Poland as an Anomaly in Church–State Relations?

The Roman Catholic Church in Poland continues to be the most politically influential church in the Christian world. It has achieved most of its policy goals, including the effective ban on abortion. The church is a major political figure. Priests have blessed soccer games – and they helped ensure Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2004. Thirty years after the collapse of communism, it continues to demand policies, and secular governments continue to accede to its demands.
Elsewhere in the world, the Catholic Church has lost much of its policy influence. In Africa and Latin America, it competes with increasingly popular Protestant denominations, such as Pentecostals and evangelicals. In Europe itself, the church has suffered enormous loss of moral authority, as in Ireland. Accordingly, the policy influence of the Irish church has disappeared, as the recent referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion demonstrate. And in other overwhelmingly Catholic countries, such as the Philippines, governments openly defy the church and its teachings. Religious representatives have been roundly ignored – or even castigated, by politicians and commentators alike, for even voicing their concerns. When in 2010 the Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet expressed his opposition to abortion (a stance the Roman Catholic Church has consistently advocated for decades), the public reaction in Canada was furious at this inappropriate attempt to influence state affairs.

So what makes the Polish church so powerful politically? Put simply, its ability to work behind the scenes. The most influential churches do not rely on pressure at the ballot box or on partisan coalitions. Instead, they gain direct institutional access, essentially sharing sovereignty with secular governments. Such access can mean helping to write constitutions and everyday legislation, having a direct input into policy making and policy enforcement, vetting secular state officials and even running entire swathes of government. The channels of institutional access may vary considerably: actively participating in policy discussions and formulating legislative bills in special commissions, influencing personnel decisions and taking part in national negotiations during regime transitions. Churches ironically gain their greatest political advantage when they can appear to be above petty politics – exerting their influence in secret meetings and the back rooms of parliament, rather than through public pressure at the ballot box.

A church’s ability to enter these quiet corridors of power depends on its historical record of defending the nation – and thus gaining moral authority, the identification of the church with national interest. Churches with such high moral authority are seen as impartial, trusted and credible representatives of the nation, allowing them to mobilize society beyond religious observance. This trust placed in a church does not equate demand for church influence on politics, but it indicates widespread identification of the church with the common good. For example, several Polish bishops acted as both mediators and national representatives during the Round Table negotiations in 1989, and their participation was widely accepted (and sought) by both the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR, the communist party) and its democratic opposition.

In turn, the moral authority of churches rests on their identification with the nation. In Poland, the construction of a national narrative of the church defending and identifying with the Polish nation, of the fusion of religious Catholic and national Polish identities, gave the church enormous moral authority. By carefully constructing the myth of ‘Pole = Catholic’, the church gained enormous moral authority in Poland as a defender of society, of national interest and of the country’s cultural and historical heritage.

This narrative is a rewriting of history: pre-war Poland was only two-thirds Polish and Catholic, being a multinational and multidenominational country. Instead of siding with oppressed Polish society, representatives of the church often took the sides of the Prussian and Austrian imperial oppressors during the Partitions, even admonishing Poles to obey compulsory Germanization in the 1900s. Interwar Poland saw the rise of a strong anticlerical stream, represented among others by General Józef Piłsudski.

It was only the ethnic and religious homogenization of Poland that made possible the full fusion of national and religious identities. As a result of both the devastation of World War II and the population transfers that followed, post-war Poland became a homogenous Catholic nation – one where communism was seen as an alien imposition that violated tenets of both sovereignty and faith. The church worked assiduously to strengthen these bonds, through evangelization, mass events like the Great Novena of 1957–66 (a celebration of Poland’s millennium of Christianity), the visits of Pope John Paul II in 1979, 1983 and 1987 and the sheltering of the opposition in the 1980s.

The church used this moral authority, both under communism and in the contemporary democracy, to secure institutional access to the state. And while the church remains a very prominent public actor, the subject of endless media and popular attention, its real influence has been exercised covertly, behind the scenes, to secure access to the state, its finances and policymaking.

