Sacrum contra profanum

It is wrong to think that religious wars in Europe belong to the deep past. In Poland there is a perpetual conflict on the religious background. Maybe without blood but it is not rare to use cross to beat the enemy.

Two, unequally armed armies stand against each other.

The first one insists deeply that Poland should be a Roman Catholic country, and faith and holy cross are the basic attributes of a true Polish patriot. Catholic camp – represented by the Catholic Church, right-wing, national and Christian political parties, organizations and some part of the society – has at its disposal a powerful weapon in the form of the state and its institutions. And these enforce through their decisions and legislation a Catholic education and blurring in the state practice the boundary between sacrum and profanum.

Catholic fanatics in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, 2012

On the other side of the barricade stand the pro-secular political parties and organizations, which promote secular character of the state and respect of its ideological neutrality. And also this part of the Polish society, which, despite feeling a Catholic, speaks out against the excessive influence of the Church on the state and public affairs. Their main weapon is besides parliament – Internet and demonstrations.

March for Secularity, Cracow 

Unlike Western Europe, Poland has still many religious problems which need to be resolved. Excessive influence of the Catholic Church and religion manifests itself in the fact that Polish doctor or pharmacist may – following his catholic conscience – refuse woman an abortion (even in the case of danger to her life or health) or selling contraceptives (!). Former ultra-Catholic minister of justice prefered Polish women to be beaten and raped by their husbands than to permit the possibility of homosexual marriage (in terms of the “Convention for the Suppression of Violence against Women”, which, however, the Polish government signed). A student refusing to learn the catholic religion in the public school, can be reviled and humiliated.

  Catholic Poland

And all this is justified by the stereotype that all Poles are Roman Catholics. There is a grain of truth, because about 95% of Poles admit to being Catholics. Whatever it means. Another thing is that it is not easy to cease to be a Catholic in Poland. Church made the procedure of apostasy very complicated to effectively discourage those who want to leave its structures. The average Polish Catholic (baptized at the age where you do not have anything to say yet) tend to believe in God, but a deeper understanding of religious dogma is rather hard to him, and compliance with the 10 commandments makes a lot of difficulties. Regarding a high level of looseness of morality (avoiding marriage, premarital sex, contraception, support for in-vitro, etc.) and declining level of participation in masses and religious ceremonies, the term “Catholic” is becoming increasingly vague and unclear. Certainly it does not mean unconditional acceptance of all religious orders and guidance of the Church.

Corpus Christi procession

So common (and imposed by certain forces) stereotype of a Pole-Catholic practically had been appreciated only in the 19th century, at a time when after partitions Poles lost their state. But for few centuries Poland – or more precisely Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – was a multi-national and multi-religious country. Reaching far to the east, the state had among its inhabitants half of Orthodox Catholics and Lutherans and Calvinists were also very quite numbered. Equality and freedom of religion were guaranteed by Polish rulers, who did not want to be rulers of conscience. It was also guaranteed in the first European legislation affecting religious liberty – in the Confederation of Warsaw of 1575. No wonder that Commonwealth was famous for its tolerance and gave shelter for persecuted Czech Hussites and Dutch Mennonites (read: Netherlands in Zulawy). Photo: Warsaw Confederation Act.

The situation began to change only in the second half of the 17th century with the progressive counter-reformation and the threat of the Protestant Sweden and Orthodox Russia. The result of this was tight connection of the Polish identity with Roman Catholicism. You can risk saying that from that moment Catholicism had ceased to be solely a matter of faith, and had become a tool of defense against a variety of threats. (And for many plays this role until today.)

Pulaski at Czestochowa, painted by Joseph Chełmoński. On the banner – the cult statue of Our Lady of Czestochowa

This trend was strengthened in 19th century, when Poland didn’t exist anymore on the map. But it is easy to understand it – when Russians built in Warsaw one Orthodox Church after one, just in Catholic churches Poles sought substitute for a free country, and Catholic religion became the guardian of Polish identity. It was then that following credo of “real Pole” appeared:

Only under the cross / Only under this sign / Poland is Poland / And Pole – a Pole.

After Poland regained independence, in the Second Republic (1918 – 1945), a unification of Catholicism and Polish patriotism was strongly promoted by the national-democratic movement under the Roman Dmowski leadership. His ideas gained a lot of popularity and are very vital until today. However, in pre-war Poland only 65% of citizens were Catholics, so excluding dissenters from Polish patriots was incredibly unfair.

