Catholic Poland in Post-Christian Europe

Tr@nsit Online

Although we are accustomed to think of European Christianity as a 2000 year old civilization, it was only around the year 1000 that the map of European Christendom became more or less crystallized. Sociologically speaking the core institutions and social forms of Western European Christendom are 1000 years old: the first 500 years as Medieval Latin Christendom and the next 500 years as modern Western Christianity in its post-Reformation multi-denominational forms and in its expanded Western colonial and post-colonial forms. Although one could arguably go back to the alliance between the Carolingian dynasty and the Bishops of Rome, the core of Western Christendom, the Holy Roman Empire with the Papacy as its spiritual head, was established definitively in 962 with the coronation of Otto I, and its internal and external boundaries became fixed around the same time, with the conversion of Norse and Vikings, Magyars, and Western and Eastern Slavs and with the consolidation of the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity in 1054.

As we are entering the third millennium, however, we are witnessing the end of hegemonic European Christianity due to a dual process of advanced secularization in post-Christian Europe and of the increasing globalization of a de-territorialized and de-centered Christianity. Thus, the thousand-year-old association between Christianity and Western European civilization is coming to an end. Western Europe is less and less the core of Christian civilization and Christianity in its most dynamic forms today is less and less European.

The fact that Catholic Poland is “re-joining Europe” at a time when Western Europe is forsaking its Christian civilizational identity offers an opportunity to re-examine the place of Poland in Europe, particularly the patterns of convergence and divergence between Polish and Western European religious developments in their thousand year old common history. In the first part of my presentation, I will examine briefly three epochal moments in this millenarian history:

  • The initial strategic adoption of Christianity by the Piast dynastic rulers in order to incorporate their realm into the emerging system of Western Latin Christendom
  • The divergent development of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a decentralized and religiously pluralistic “aristocratic res publica” at a time when Western European monarchies were consolidating their centralized absolutist rule and subjecting the national churches to state control
  • The revitalization of Catholicism in post-World War II Communist Poland at a time when Western European societies were undergoing drastic processes of secularization

The second part will offer some concluding reflections on what Bishop Pieronek has called “the wonderful opportunity, the difficult challenge and the great apostolic assignment” which European integration entails for Poland and for Polish Catholicism.

The baptism of Poland and its integration in Western Christendom

The Christianization of Poland began as a typical dynastic decision by Prince Mieszko to adopt Latin Christianity as the official cult of the Piast court for the sake of the consolidation of royal power internally and externally. Internally, the replacement of several Slavic tribal cults by a single monotheistic official cult imposed from above helped to integrate the expanding royal domains. Externally, the sacral coronation and the decision to place the Polish Kingdom under the direct protection of the Papacy offered the Piast dynasty geopolitical legitimacy and the symbolic recognition of its borders vis-à-vis its equally expanding royal neighbors: the German Holy Roman Empire to the West, Bohemia to the Southwest, and Kievan Rus to the East. Thus, the year 966 marks symbolically the birth of both the Polish state and Polish Christianity. The Papal elevation of the see of Gniezno to the status of metropolis of an independent Polish ecclesiastical province and the visit of Emperor Otto III to Gniezno in the year 1000 were signs of the incorporation of Poland into the political and cultural system of Latin Christendom.

Miezsko’s adoption of Latin Christianity was to determine the civilizational identity of Poland as an integral part and borderland of Western European civilization, particularly after the Prince of Kievan Rus, Volodymyr, adopted Byzantine Christianity two decades later. In the case of Volodymyr, the decision was made after having openly weighed the potential advantages of Byzantine Christianity, Latin Christianity and Islam as alternative state religions. The “frontier” character of Polish Catholicism and its defense against different versions of Paganism, Orthodoxy and Islam led to an early identification of religious, political, and national cultural identity, which was maintained and reinforced by subsequent historical developments. The actual Christianization of the Polanie proceeded slowly under Papal sponsorship and not without local resistance. It intensified only in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the coming of monastic and mendicant orders from the West. Medieval Poland would thereafter follow general Western European developments.