The church’s influence is not a question of popular demand in either Poland or anywhere else. The public’s broad opposition to church influence on politics is widely shared: across a larger set of democracies surveyed, an average of 72 per cent of survey respondents oppose church influence on politics, 78 per cent oppose church influence on voting, and 72 per cent oppose church influence on government [1]. They do so even where the church is highly influential among individuals [2]: in Ireland, where 93 per cent of the population declares itself to be Catholic and over half attends Mass once a month or more, over 79 per cent of poll respondents do not want the church to influence government, and 82 per cent do not want the church to influence votes. In 2017 nearly three-quarters of Polish respondents also agreed that the church was ‘too involved in politics’ and explicitly favoured the separation of religion and government policies [3].

Nor is the church influence a question of explicit electoral coalitions, which have often backfired spectacularly. In Poland’s first fully free elections in 1991, the church openly mobilized for its preferred political parties. The clergy campaigned, and episcopal letters, to be read out loud at Masses, demanded that elected officials ‘guarantee to retain the identity of the Nation and its Christian values’ (Pismo Okólne Episkopatu 38/91). The Episcopate repeatedly referred to Christian ethics and Catholic social teachings as the only acceptable bases for party platforms. An unsigned attachment to a pastoral letter from the Episcopate included a list of specific parties. This campaign did enormous damage to the church’s image: church support plummeted, from over 90 per cent in 1990 to under 40 per cent by mid-1993, and stayed below 60 per cent up until 1999 (Public Opinion Research Centre [CBOS] BS 78/99). Just as importantly, the actual electoral results were a disappointment to the church.

The church learned from the 1991 fiasco. It was considerably more circumspect in the 1993 elections, and over the course of 1993–5, the Episcopate distanced itself from direct electoral involvement or conflict (Gowin 1999, 66). The church tried again in the 1995 presidential elections: the church hierarchy openly pushed for the re-election of the former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa. The voters instead elected the urbane Kwaśniewski, much to the church’s chagrin. In subsequent elections, the church largely limited itself to urging people to vote, leaving the voters to make their own political decisions based on their consciences – while politicians continued to avoid provoking conflict with the church.

The Roman Catholic Church in Poland proved that is was able to accomplish the most when it succeeded in hiding its influence, both under communism and in democracy.

Under communism, the church mediated in the conflicts between the communist party and the opposition, largely informally, through letters, meetings, communiqués, sermons and individual interventions. The critical forum of negotiation and access, especially in the 1956 and 1980–1 crises, was the Joint Commission of the Representatives of the Polish People’s Republic and the Conference of the Episcopate of Poland (Komisja Wspólna Przedstawicieli Rządu RP i Konferencji Episkopatu Polski). There, representatives of the church and the communist party met to discuss both state policy regarding the church, and church policy requests. A characteristic pattern emerged: the state would grant privileges to the church and try to appease it during times of social instability, such as 1956, 1970 and 1976 [4], only to curb those privileges and concessions when the church’s mediating and stabilizing role was no longer deemed necessary. The archives of the commission are notable for two things: the constant toing and froing between church and state in the form of letters, meetings and phone calls, and the shift over time in church–state relations. These changed from state monitoring of the church in the 1960s to extensive meetings as equals in the 1980s – meetings that by January 1989 ended in shared dinners between communist officials and bishops (Aneks 1993, 576).

By the late 1980s, the communist party was negotiating with the church in earnest over the regulatory and financial issues that the church had long prioritized. The lengthy policy negotiations in the commission bore their fruit: the church obtained some of the biggest policy concessions before the collapse of communism. The 1989 Statute of Freedom of Conscience and Faith ensured freedom of religious belief and participation. Another law ensured that the state would pay the pensions and social insurance of the clergy. Finally, and most importantly for the church, the Statute on the Relations between Church and State defined the legal position of the church in Poland, guaranteeing its autonomy while obtaining a variety of material benefits for the church, such as exemptions from income, property and community taxes or customs duties, and the restitution of church property (Eberts 1998, 820, Daniel 1995, 408). In a final burst of policy concessions, the communist parliament passed these important laws shortly before the semi-free elections held on 4 June 1989.