Religious wars – the beginning

During Second World War and the communist regime (1945 – 1989) Catholic religion again became the mainstay of Polish identity and patriotism. This was supported by the intense secularization of the country by the communist’s authorities, regarded by most of Poles as “foreign” (Polish People’s Republic was not seen as a sovereign state). Relations of the Church and the communists took the character of a religious war, but that war was initiated by the authorities. Since they started secularization of the country (they removed religion from the schools for instance), all forms of religion activity among the people belonging to the leading communist party (PZPR) and the ruling elite were not welcome. Catholic Church became persecuted and his leader Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski was even imprisoned in the darkest years 1953– 1956.

The grave of actor Zbigniew Cybulski in Katowice. The communist authorities refused the Catholic funeral of Polish cinema superstar to accept, and hide the presence of priests in television news

After the communism fall (1989) and establishment of the Third Republic, the situation began to change and the pendulum swing the other side. It can be said that new fronts of religious struggle were opened. One of such newly formed fronts became in 1997 the struggle for the preamble and the provisions of the Constitution of the Third Republic. Work on it took a long time because Church didn’t want to accept the principle of separation between Church and state and the ideological neutrality of the latter. Finally, the concept of “neutrality” has been replaced by the compromise “impartiality”. So the Article 25 of the Constitution (passed by the parliament at April 2, 1997) states that:

Public authorities in the Polish Republic keep impartiality in matters of religious, philosophical and ideological beliefs, ensuring the freedom of expression them in a public life.

Even greater problem arose while creating the preamble – the main question was appealing to God (invocatio Dei). Happily a neutral option won and today the corresponding record is as follows:

(…) All citizens of the Republic, both those who believe in God as the source of truth, justice, good and beauty, as well as those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources (…)

It turned out, however, that this formula was too difficult to be accepted by the Church, so he launched an intensive campaign for rejectioning new constitution in a constitutional referendum.

Pope John Paul II in Polish parliament, June 11, 1999 

Bishops lost this battle, but in the next one had a decisive victory. This time the battle was around placing the Catholic cross in the council chamber of the Polish parliament (Sejm). This “dramatic” (fall out of the chair) act played out in the night from 19 to 20 October 1997 with the participation of two members of the right-wing party Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS), who hung the cross in deep secrecy, without the consent of the relevant authorities and other parties. It still hangs there alone, being a sad illustration of the violation of the next paragraph of Article 25 of the Constitution, which provides that:

Churches and other religious organizations shall have equal rights.

This cross is a thorn in the side of people supporting religious neutrality of the state, but all attempts to remove it, also undertaken recently by anti-clerical Palikot Movement (Ruch Palikota), failed. It is true that 70% of Poles support the presence of a Catholic cross in parliament, but it still violates the constitution. It is interesting how lawyers justify it: they refer to the will of the majority or consider the cross as part of Polish culture and tradition. The most interesting are opinions suggesting that no parliament authority is entitled to take the decision to remove the cross. The fact that those who hung the cross were also not entitled to do it is not a reason.

Photo: Catholic cross in Polish parliament.

Catholic Cross became present in state and local government institutions and public schools, and all students’ protests demanding his removal (a fact that took place in 2007 in one of the high schools in Wroclaw) are ineffective.

Religious state

Decade of the 90s was a period, in which Poland took on more and more features of a religious state. Catholic forces gained a powerful ally of the Polish state in that matter. Catholic Church was guaranteed a privileged position (for more details on this subject go to: Catholic Church in III RP).

Mass with the participation of the Polish Army

And teaching of religion in schools was introduced already in 1990, with violation of the law. What’s more, the state agreed (already in 2007) to take into account assessments of religion on the school certificate. Although students may not attend to religion course, it is often forced by pressure or even blackmail. They can also choose ethics, but teaching of ethics in schools is a fiction. It was not surprising that teaching “of religions” very quickly evolved into a simple catechesis. At the same time the Polish state can’t influence the way of teaching and who teaches as voluntarily gave up any control. All depends on bishop now.  As students who do not attend those lessons are persecuted, many of them give up only for the sake of peace. On the photo: religion textbook for class 5. Title of the book: “I believe in God” and the cover clearly indicate the Catholic catechism.

What happens in Polish public schools is openly described by students and teachers. Here are a few examples taken from letters to “Gazeta Wyborcza”.

Small town in the southern Poland, high school. Nobody ever heard there that you can choose ethics instead of religion. At least three people in the class don’t want to attend to a religion lesson, but of course there is no alternative. (…) However, when part of the class decides once avoid religion, we are all punished – by the headmaster’s order  –  by reduced rate of behavior what stops getting my scholarship granted by the prime minister (a lot of money for a high school student and a great honor).

