to those autonomous organizations that operated between the family and the state and gave new hope for freedom around the globe—though some of that hope has gradually given way to reconsideration and debate in Poland and else where, as I shall elaborate in the second part of the book.[1]

Poland's struggle to overthrow Communism from 1979 to 1989 has been well and often chronicled.[2] Solidarity provided the driving force behind the surging political movement. The Catholic Church supplied a crucial legitimacy that extended the cause far beyond the reach of a la bor union and allowed it to mobilize support from every segment of the populace. In 1989 the communists vacated the government and left it in the hands of Solidarity itself. In the first national elections in half a century, Lech Walesa was elected president.

But Walesa's victory was not the near unanimous anointment it was often assumed to be outside of Poland. No sooner did the Communists fall and Solidarity win than old conflicts began to resurface among the Polish citizenry at large. To many, Walesa quickly lost his charisma and reverted to working-class form as an unkempt rube with few of the skills necessary to lead a nation, as opposed to a movement. Heading down the electoral stretch, the outcome was decidedly unclear. At this point, Walesa again sought support from his prior ally in the struggle, the Catholic Church. Somewhat reluctantly, it delivered. With Catholic endorsement, Walesa won by a narrow margin; without Catholic support, he might have lost by a wide one.

At that point, Polish Catholicism was highly respected and very popular. Once its support of Solidarity through the 1980s was added to its role as an alternative institution over almost two centuries of foreign rule, the Church was perceived as not just a religious agency but the one continuous keeper of the national flame during a half-century of deep travail at the hands of outsiders.

World War II cost six million Polish lives. As a grotesque capstone to the Nazi occupation during World War II, Hitler's parting gesture in 1944 was to completely raze the central city of Warsaw in a spasm of spite and rage that involved a month of full-time destruction and some forty thousand deaths. When Allied troops arrived shortly thereafter, it was said that the only sounds were those of rats scurrying in the rubble.

Following the war, the city was hastily rebuilt, and some say with equal irrationality by an architecturally challenged Communist regime that confused sheer size with style. My visitor's home base—Warsaw University's Institute of Sociology—now occupies a building quickly constructed over the uncleared ruins of the old secret police headquarters, most likely with bodies still buried in the inaccessible basement. But building reconstruction was among the least of the Communist sins from the standpoint of most Poles. The country had exchanged one occupying force for another. Life continued to be drab, scant, and rigid in its constraints. Solidarity's victory in 1989 was akin to a spring sunrise following a winter night of fifty years. During my visit only a few years later, I took a streetcar across Warsaw with a young academic who suddenly pointed to a neighborhood market and said, "It is hard to believe how much life has changed for the better. I spent my entire youth standing in line—often at that very store—hoping to get the bare necessities for my family. Now there are no lines and no shortages of at least the essentials."

The current economic situation is not as upbeat as this may sug gest, as salaries generally trail price increases. Still, Poland's quick shift to capitalism has been an inspiration to Eastern Europe, not to mention Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. There is now a Western glitz to shopping along Warsaw's equivalent of New York's Fifth Avenue, though the shelves of neighborhood grocers were conspicuously understocked. Meanwhile, the tilt away from Communism and in the direction of the West is seen in other ways. Imagine a national curriculum in the social sciences that turned virtually overnight from Marxist to non-Marxist. The shift in textbooks, let alone interpretive frameworks, was a wrench for teachers and students alike.

There was also another sort of revisionism afoot, this one concerning religion. It was not just that Catholicism had given legitimacy to Solidarity, but Solidarity had given legitimacy to Catholicism. Because of the Solidarity-enhanced stature of the Catholic Church, Catholicism became a criterion of national identity. To be Polish was to be Catholic; supporting the new Poland involved attending the old services. But there was now a tendency to forget that Catholicism was not the only Polish religion, and certainly not the only religion that had played a major role in Polish history.[3] It is true that Polish history is elusive, since the country's borders have shifted with virtually every war over some two hundred years. There have been times, however, when Poland was 40 percent non-Catholic and included large Lutheran and Jewish communities.

On the eve of World War II, Poland's 3.5 million Jews formed the largest Jewish community in Europe. This community bore the major brunt of the Holocaust that killed millions of Jews—along with substantial numbers of Romanies (known pejoratively as Gypsies) and many Christians who seemed threats or nuisances to the Nazi occupation.[4] Today it is hard to know how many Jews remain in Poland. Estimates range from five thousand to thirty thousand, but in a country where Catholicism is so dominant, many Jews conceal their identities; others have had their Jewishness concealed from them, only to discover it accidentally. Now there are stirrings of a new Jewish consciousness, aided by Jewish organizations from outside the country that have sparked some internal resentment. Not long ago a telephone hotline was set up to allow people to seek anonymous counsel concerning their identity. Calls have greatly exceeded anyone's expectations.