Under late communism and during the regime transition in Poland, both the communist regime and the democratic opposition saw the Roman Catholic Church’s moral authority in its role as a national representative as critical to maintaining social stability. The church exploited first the desperation of a threatened communist regime and later the instability of a fledgling democracy to take advantage of a joint state–church parliamentary commission, to formulate policy proposals, to veto government officials, and to subsequently obtain significant policy concessions. Much of this direct (and critical) access was covert: neither the church nor governments called attention to it. The gravest threat of destabilizing social conflict came immediately after the regime transition in 1989: precisely the moment when entire swathes of policies were being re-evaluated and reformulated. If they were to preserve the new democratic order, vulnerable politicians felt they had no choice but to accede to church demands. Sharing sovereignty was a small price for secular actors to pay.

After 1989 the Polish church quickly translated the political capital earned under the communist regime into political influence in a sovereign democracy. As it pushed for changes in the laws regarding abortion, divorce and education, ‘it also felt morally authorized to insult and scold in public those who dared to contest these provisions’, denouncing opponents as ‘the sons and daughters of Russian officers’ (Morawska 1995, 62). Its institutional access meant that even as the church’s popularity dropped over the first three years of democracy, bill after bill legislated the church’s preferences into law. Moreover, even when the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD, the post-communist party), won the 1993 elections, partly on the strength of its secular credentials, it did not roll back any of the church’s legislative gains in abortion, religion in schools or material privilege. As a result of both the institutional access and the generalized anxiety of many politicians in the 1990s, the church continued to obtain its political preferences despite popular disapproval of such activity: by 1992, 81 per cent of survey respondents opposed the church’s political involvement (86 per cent in 1996), and by 1998 only 3 per cent supported church political activity (Eberts 1998, 330, Borowik 2002, 248).

The collapse of communism in 1989 meant that both the church and the erstwhile opposition now found themselves facing dramatic challenges of rebuilding the economy and the polity, and the need to build support for the nascent democracy. While society overwhelmingly rejected the communist regime (the communists lost every seat they could in the 1989 elections), its support for democracy was feared to be brittle and evanescent. The new democratic governments worried about electoral backlash from the pain of market reforms – and recognized that the church had the moral authority to legitimize the new regime (and thus greatly increase its probability of survival). For its part, ‘the Episcopate knew perfectly that this government needs daily support, that the church is the key, and that refusing to support this government condemns it to failure’ (Torańska 1994, 193).

The policy preferences of the church were conservative, and showed its limited experience of democracy and lack of tolerance for divergent opinions. Criticism was perceived as an attack, and opposition was simply dismissed. The church defended its presence in politics as part of its service – and denounced those who criticized it as ‘envious’ (speech by Cardinal Józef Glemp at the Inauguration of the 1990–1 Academic Year, Pismo Okólne 45/90) [5]. Another legacy of the communist era was that the church had closed itself off from the spirit of the Vatican II reforms, and continued to view the faithful in strictly hierarchical terms, with the clergy as the ‘shepherds of souls’. The church viewed its interpretation of natural law as trumping any man-made law or popular preferences – and by 1989, even as the church endorsed economic and political reform, it became ‘triumphalist, convinced of its own critical role … [showing] a total lack of criticism regarding any of its past errors, or the price paid by Polish Catholicism for isolating itself from reformist movements for the past decades’ (Gowin 1995, 27). Clergy expected politicians and state representatives to act as Catholics first, and as government officials second (Gazeta Wyborcza, ‘Ks. Sowa: Nie mieszać ambony z polityką’, 16 July 2012).

In these early years of democracy, the joint commission not only met, but did so with renewed vigour. And the importance assigned to the commission, at least by the secular state, actually increased: during the communist era, both the communists and the church side had a parity of three to four representatives each, at the level of ministers/vice-ministers and bishops, respectively. In the post-communist era, the commission gained more members, a total of 10 to 11, with the secular state now represented by several high-ranking ministers – for internal affairs, education, treasury and culture, among others. Thus, the secular side was represented by some of the highest executive officials in the land [6]. The commission remained a critical point of access to the secular state, even as the tenor of the debates changed over time: by the 2010s governments no longer relied on church support to survive [7]. As a result, the church has been less able to decisively redefine policies on same-sex marriage or assisted reproduction.