Seventeen years old girl decided not to proceed with confirmation and… – The priest, as it turned out, talked about my situation with other children in the next religion classes. He told them that for him I am a zero.

I live in a big city and I have the house in elementary school neighborhood. Public, state school. The school is named after a saint, and their children have to sing a hymn to the tune of church hymns. All school events revolve around the church, the majority of trips are trips to shrines, and the children have to attend masses at every opportunity. What’s more! The priest begins and ends [ceremonies] at every school year. There are plenty of such schools like that.

Catechesis in elementary school

And another statement, this time of Alexander Bugla, a philosopher of religion, which, after seven years of teaching religion, has been forbidden teaching because he rejected “taming” children in the spirit of Catholicism. – Priests require calling religious lessons as “catechesis” and begin and end it with Catholic prayers. On the alternative choice of ethics: – In fact, this alternative does not exist. Because the priest warns from the start: you are not at religion course, it means that you are not in the Church, you are out of it. And there is no question of attending ethics. For students, and especially their parents, it is clear that without attending on religion they will not be allowed to receive sacraments, and then they would be stigmatized by the community in which they live, being the person eliminated from the religious life.

Battle of school catechesis has been won by the Church, but it is rather a Pyrrhic victory. The average school lesson of religion looks often like this:  Papers and inflated condoms are flying across the classroom. The boys scream, dance under the table and jump on the benches. Someone pretends attack of epilepsy, someone goes out the window, the next one tries to treat completely helpless catechist with a self-made cigarette. It is usually a secondary school. Sister of the angelic face quotes St. Augustine with inspired voice. Half of the class has headphones on their ears and the rest ostentatiously reads newspapers. This is usually a high school (Loneliness of a catechist, “Polityka”). Frequently students ask whether the priest masturbates. The sacred is profaned and many catechists would love to return to teaching religion in the church catechetical rooms.

(In a survey conducted by the Polish Radio Program 3 on 25 September 2012 – 77% of the listeners voted for removing religion from public schools.)

 Lords of souls

The battle for Catholicity of the souls of Poles is played also by some parties and various organizations. The leading party is Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS – Law and Justice), currently [since October 25th, 2015] ruling overt the country. In the quasi exposé, delivered in September 2012, its president Jaroslaw Kaczynski said that he will care for “ensuring by the law that the Polish language, religion and history are taught full-time in all schools.” This is how the real Polish patriot should be raised.

Chairman of the Law and Justice (PiS) party Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Pope Benedict XVI. In the background – president Lech Kaczynski.

One of the parties intensivly promoting Catholic Poland is the National Rebirth of Poland (Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski). Fortunately, a small one.

Propaganda poster of NOP with slogan: “Great Catholic Poland”

To the most severe environments promoting Catholicism and patriotic values belongs Radio Maryja from Torun. Religious ideas and catholic nationalism are expressed along with anti-Semitic, anti-EU, anti-liberal, homophobic and xenophobic slogans. The main audiences of the RM are elderly, poorly educated and poorest people, in the religious sphere representing primitive folk Catholicism (ritual). (They are commonly called “mohairs” as the name comes from mohairs caps worn by older women.) According to Wikipedia: – “In the opinion of critics, Radio Maria is based on stereotypes and human ignorance and uses for [its purposes] frustration of people injured in a result of political changes”. Nationwide coverage of the radio station supports a great impact on the society, which is well aware that opinions shared by RM are accepted by a large group of Polish catholic priests. On the photo above listeners of “Radio Maryja”.

Radio Maryja radiostation in Torun

And finally, the promoters of the idea of the Catholic Poland are youth organizations of a national-Catholic character. Such as the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska) – a Polish nationalist youth group, which agenda declares that its aim is to raise Polish youth in a Catholic and patriotic spirit. A similar goal promotes the National-Radical Camp, an ideological heir to the Roman Dmowski ideology, whose aim is to “work on the revival of national and Catholic values”.  Since 2010 the two groups organized Independence March (at November 11, which is a national holiday). Although it is difficult to pull these marches into a religious war, it is significant that on their banners appeared such slogans as “God, Honor, Country” and “Roman Dmowski liberator of Poland”.

Independence March 2010 / fot. Adam Kliczek, Wikipedia 

Since both organizations were recognized by left-wing organizations as fascists (they are anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist and sometimes refer to the fascist symbolism), their marches led to literal battles with leftist coalition called “Agreement on November 11”. In 2011 it resulted in a serious battle in the streets of Warsaw. Fortunately All-Polish Youth also uses peaceful methods of dealing with promoters of the idea of a secular state. During the March of Secularism in Cracow (September 15, 2012) they attacked the participants of the march with… leaflets encouraging for visiting the psychiatrist. But maybe you need a psychiatrist elsewhere?