The Romanization of Western Christendom and the partial triumph of papal supremacy during the Investitures conflicts of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was in many respects tied to monasticism. Along with the spiritual reform of ecclesiastical structures the monastic reform movement brought to Rome greater centralization and the internationalization of papal government. Thereafter, the papacy served not only as the spiritual head but as the key political institution of the medieval system of Western Christendom. Besides its power to consecrate rulers and thus to confer or withdraw legitimacy, the papacy also played the historical function of an international court of arbitration and appeal, guarantor of international treaties, and peacemaker. Indeed, canon law and papal rulings served as the solely recognized authority in medieval international relations.

But the disparate tasks of maintaining spiritual supremacy over all of Christendom, political control over the papal territories, and the right geopolitical balance in foreign policy proved impossible to reconcile in the long run. The concentration of the Renaissance popes upon the consolidation of princely power over central Italy, following the negative experience of the Avignon captivity and the ensuing schisms, led to the loss of spiritual supremacy over much of Christendom after the Protestant Reformation and to the geopolitical marginality of the papacy within the emerging system of nation-states in early modern Europe.

The divergence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from Western European absolutist trends

Historically the formation of the modern European system of states, the Westphalian system that later gained worldwide expansion, and the post-Reformation dissolution of Western Christendom into competing churches were interrelated and reciprocally conditioned processes. In the early absolutist phase practically every state and church in Europe tried to reproduce the model of Christendom according to the principle cuius regio eius religio, which de facto meant that the national churches fell under the caesaropapist control of the absolutist state.

Even before the triumph of Erastian principles in Protestant countries, Spain’s Catholic Kings had been able to obtain from the papacy the series of royal privileges known as Patronato Real that allowed them to transform the Catholic Church in Spain and its colonies into an organ of state administration. Everywhere the alliance of national hierarchy and national ruler had the same effect. As Benedict Anderson has pointed out, the modern nation has to be understood as the combined successor of the dynastic monarchy as political system and of the church as a religious community. With the dissolution of medieval Christendom, the old transnational sacred community integrated by Latin as a sacred language was transformed into fragmented, pluralized, and territorialized churches. The new state churches functioned as community cults of the absolutist state and as national religious communities integrated by the emerging national vernaculars. The process of nationalization of the state churches, exemplified by the Anglicanization of the Church of England, was most pronounced in Protestant countries, but became generalized also in Catholic and Orthodox countries, as shown by the Gallicanization of the French Catholic Church and by the Russification of the Orthodox Church under Peter the Great.

The divergent development of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth offers the most significant exception to this general modern European trend of centralized state absolutism and identification of church and state. The 1505 Nihil Novi statue established parliamentary (Sejm) limits on royal power. The 1569 Union of Lublin structured the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a decentralized multinational federal aristocratic res publica. The Statue of General Toleration, promulgated by the Confederation of Warsaw in 1573 and passed by the Sejm during the interregnum despite the opposition of the Catholic bishops, included the guarantee that neither force nor compulsion should be used in religious matters. At a time of generalized religious warfare and state repression of dissenting religious minorities in the rest of Europe, the Commonwealth offered an striking example of peaceful coexistence of various Christian churches (Catholic, Lutheran and Orthodox), of toleration of dissenting Christian sects (Calvinists, Anabaptists, Brethren, Anti-Trinitarians and Armenian monophysites) and of religious freedom for non-Christian minorities (Jews, Karaites, and Muslim Tatars). In fact, early modern Poland became a haven for dissenting faiths fleeing generalized religious warfare in Europe. It was at this time that Poland emerged as the largest center of Jewish settlement in the world and would remain so until the Holocaust. Even after the Counter Reformation reasserted Catholic hegemony in Polish culture and the war with Sweden awakened a strong anti-Protestant reaction, Poland still continued to set a striking example of religious tolerance.

But the historical price for the failure of centralized absolutism would be the partition of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century by its absolutist neighbors, Lutheran Prussia, Orthodox Russia and Catholic Austria. Consequently, the nationalization of Polish Catholicism took place in the nineteenth century not as a process of state formation from above, but as a process of resistance from below to foreign state power. Church and nation became identified at a time when the Catholic Church became the only institution able somewhat to cut across the partition of Prussian, Russian, and Austrian Poland. During the 19th century, Catholicism, romantic nationalism and Slavic messianism fused into a new Polish civil religion. At first, this process was mainly restricted to the gentry and the intelligentsia. But in the 1870s, Bismarck’s Kulturkampf and the heavy-handed policies of the Russian administration pushed the Polish peasantry also into the nationalist camp.