In the meantime, anti-Semitism remains virulent among roughly a quarter of the Polish population according to recent surveys. In April 1997, following an act of Parliament to restore Jewish properties confiscated during World War II, Warsaw's last remaining synagogue was set on fire two days after a bomb threat against offices of a Jewish foundation next door. Following parliamentary elections later that fall, a prominent Catholic priest used a sermon to argue that the newly appointed foreign minister should be excluded from office as a Jew.

Catholicism and Politics in the Revolutionary Aftermath

We have already seen how Brazilian Catholicism returned to a more traditional religious role with the restoration of democracy in the mid-1980s. In some ways, Polish Catholicism has experienced a similar process. But this did not occur overnight. Initially, the Church's successful collaboration in bringing down Communism left Catholicism not only riding high but aiming higher. Subsequently, it seems to have aimed too high and converted widespread adulation into considerable alienation. This resumes a long tradition of anticlericalism on the part of a laity that was fearful of the Church and a brand of impersonal, hierarchical, and authoritarian power that was often ecclesiastically self-serving if not outright corrupt.[5]

On a rainy day in Krakow, I was waiting at a neighborhood bus stop with a Polish professor who pointed at the adjacent lot containing an old frame hall and a brand new brick building: "That's our parish church. Just after 1989, the priests announced that it was now time to raise money for a new building. The economy was still in shambles and everyone was pretty destitute. Nevertheless we all scrimped and struggled to raise enough for the new building. But it was only then that the priests announced that the new building was for their quarters; the church is still the same drafty, dilapidated structure." Such incidents don't help the Church's image. Nor does the cynical Polish adage that if you want your son to live the good life and drive a Mercedes don't send him into law or medicine, but get him into the priesthood. Perhaps this accounts for Poland's surfeit of priests, in contrast to the shortages that plague the Church elsewhere in the West.

But there is another, more political reason for the rising disenchantment. Almost immediately after the new government was formed in 1989, the Catholic ecclesiastical leadership began to demand religion instruction in the public schools and government action that would effectively ban both elective abortion and divorce. After calling in its markers with President Walesa whom it helped elect, the Church won two out of three. Catechistic instruction in the schools continues to be widely accepted, even though it was implemented against the better judgment of the minister of education. However, the new limits on abortion were never popular to begin with and gradually became less so. As another observer has noted: "In Poland before 1989, one frequently heard the phrase `the Church and us against them'; now one is as likely to hear the phrase `the Church and them against us.' "[6]

In fact, a liberalization of abortion was among the first actions of Poland's new President Kwasniewski in 1996—just a few months after this Western-tilting former Communist had defeated Walesa himself. The liberal statute was subsequently overturned in the courts, but the issue remains on the public agenda, especially for women, many of whom are forced into the role of "abortion tourists" elsewhere. Yet Catholic officials were far less active in Walesa's campaign in 1996 than they had been in 1989. This was more a tactical decision to ward off growing disaffection than the result of any affection for Kwasniewski. His relations with the Church have been decidedly chilly. He conspicuously omitted the phrase "So help me God" from his oath of office; the Church denied him a burial plot for his mother. Kwasniewski's party suffered heavy losses in the 1997 parliamentary elections to a reborn and reconfigured Solidarity—ironically a case of an ex-Communist and probusiness coalition losing to an ex—labor union faction. But the Church gained little in the bargain. Surveys show that—while some three-quarters of the population agree that Catholicism is a major pillar of society and have no objection to religion in the schools—a majority believe that the Church ought to stay out of politics, a sentiment even shared by two-thirds of those who regularly attend church. Kwasniewski was easily reelected in 2000.

All of this comes at a time when the Church remains very much involved in politics as a way of protecting itself from sliding down the slippery slope to secularity that has characterized Western European religion. Italy offers an especially foreboding example, where the Catholic Church has lost much of its once commanding influence. As early as 1981, two-thirds of the population explicitly disobeyed its injunctions in voting to legalize divorce and abortion, and by 1984 the state and the Vatican had negotiated a new concordat that greatly diminished the latter's formal standing. Aware of such trends, the Polish Church has renegotiated a Polish concordat with the Vatican. But ratification by the Polish Parliament was delayed by a wariness of the document's stress on Catholicism as the dominant Polish religion with attendant political and property rights.

Although Parliament did pass a law requiring the media to respect "Christian values," action on a new Polish constitution was postponed until April 1997 in large part because of religion. Despite considerable opposition, "the Church" (in the person of Cardinal Józef Glemp and his various bishops) finally secured inclusion of the old language from the 1921 Constitution: "The Roman Catholic faith, being the religion of the vast majority of the nation, has a leading position in the state among denominations with equal rights."

To critics, this sounds a bit reminiscent of George Orwell's fable Animal Farm, where some animals are more equal than others. Meanwhile, there may be a self-defeating boomerang effect in the Catholic leadership's efforts to have the nation as a whole invoke God as its highest loyalty, to pressure the state into its own concordat with the Vatican, to restrict if not illegalize abortion and divorce, and to secure economic privileges to the Church and its priesthood that are denied other faiths.[7] This is important background to the decline in the Church's overall approval ratings from close to 90 percent in 1989 to 57 percent in l995.[8] As one of my interviewees put it, "They want too much, and they are making their business things that are not. By pushing too far into the private sphere, they are jeopardizing the public sense of community they once helped to build."

