Catholic Church in Poland
Poland is, at first glance, one of the most religiously homogeneous countries on earth. Almost all Polish children (99%) are baptized into the Roman Catholic Church; 93% of all marriages are accompanied by a church wedding; and depending on how you formulate the question, between 90% and 98% of the population will answer “Roman Catholic” when asked about their religion.
During the 1980s, masses were so well-attended that people often had to stand outside the church doors and listen to the priest over loudspeakers. If you went to an anti-Communist demonstration in those days, you would be certain to see people holding crosses or icons of the Virgin Mary. There is no doubt that the Roman Catholic Church played an enormous social, political, and cultural role in the Polish People’s Republic, and the fall of Communism would certainly have played out differently were it not for the Church’s involvement. When Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Kraków became Pope John Paul II in 1978, it was immediately obvious that life would never be the same for the Communist authorities in Poland. Indeed, some have credited him with playing the key role in toppling Communism.
But exactly how should we characterize the Church’s involvement in the great drama of the 1980s? What was the relationship between the clergy and the opposition, and between the clergy and the regime? To what degree did the Pope influence events in 1980 or in 1989? And how did Catholicism shape the views and attitudes of those who opposed the Communist state? None of these questions have clear answers, and historians are only now beginning to conduct research that will lead us towards a deeper understanding of these issues.
During the early years of the Communist regime the Church was subjected to brutal oppression from the Stalinist state, but in 1956 reformers in the Communist party put an end to the worst abuses and established an informal truce with the Episcopate: the open assault on Christianity would end if the clergy would stay out of politics and recognize the legitimacy of Communist rule. Henceforth, the Church in Poland enjoyed freedoms that were unprecedented in the Soviet Bloc. Several independent Catholic periodicals were published (albeit with limited print-runs), the Church could supervise the selection and training of priests, and religious education was even returned to the schools (with restrictions that became more severe over time). The clergy remained vehemently anti-Communist and the bishops frequently criticized government policies, while for their part the Communists conducted covert surveillance on the clergy, set up bureaucratic obstacles to slow the construction of new churches, and used the media to undermine the bishops at every opportunity. Each side, nonetheless, recognized that they lacked the power to ever defeat the other, and a certain tense stability was established.
The growth of an organized democratic opposition in the 1970s placed the Church in an awkward position. On the one hand, the hierarchy was committed to sustaining social peace and feared the consequences of a violent uprising; on the other hand, they were suspicious of the intelligentsia dissidents. Many of the writers, scholars, artists, and political activists in the dissident movement had once been enthusiastic about the promises of socialism, and even as they moved into the opposition they retained the values and ideals of the left. Most of the clergy, on the other hand, still embraced a conservative and nationalistic worldview, and in their sermons they regularly warned against the dangers of liberalism, individualism, and “excessive freedom.”
With time, however, both sides began to move closer together, recognizing that they faced a common foe. During the late 1970s, it became more and more common for dissidents (even non-Catholics) to hold meetings in Church basements, where the state authorities usually feared to tread. Many parishes became sanctuaries for a wide variety of anti-Communist activists, and important members of the hierarchy (most famously, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła) began to embrace the rhetoric of “democracy” and “human rights.”
When Cardinal Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II in 1978, this tenuous relationship was further strengthened. In 1979, the new Pope staged a spectacular eight-day pilgrimage to his homeland, and approximately thirteen million people—one third of the entire Polish population—attended at least one of his public events. Those who experienced that amazing week report that their lives were forever transformed: for those few days, the Communist authorities seemed to vanish, and an entirely different Poland emerged. As Adam Michnik (who is not Catholic) put it, “In June, 1979, I lived through one of those moments in my life that gave me a sense that I was alive for a reason. . . . I felt absolutely no sense of separation. Alongside me kneeled a Catholic priest, and no one on that square had any intention to divide people. It was natural that we were together.” This feeling of freedom and this sense of belonging created the foundation from which Solidarity could be created one year later.
Mainly because of these experiences from the Papal pilgrimages to Poland, when strikes and demonstrations were held in the 1980s it seemed natural to use religious imagery. The Church hierarchy still tried to prevent the politicization of religion, and repeatedly urged the clergy not to speak out openly against the regime. Many priests, however, pushed the limits of obedience by sheltering the opposition and giving anti-Communist sermons. In 1984, one of these priests, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, was murdered by members of the secret police, and the bond between Catholicism and the opposition was further solidified in the popular imagination.
By the late 1980s the Church was widely seen as the primary site for anti-Communist activism, and attendance at mass became more popular than ever before or since. But the old tensions remained, and just beneath the surface the conservative nationalism of many priests was in sharp conflict with the secular liberalism of many of the leading dissidents. Meanwhile, the bishops bemoaned the fact that people were coming to church not to pray, but to express their political resistance to the Communists.
When the Communist regime extended feelers towards the opposition in the late 1980s, the Church hierarchy was asked to serve as a mediator. The bishops who took part in the Round Table Talks of 1989 insisted that they were not parties to the debates, but neutral guarantors who insured that both Solidarity and the communists were negotiating in good faith. This was slightly disingenuous—it was obvious that their sympathies were with Solidarity—but it was true that they were committed to ensuring that open conflict (particularly violent struggle) was avoided at all costs. In this sense, they played a crucial role in ensuring that the voices of moderation and compromise emerged victorious.
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
- "Almost all Polish children. . ." Statistics found in: Irena Borowik and Tadeusz Doktór, Pluralizm religijny i moralny w Polsce: Raport z badań (Kraków: Nomos, 2001), 23, 127.
- "Indeed, some have credited. . ." See, for example, some of the commentaries published at the time of his death in 2005: Andrew Nagorski, “Freedom Matters,” Newsweek 145, 15 (April 11, 2005): 46-47; David van Biema, “Defender of the Faith: Pope John Paul II 1920-2005,” Time 165, 15 (April 11, 2005): 35-42.
- Adam Michnik quoted from Adam Michnik, Józef Tischner, and Jacek Żakowski, Między panem a plebanem (Kraków: Znak, 1998), 287, 290.