Remarkably, the fusion of the Polish national and Catholic identities took place even in the face of reactionary Vatican policies that consistently supported the conservative monarchies and condemned the Polish risings. Nineteenth century Poland avoided the typical Western European patterns of conflicts between the Catholic Church and the secular liberal state, between the church and a secular humanist intelligentsia becoming increasingly anticlerical, and between the church and a socialist workers’ movement turning first anticlerical and then militantly atheist. In fact, the first generations of Polish workers were neither de-christianized nor de-nationalized, at least not to the extent that was common elsewhere. On the contrary, often there was a fusion of class, religious and national identity.

With the establishment of a Polish independent state after World War I, the unity of church and nation began to dissolve. There appeared the standard cleavages between classes, parties and ideologies, while the chauvinism of every nationalism in power began to show its ugly face in its treatment of the large Jewish and Ukrainian minorities. Anti-clericalism, though a mild one by Latin standards, also began to emerge. It appeared in the quarrels between the non-confessional Polish state and the church. It appeared among large sectors of the intelligentsia, which had finally incorporated the Enlightenment as well as the positivist and Marxist critiques of religion. It appeared within the socialist left and within the peasants’ movement led by Wincenty Witos. Had these trends continued, they might have put an end to Polish “exceptionalism.” But they were cut short by World War II and by the renewed experience of partition, foreign occupation and unified historical resistance. The Polish Church found itself once more on the side of the nation, suffering more than its share of the brutal Nazi repression and supporting physically and spiritually the underground.

The divergence of Post-World War II Polish and Western European religious developments

At the very same time when Western European societies were undergoing a drastic, continuous and seemingly permanent process of secularization so that one may speak of an emerging post-Christian Europe, Polish Catholicism underwent an extraordinary revival. All attempts by the communist regime to sever the links between Catholic Church and Polish nation ended in failure. All the strategies of forced secularization from above, used relatively successfully first in the Soviet Union and then throughout Eastern Europe, were also variously tried in Poland albeit with little success. Caesaro-papist control, coercion, socialist re-socialization, the marginalization of religion to a private sphere, all were tried and failed.

Secularist planning through economic development also failed to bring the anticipated results. The expressed hopes of the Gierek era that economic development would have in Poland the same secularizing effects it apparently had in the West were also disappointed. Marxist sociologists of religion had been collecting every promising sign indicating that the laws of secularization were operating also in Poland. But at the end of the Gierek administration most indicators seemed to point rather to a reverse process of de-secularization.

The celebration of the millennium of Polish Christianity in 1966 constituted a turning point in the protracted battle between the Catholic Church and the Communist regime over the minds of the Polish people. The massive effervescent celebration served as the culmination of a plan devised and implemented by Cardinal Wyszynsky upon his release from prison, to keep the church and the nation mobilized, for 26 years!, around the traditional Marian devotion to Our Lady of Czestochowa. It began with the rededication of the nation to the “Queen of Poland” in 1956, followed by the yearly vows of the Great Novena culminating in the 1966 millennium celebrations. The attempt of the regime to upstage the church by organizing competing celebrations of the millennium of Polish statehood failed miserably. The triumph was capped by the annual procession of the Black Madonna to practically every town in Poland, leading up to the celebration of the ninth centenary of the martyrdom of Saint Stanislaw in 1979.

Not unlike the nineteenth century Polish uprisings, Western European observers viewed the religious effervescence as a hopelessly anachronistic, if not reactionary, expression of the Polish romantically heroic, yet desperate, penchant to resist the march of history. Once again, Polish and Western European developments appeared seriously out of sync. Yet, the Poles again confounded the prevailingZeitgeist. The surprising, some would say miraculous, elevation of Cardinal Wojtyla to the Papacy as John Paul II, his triumphal visit to Poland in 1979, the rise of Solidarity a year later and the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989, bringing to an end the Cold War and the division of East and Western Europe, altered radically the march of history and global geopolitical configurations.