In the early 1990s the newly triumphalist church relied not only on the joint commission, but on personal interventions. As a former government minister recalled, “highly placed members of the church hierarchy thought it was normal, because apparently for years they were used to recommending different people for positions … They called ministry officials and intervened in the case of letting go this or the other employee or director, even though the reasons for letting them go were self-evident, because they were tied to the Security Police and we had proof … these same members of the hierarchy thought it appropriate to call with instructions to eliminate or establish this or the other department, which stupefied us’ (Wiktor Kulerski, quoted in Torańska 1994, 196). Such interventions took place in sensitive ministries responsible for the policies the church prioritized the most, such as the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Health.

Critically, the workings of the joint commission, the legislative committees of the church, the personal interventions and the institutional proposals were kept quiet by both church and government. As a result, even if the public chafed at the levels of church influence, it remained largely ignorant of the church’s institutional access. Access was not publicly discussed, not even by the ostensibly secular hostile left-wing post-communist successor SLD, which ‘never exposed the mechanisms of Episcopal interventions in political life … to expose these mechanisms would be to unmask the church as a political force’ (interview with Wiktor Kulerski, Torańska 1994, 210). The church reciprocated. The full transcripts of the commission meetings remain secret: state-archive holdings are incomplete, and the church refuses to divulge its holdings, since it views the meetings as purely confidential.

As a result, one of the more remarkable aspects of the church’s influence in Poland was how it survived both the communist collapse and the rise of an independent democracy. It gained much of its institutional access during the communist era, when repeated crises necessitated negotiations with the church to keep social peace and prevent bloodshed. It then used this access to push through its policy priorities in domain after domain, as I detailed in Nations Under God (2015). First, it nearly eliminated abortion and introduced the full participation of the church in public education almost immediately after the collapse of communism, when its backing of the nascent democracy was seen as critical to the new regime’s success. Second, the church obtained new legal and financial privileges in the Constitution (which it helped to write) and the Concordat, in exchange for its support of Polish accession to NATO and the European Union. Finally, its opposition to the legal recognition of same-sex partners, and to the availability of contraception, assisted reproductive technologies, and stem-cell research dominated the policy debates of the early 21st century.

So why does the Polish church remain so powerful, even as other churches have lost so much of their power and even as the vast majority of Poles oppose its influence? The church’s influence on public policy and on society will persist so long as the church can guarantee the governing incumbents its support, and so long as this support remains valuable to incumbents. If large swathes of voters no longer see Poles as necessarily Catholic, or if they turn away or leave the church, its political power is gone, too. If the church loses its moral authority, its political influence disappears. And there are many ways for this to happen: as the case of Ireland illustrates, if a church insists on the highest moral standards in society, only to betray them by abusing thousands of children in its orphanages and homes for unwed mothers, by imprisoning young women and taking their children, by abusing the infirm, the elderly and the most vulnerable, the downfall is swift and irrevocable.

The fate of the Irish church, and its failure to live up to the ideals it insisted others had to uphold, perhaps puts the Polish church’s recent actions in a different light. When the paedophilia scandals began in the 2000s in Poland as well, the church reacted at first by lashing out against ‘gender ideology’ (a term that is incomprehensible to social scientists and commentators in the United States) [8], and trying to redirect public attention from its own shortcomings [9]. This appeared to be as much a defensive move by a church desperate to keep its secrets from the public eye, as it is a defence of traditional sexual morality. One wonders whether the policies of distraction will work.