March for the enthronement of Christ on the King of Poland 

With identifying Polish culture with Catholicism many right-wing and national-catholic organizations try to usurp a monopoly on patriotism. It is – by the way – also a martyrdom patriotism, emphasizing Polish suffers and the constant threat from Russia, Germany and, of course, godless, corrupt European Union.

Warriors of secularity

Of course, such intensive usurpation of the right to be a real Pole, and the earlier process of transforming Poland into a religious state, could not stay without reaction and protests of people who care about the ideological neutrality of the country, secularity and respecting the right to express their ideological views. What is guaranteed by the constitution (see the quote above).

The best example of the practice is the case of a singer Dorota Rabczewska “Doda”. For the statement that she “more believes in dinosaurs than the Bible, as it is hard to believe in something  written by the drunk with wine and smoking some herbs”  she was sentenced to a fine of 5000 zł. Her former boyfriend Adam Darski “Nergal”, a leader of death metal band Behemoth, who was also accused of insulting religious feelings. At the concert in 2007 Darski tore the Bible, calling it a “book of lies”, and the Catholic Church – “the most murderous cult.” In this case the court found that it was only a form of artistic expression but the case is not over yet. But in a matter of insulting feelings also representatives of the Church are not without guilt. A couple of years ago the Primate Jozef Glemp called atheists as barking mongrels. On the photo: Nergal.

Doda and Nergal cases show profound changes in the Polish society, as until recently it was unlikely to go ahead and publicly express similar views. The Church, especially during the life of the Pope John Paul II, was somehow protected. This does not mean, however, that rationalist and pro-secular environments kept silence. Already in the 90s a lot of atheist organizations appeared, such as the Association of Secular Culture, the Polish Association of Freethinkers of the name of Kazimierz Łyszczyński (who was, by the way, burnt in 17th century for his atheism), and Association for Ideologically Neutral State “Neutrum”. In more recent times the Polish Association of Rationalists and Association of Atheists and Freethinkers were created. Photo: logo of the Polish Association of Rationalists.  

Unfortunately, their coverage and the possibilities are more modest than those of the Catholic army supported by the state. Main activities rely on running websites, helping in the procedures of apostasy and organizing marches and demonstrations promoting atheism and secularity. Every year a March of Secularism (a part of European marches “For a secular Europe”) is held  in Cracow.

March of Secularism in Cracow, 2012

In 2012 the slogans from the banners were for example:  “Carry your cross by yourself, do not toss another”; “Secular Poland, secular law”; “Poland secular, not Catholic”; “Free school – religion back to the church”; “Secular state, no serfdom”. The marchers demanded, among other things, equal treatment of believers and non-believers, removing the article of insulting religious feelings, exclusion of religion from the public schools, not subsidizing churches from the state budget. Those actions are supported by feminist organizations, which every year around March 8, the Women’s Day, organize so-called “manifas” (abbreviation word of “manifestation”).

In the parliament the idea of a secular state is traditionally (though with varying success and commitment) promoted by the left-wing parties. Of course, all these activities are faced with an acute reaction of the Catholic Church, who believes that “the Church is systematically attacked by various libertarians, atheists and masons” (this statement was included in a Pastoral Letter of Archbishop Jozef Michalik in February 2012). Nihil novi.

War of the cross – continued

Society itself for a long time kept silence and passivity. It was broken only by events related to the plane crash near Smolensk on April 10, 2010, that killed President Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria Kaczynska and a group of parliamentarians, representatives of the highest military authorities, social organizations, etc. In order to commemorate the victims of the disaster and insisting on building a memorial there, a group of scouts placed illegally a wooden cross in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. This day – April 15, 2012 – started another Polish war of the cross. For few months a crowd of fanatical Catholics, largely represented by Radio Maryja listeners, blocked successfully its removal. Their behavior was confronted with reaction of opponents of the presence of the cross in front of the Presidential Palace, which were not necessarily atheists. Confrontation of the two attitudes often turned into a disgraceful quarrels or even fights (old people can be quite aggressive sometimes!). On the night August 9 “Operation Cross” had place. Thousands of God believers and unbelievers, called by the Facebook, met together to show their lack of the acceptance of the cross defense. Never before such massive demonstration / happening against the Catholic fanatics happened in the Third Republic. The participants presented explicitly anti-Church slogans, like: “Down the Crusaders”, “Cross to the church. Poland is a secular country. Respect for the Constitution” and “Down with crosses, burn mohairs” (actually they wrote mistakenly “mochairs”). On that day taboo associated with the Church and religion was finally broken.