The Integration of Catholic Poland in Post-Christian Europe

According to Bishop Pieronek, “Europe should be accepted as a wonderful opportunity, a difficult challenge and a great apostolic assignment for the Church. It should be obvious that European integration offers Poland “the wonderful opportunity” to share in the privileged benefits of advanced Western European societies, among them, international security and political stability, economic development and high standards of living, liberties and cultural freedom. After two centuries of partitions, foreign occupation, totalitarian terror and captivity, the opportunity to join the exclusive club of advanced capitalist, liberal democratic countries with all the relative guarantees that sharing their fate implies, is indeed wonderful.

It is important to recognize that integration into the EU presents also a “difficult challenge” particularly for many sectors of the Polish economy and society. In the short term at least, the process of adjustment will entail heavy social and economic costs. It is not surprising therefore to find that public opinion polls in the last years show a decrease in the proportion of people in Poland supporting EU membership. Moreover, a closer look at the growth of the “eurosceptics” shows “that there is a clear correlation between residence, age, and education and attitudes toward the EU. Rural dwellers, people resident in the east of the country, and people on low incomes are inclined to express a negative opinion. Integration is most strongly favored by respondents under 24 years of age, the well educated, managers, professionals and students.

I am not concerned in this paper, however, with the kind of “euroscepticism” that is born of a cost-benefit analysis, which is not in principle against European integration per se and that could be persuaded therefore by evidence showing that in the long run the benefits are likely to outweigh the costs, or that a more favorable deal for Poland could be negotiated, or that solidaristic social policies could be implemented to help the social sectors which are likely to carry the brunt of the painful adjustments.

My concern in this paper is with the “europhobes”, with those who are against European integration in principle because of what Europe represents. One could distinguish at least four different types of “europhobes”: those on the communist left who are not against European integration per se, but only against integration into capitalist Europe, and who would therefore be ready for integration after a European social revolution; those who on nationalist grounds are against any type of multinational integration because it limits national sovereignty and is dangerous for national identity and Polish national values; those who are still afraid of German expansionism and view the EU as a front for such expansionism, and may therefore be regarded as a particular variant of the nationalist “europhobes”; finally, there are the Catholic “europhobes”, those who are against European integration because today’s Europe has lost its Christian identity and therefore its secular, materialist, hedonist values represent a threat to Poland’s Catholic identity and values. This is the view held by integralist sectors of Polish Catholicism, such as Radio Maryja, father Tadeusz Rydzyk or Bishop Stanislaw Stefanek. What Catholic “europhobes” fear is the threat of secularization implied by European integration. It is this fear that I would like to address in my concluding remarks.

A Secularization Threat or a Great Apostolic Assignment?

The fear of secularization is not fully unjustified since after all it is one of the fundamental premises of the theory of secularization that the more modern a society the more secular it becomes. Modernization is supposed to be structurally correlated with secularization, used here in the straightforward sense of progressive decline of religious beliefs and practices among the population. Since modernization, in the sense of catching up with the European levels of political, economic, social and cultural development, is one of the goals of European integration, one can anticipate that such a modernization will lead to secularization. This expectation is aptly captured in the heading of Chapter 1 of George Sanford’sPoland. The Conquest of History, “From God’s Playground to Normality. Poland becoming a “normal” European society is after all one of the aims of the “euroenthusiasts”. But the European “norm” of secularization warrants in my view some reflexive scrutiny.

The progressive, though highly uneven, secularization of Europe is an undeniable social fact. An increasing majority of the European population has ceased participating in traditional religious practices, at least on a regular basis, even though they may still maintain relatively high levels of private individual religious beliefs. Moreover, the rates of religiosity vary significantly across Europe. East Germany is by far the least religious country of Europe by any measure, followed at a long distance by the Czech Republic and the Scandinavian countries. At the other extreme, Ireland and Poland are by far the most religious countries of Europe with rates comparable to those of the United States. In general, with the significant exception of France and the Czech Republic, Catholic countries still tend to be more religious than Protestant or mixed countries, such as West Germany and The Netherlands.