What then does it mean that more than 90 percent of Poles are Catholics? According to one observer-respondent, "There really are two types: the `religious Catholics' and the `family Catholics.' "But even the former vary. As another put it, "Being religious in Poland means one and only one thing—attending church on Sunday." The proportion claiming regular church attendance is well over 60 percent—an astonishingly high figure compared to countries in Western Europe or even the United States. While some experts expect the percentage to begin to decline, it has remained stubbornly resistant. At the same time, there are also religious Catholics who are more than just weekly attendees. Poland hosts a fervent Catholic renewal movement that is Bible-reading and pietistic, even if small and somewhat marginal within the population at large.

Meanwhile, what is a "family Catholic"? According to my respondent, these are not just people who think of the Trinity as Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—though many do. Family Catholics see the Church as an ethical ally in raising children at a time when youth are seen as anarchical, anomic, or perhaps worst of all postmodern. Youth are often depicted as lurching between meaningless self-indulgence and an intense enthrallment to the spirit of the moment. As one interviewee put it, "Many parents believe—or at least believe they believe—because they need the Church as an ally." They approve of religious instruction in the public schools not so much because it is religious as such but because any moral port will suffice in a relativistic storm. These are adherents who lean upon the Church even as they are suspicious of it, followers who seek out its communality even as they are recoil from its hierarchical verticality.

But perhaps there is a third form of Catholicism as well. While teaching a class at Warsaw University, I asked the students to talk a bit about their own religiosity. They all said they were Catholics but beyond that seemed puzzled, reticent, and not a little embarrassed. I wondered if the distinction between religious Jews and cultural Jews might be applicable? At that suggestion, they visibly brightened and clamored to speak. That was precisely it; they were cultural Catholics. They weren't really believers, and while they attended church at least sporadically, they had a good deal of contempt for some of the Church officials and policies. Still, Catholicism was part of their national and family cultural heritage, and they were proud of what the Church had done to help free Poland from the Communist regime.[9]

Today the phrase "cultural Catholicism" resonates throughout Western Europe. As Poland moves deeper into the Western economic and political orbit, this may be a religious concomitant. Certainly it is a far different way of reducing the possibility of religious hegemony than was recently demonstrated by nearby Russia to the east. Whereas Poland's response involves a voluntary cultural shift, Russia's answer as of 1997 took the form of draconian legislation that would essentially outlaw all but a few accepted religions, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims the allegiance of half the population but will itself be placed under state controls. Aimed ostensibly at foreign sects and cults and their proselytizing, the action places all religions on guard in violation of the religious rights guaranteed under Russia's 1993 Constitution. Despite the efforts of some members of Poland's Catholic hierarchy, Polish politics seem to be working in a more modern—perhaps even postmodern—direction.


1. Wlodzimierz Wesolowski, "The Nature of Social Ties and the Future of Postcommunist Society: Poland After Solidarity," in Civil Society: Theory, History, and Comparison, ed. John A. Hall (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995).
2. A. Arato, "Civil Society against the State: Poland, 1980—1," Telos 47 (1981); Michael Patrick, Politics and Religion in Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991); Z. Pelczynski, "Solidarity and the Rebirth of Civil Society," in Civil Society and the State, ed. J. Keane (London: Verso Publishers, 1988); Jose Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).
3. Leonard T. Volenski and Halina Grzymala-Mosczynska, "Religious Pluralism in Poland," America 176 (February l997).
4. Eva Hoffman, Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).
5. Daniel Passent, "Unelected Powerhouses: Poles Seek a Catholic Democracy and Voters Rebuff Bishops," Tiempo Mundial, JunE 3, 1996.
6. Eileen Barker, "But Who's Going to Win? National and Minority Religions in Post-Communist Society," in New Religious Phenomena in Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Irena Borowik and Grzegorz Babinki (Krakow: Nomos, 1997).
7. Sabrina P. Ramet, Whose Democracy? Nationalism, Religion, and the Doctrine of Collective Rights in Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Oxford: Lanham and Littlefield, 1997),
8. Halina Grzymala-Mosczynska, "Established Religions vs. New Religions: Social Perceptions and Legal Consequences," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 33 (l):69—73.
9. Tadeusz Doktor, "The `New Age' World View of Polish Students," Social Compass 46 (2):215—224.

N. J. Demerath III is a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of ten books, among them Sacred Companies: Organizational Aspects of Religion and Religious Aspects of Organizations and A Bridging of Faiths: Religion and Politics in a New England City. He is the immediate past president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Published by Rutgers University Press, New Brunswich, NJ -;
Price $25.00 Excerpt reprinted by permission.


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