Operation “Cross”: “Down with crosses, burn mohairs”

The Smolensk cross is connected with one more thing. Watching the faces of his defenders, contorted with hatred, many Poles for the first time saw a very different Poland. Poland, which existence may not have suspected. Many people were heavily shocked with the view of the wailing people, calling Our Lady for protecting the oppressed homeland, alternately singing patriotic and religious songs, insulting the newly elected President Bronislaw Komorowski, and even calling for killing him (!). The Church certainly did not benefit in this battle, as he could not resolve the conflict. And at some point even literally withdrew before the onslaught of his “sheep”, which did not allow transferring the cross to another location. And from that moment Poland is no longer the same.

President’s Palace, Warsaw – July 2012

Not easy to be an atheist

Submission to the dictates of religion by public and state institutions has a negative impact on the life of its citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs. Some issues – denial of abortion in state hospitals, refusing to sell contraceptives, refusal to refund treatment in vitro, forced catechesis – can affect virtually everyone. But particularly disappointing is living in Poland for an atheist or follower of another religion. Their beliefs are not respected and their opinions are ignored. Irritating is excessive exposure of religiousness by the highest state authorities. Annoying is a common belief that every Pole is a Catholic (typical question:  – Child goes to class II? Oh, that communion is in the next year?).  Lack of tolerance for atheist-agnostic attitudes hurts, along with appropriation by the Church all state ceremonies and public holidays. On the photo: President Bronisław Komorowski and Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz.

It was clearly expressed by Joanna Rutkowska: – I feel like a patriot, and I love Poland, but my country has not found a way to make me feel belonging to state – every time I go on Pilsudski Square [she means a state holiday], a mass is held there, so for example, I had to handle the Constitution Day at a picnic.

The ever ongoing religious war in Poland can be easily find out in posts on various online forums or in commentaries of YouTube patriotic songs or videoclips. Demands of the Great Catholic Poland are interspersed with insults against non-believers or those who don’t share the extreme political options of the Catholics. This is how the Christian ideal of love is being implemented in Poland.

Catholic Pole – for how long?

In light of the various studies, it appears that the greatest triumphs Polish Catholic Church has already achieved. Their biggest defeat is youth catechesis. Young Poles openly rebel against this model of teaching, which is used in Polish schools. It happens that the whole classes avoid religious courses. According to prof. Józef Baniak, who in 2010 studied the attitudes of young people towards the religion: – In “nationalized church “and the” religious state” young Poles and Catholics can not see a place for themselves and their religiousness. Most likely, they will run away from it even more massively, make apostasy or, as adults, they will avoid sacramental religious services to their own children, educating them in the spirit of humanistic and secular morality and culture” (Adam Szostkiewicz talk about religious young,  And despite the fact that for about 60% of youth religion is still an important part of life, it is no longer the same faith and religion, which was professed by their fathers and grandfathers.

Catholic pilgrims from Wroclaw, 2003

Very interesting are observations of a young foreign journalist Lis Evanstad, who came to Poland before Euro 2012 and recorded the following conversation: – One day I asked a colleague from [a city] Zielona Góra if she is a Catholic. She replied: – Yes, of course. – And do you believe in God? – No, why? Readers on the Facebook explain: “For we are the cultural Catholics, from birth rather than belief or practice.” (,

Moreover, in present Poland occur the same phenomena, which in Western Europe resulted in massive shift away from Christianity: the weakening of faith in the existence of supernatural beings. And it will not help punishing such people like Dorota Rabczewska or intrusive promotion of the archaic model of true Polish patriot: scared of the world (and especially the EU, Russia and Germany) Catholic who seeks refuge in the protection of the Mother of God. However, it won’t be soon that the damaging stereotype of the Catholic Pole forever disappears, faith becomes a private matter of the people without relating to patriotism and religious wars become a past. Photo: March for Secularity, Cracow 2012.

Update (March 2016)

After getting political power by PiS in parliamentary elections in October 2015, the moment of Church and State separation becomes less possible. Both institutions need each other, and moreover, it is officially promoted the archaic model of the Polish patriot, whose essential feature is the deep religiosity. It is unknown whether Polish society will accept such a model, or, in the longer term, will choose the freedom of the conscience.

Renata Głuszek

Published: September 2012 / update: March 2016.

Read also: Catholic Church in III RP, The Poles, a selfportrait, The biggest mystery

Photo: Wikipedia, Renata Głuszek, Adam Kliczek,,,,,

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