But in general, leaving aside the exceptional cases of oversecularization (East Germany, Czech Republic) or undersecularization (Ireland, Poland), for which one could offer ad hoc historicist explanations, the theory would seem to hold well against the European evidence. The core European countries – Great Britain, France, Holland, Germany -, the ones which have led the processes of European modernization, fit well the model of secularization. Yet, even though the drastic secularization of post-World War II Western Europe may be an incontrovertible fact, the standard explanations of the phenomenon in terms of general processes of modernization, by reference to either increasing institutional differentiation, increasing rationality, or increasing individualism, are not persuasive since similar processes of modernization elsewhere (in the United States, or in the cultural areas of other world religions) are not accompanied by the same secularizing results.

We need to entertain seriously the proposition that secularization became a self-fulfilling prophecy in Europe, once large sectors of the population of Western European societies, including the Christian churches, accepted the basic premises of the theory of secularization: that secularization is a teleological process of modern social change; that the more modern a society the more secular it becomes; that “secularity” is “a sign of the times.” If such proposition is correct, then the secularization of Western European societies can be explained better in terms of the triumph of the knowledge regime of secularism, than in terms of structural processes of socio-economic development such as urbanization, education, rationalization, etc.

It is time to abandon the euro-centric view that modern Western European developments, including the secularization of Western Christianity, are general universal processes. The more one adopts a global perspective, the more it becomes obvious that the drastic secularization of Western European societies is a rather exceptional phenomenon, with few parallels elsewhere other than in European settler societies such as New Zealand, Quebec or Uruguay. Such an exceptional phenomenon demands therefore a more particular historical explanation. The collapse of the plausibility structures of European Christianity is so extraordinary that we need a better explanation than simply referring to general processes of modernization. Holding onto the traditional theory of secularization, by contrast, reassures us modern secular Europeans that this collapse was natural, teleological, and quasi-providential. Such a view of secularization tends to make the phenomenon of secularization into something practically inevitable and irreversible. It turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What makes the European situation so unique and exceptional when compared with the rest of the world is precisely the triumph of secularism as a teleological theory of religious development. The ideological critique of religion developed by the Enlightenment and carried out by a series of social movements throughout Europe from the 18th to the 20th century has informed European theories of secularization in such a way that those theories came to function not only as descriptive theories of social processes, but also and more significantly as critical-genealogical theories of religion and as normative-teleological theories of religious development that presupposed religious decline as the telos of history.

In this respect, theories of secularization in Europe have functioned as self-fulfilling prophecies to the extent to which a majority of the population in Europe came to accept the premises of those theories as a depiction of the normal state of affairs and as a projection of future developments. The premise that the more modern and progressive a society becomes the more religion tends to decline, has assumed in Europe the character of a taken-for-granted belief widely shared not only by sociologists of religion but by a majority of the population. The postulate of progressive religious decline has become part of the European definition of the modern situation with real consequences for church religiosity. It is the assumed normality of this state of affairs, that points to the exceptional character of the European situation, a situation which tends to self-reproduce itself and to appear increasingly irreversible, in the absence of either a general religious revival or a radical change in the European Zeitgeist.

It is here where “the great apostolic assignment” proposed by Bishop Pieronek could play a role. Despite some initial ambivalence, at least since the 1996 visit by a delegation of the Polish Bishops to Brussels, the Polish Catholic Church has maintained officially an unambiguous position of support for European integration. Such a position is fully in line with the vision of European unity repeatedly stressed by the Polish Pope. In his 1999 visit to Poland, the Pope stated explicitly his support for Poland’s integration into the European Union in his speech to parliament, as well as in his message to the Polish Bishop’s Conference. According to a February 1998 survey, 84% of the Polish clergy were in favor of accession to the EU, while the corresponding figure among the general population was 64%.