Anna Grzymała-Busse

Stanford University, California, US

Anna Grzymała-Busse is a political scientist, currently at Stanford University and previously also the Ronald Eileen Weiser Professor at University of Michigan. She received a doctorate in government from Harvard University in 2000. Grzymała-Busse attended Princeton University (AB, Public and International Affairs, 1992) and Cambridge University (M. Phil., 1993). In 2017, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Some of this material has been previously published in Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy by Anna Grzymała-Busse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[1] 2005 World Values Survey and 2003 International Social Science Survey Programme data, n=44 and n=28, respectively. Standard deviations are 9, 5.4 and 8.1, respectively.
[2] An average 50% of respondents wanted the church to have less influence on politics throughout the 1990s and 2000s in Poland, and 78% respondents did not wish the church to be politically active. CBOS. 2007. ‘Opinie o działalności Kościoła’, Komunikat z Badań, Warsaw, March 2007. In Italy, only 32% of respondents agreed that religion should have influence on the state (Fisher 2004). In the United States, 70% of respondents do not want churches to endorse political candidates. (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2002, ‘Americans Struggle with Religion’s Role at Home and Abroad’, http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/150.pdf, accessed 7 August 2008.) Majorities believe it is wrong for churches to speak out on politics (51%) and for clergymen to address politics from the pulpit (68%). Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2000, ‘Religion and Politics: the Ambivalent Majority’, http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/32.pdf, accessed 7 August 2008).
[3] https://www.pewforum.org/2017/05/10/views-on-religion-and-politics/, accessed 24 April 2019.
[4] The church hierarchy remained largely silent after the student protests of 1968 and the anti-Semitic campaign that followed. The protests did not spread to the rest of society – and the anti-Semitic campaign was viewed as an internal party conflict. (Dudek)
[5] As the Cardinal argued, ‘to be present in public life: that is an evangelical postulate contained in church teaching, there are opponents of the church, mostly those who are jealous of power and accuse the church of wanting power, who accuse it of wanting to broaden its influence. They read the stances of the church only in a political sense. …Not true! …The church wants to serve. Even if that service is through transmitting its experience, its thoughts, its teaching, this is a great service which the church will always provide.’ (Pismo Okólne 45/90)
[6] The same was not true in the case of the church: the Episcopate is not an executive body in the Polish church; each bishop is technically the ecclesiastical ruler in his diocese (Borecki and Janik 2011, 22).
[7] The leftist SLD had relatively harmonious and frequent relations with the church in the commission in 2001–5, a pleasant change from their cool meetings of 1993–7. The commission met only once during the 2005–7 government of the right-populist PiS-Samoobrona-LPR government, to discuss the upcoming visit of Pope Benedict XVI, financial matters and strengthening of religious education in schools. The 2008–12 centre-right PO-PSL government and the church met twice a year, to discuss education, financial issues, assisted reproductive technologies, family law, media regulations and state observation of church holidays. By this point, the open incursions of the church (not to mention the controversies surrounding its response to the 2010 airplane tragedy in Smoleńsk that took the lives of many of Poland’s political elite, including the president) lowered its moral authority, and the debates became acrimonious.
[8] See also the comments by Jarosław Kaczyński, denouncing ‘the sexualization of children, that whole LGBT movement, gender’ as foreign threats to Polish Catholic identity. He further argued that ‘questioning the church in Poland has an anti-patriotic character’. https://wpolityce.pl/polityka/443928-imponujacy-wyklad-prezesa-pispolska-musi-byc-wyspa-wolnosci, accessed 24 April 2019.
[9] Subsequently, the church conducted its own investigation into paedophilia in the ranks of the Polish church, and found 625 victims from 1990–2018. In February 2019, the anti-paedophilia foundation Nie Lękajcie Się published its own report, citing 384 victims, and brought it to Pope Francis during a papal audience in Rome.

Borecki, Paweł, and Czesław Janik, eds. 2011. Komisja Wspólna Przedstawicieli Rządu Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej i Konferencji Episkopatu Polski w Archiwaliach z Lat 1989–2010. Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Sejmowe.
Aneks. 1993. Tajne Dokumenty Państwo-Kościół, 1980–1989. London: Aneks Publishers.
Borowik, Irena. 2002. ‘The Roman Catholic Church in the Process of Democratic Transformation: The Case of Poland.’ Social Compass, 49, 2: 239–52.
Daniel, Krystyna. 1995. ‘The Church–State Situation in Poland after the Collapse of Communism.’ Brigham Young University Law Review 2: 401–19.
Eberts, Mirella. 1998. ‘The Roman Catholic Church and Democracy in Poland’, Europe-Asia Studies, 50, 5: 817–42.
Gowin, Jarosław. 1995. Kościół po Komunizmie. Krakow: Znak.
Grzymała-Busse, Anna. 2015. Nations under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Policy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Morawska, Ewa. 1995. ‘The Polish Roman Catholic Church Unbound’, in Stephen Hanson and Willfried Spohn, eds. Can Europe Work? Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Torańska, Teresa. 1994. My. Warsaw: Most.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (BY) 3.0 Unported License (users are free to share and adapt the material providing attribution is made to the author and source)

Scroll to top