One of the reasons for this positive attitude may be connected with the apostolic assignment that the Polish pope has reserved for the Polish church. As the first Slavic pope in history John Paul II felt a special mission to liberate the Slavic peoples from the communist yoke and to further ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern churches. The fall of the Berlin Wall confirmed him in his mission, now redefined as the reunification and spiritual regeneration of Christian Europe. But his vision had to confront the presence of a stubbornly materialist capitalist Western Europe, the traditional core of Western Christendom, that he came to perceive as increasingly pagan, hedonist and unresponsive to his revivalist message. Frustrated, he turned to Eastern Europe particularly to Catholic Poland, still untouched by capitalist materialism, urging them to serve as the “spiritual reservoir” of Christian Europe, only to find out that Western material goods and materialist values were flooding the Eastern spiritual reservoir.

The Polish Episcopate, however, has accepted the assignment and has repeatedly stressed that one of the goals, which the Catholic Church sees for itself in a united Europe, is the revival of Christianity or “to restore Europe for Christianity.” Such a message can no doubt find resonance in the tradition of Polish messianism. Pragmatically speaking, the conviction that the secularization of Europe is reversible and that therefore the restoration of Christianity is not an anachronistic Quixotic endeavor against the march of history, is the minimal condition of possibility for the evangelistic effort. But sociologically speaking such an evangelistic effort has little chance of success, without a change in the Zeitgeist. Given the loss of demand for religion in Western Europe, the supply of surplus Polish pastoral resources for a European-wide evangelizing effort is unlikely to prove effective. The at best lukewarm, if not outright hostile, European response to John Paul II’s revivalist preaching points to the difficulty of the assignment.

A less ambitious apostolic assignment, however, could have remarkable effects. Let Poland prove the secularization prophecy wrong. Let Poland be Poland. Let Polonia simper fidelis keep faith with its Catholic identity and tradition while succeeding in its European integration, becoming in the process a “normal” European country. In doing so, it could prove that the decline of religion in Europe is not a teleological process necessarily linked with modernization but a historical choice that Europeans have made. A modern religious Poland could perhaps force secular Europeans to rethink their secularist assumptions and realize that it is not so much Poland which is out of sync with Europe, but rather secular Europe which is out of sync with the rest of the world and with global trends. Granted, all of these are merely hypothetical conjectures meant to break the spell which dominant secularism holds over the European mind.

Moreover, even this more modest apostolic assignment of keeping faith with the Polish Catholic tradition may prove too lofty a task. To maintain a tradition under modern conditions demands a constant renewal of this tradition and creative responses to the changing challenges, rather than just a traditionalist defense of the faith against the threats of liberalism, hedonism, and relativism. Religious trends in post-Communist Poland are not encouraging. The Polish Church has squandered much of its authority with its protectionist defense of its institutional power, with its heavy-handed interventions in parliamentary proceedings, in electoral processes and in public debates, with its clerical resistance to give greater autonomy to the laity, and with its mistrust of modern individual freedoms, freedom of conscience as well as intellectual and artistic freedoms. So far, the guidance and charisma of the Polish Pope and the collective effervescence generated by his frequent visits has compensated for some of these deficiencies.

Obviously, only the future will tell whether Polish Catholicism will be up to the opportunity, the challenge, and the task presented by European integration. But, the repeatedly demonstrated power of renewal of Polish Catholicism, a capacity that should not be confused simply with the preservation of a residual and recessive tradition, has confounded skeptics and critics before. It could happen again.


In this and in the next section I follow Jerzy Kloczowski, A History of Polish Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

For further elaboration see José Casanova, “Globalizing Catholicism and the Return to a ‘Universal Church’, in Peter Beyer, ed., Religion im Prozess der Globalisierung (Würzburg: Ergon Verlag, 2001).

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991)

The complex patterns of relations between state, church, society and nation are elaborated further in Jose Casanova,Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Chap. 4.

Elzbieta Stadtmüller, “Polish Perceptions of the European Union in the 1990s” in Karl Cordell, ed., Poland and the European Union (London: Routledge, 2000) p.36.

Stadtmüller, “Polish Perceptions,” p.36.

George Sanford, Poland. The Conquest of History (Amsterdam: OPA, 1999).

Jose Casanova, “Beyond European and American Exceptionalisms: Towards a Global Perspective,” in G. Davie, P. Helas and Linda Woodhead, eds., Predicting Religion. Aldershot: Ashgate 2002).

Grace Davie, Religion in Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

Stadmüller, “Polish Perceptions.”

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