Catholic Church in Poland

Lesson Plan

Time Estimated

Four to five 90-minute class periods and DBQ as an independent assignment.


12 copies of each primary source.

Lecture materials (see Procedures prior to Activity 1 & Activity 6)


By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • 1. identify the differing ways in which the Catholic Church impacted the development of modern Poland;
  • 2. analyze the importance of the Catholic faith in the formation of Polish nationalism and how religion contributes to the formation of a national identity;
  • 3. discuss the ebb and flow of historical change within the Church and Poland as the country moved from communism to democracy; and
  • 4. interpret the challenges facing the Church within an increasingly secularized and modernized Polish state.


Preparation: Have students read Introductory Essay to “Making 1989” ( as homework before lesson begins. Students should access the website to scan and skim the primary sources.

Short Lecture: Introduce Subject Area - The Catholic Church in Poland-- via a short lecture. (See below: background resources for teachers)

  • Suggested Points:
  • 1. The Catholic Church in Poland during communism: conflict and coexistence “mass as protest”
  • 2. The Church as Opposition Party during communism “church as sanctuary for anti-communists”
  • 3. The Church as mediator in Poland, 1988-90
  • 4. Post-Communist Poland: Church as political “party.”
  • 5. Overall link between Polish nation as Catholic nation (direct link between Polish community as a specifically religious one).

Small-group Activity: Break class into co-operative groups. Provide copies of all 12 primary sources which make up this unit to each group. Ensure that each group has a monitor, recorder and reporter. Note: The ‘monitor’ is responsible for the group staying on track and for time-management, the ‘recorder’ for taking notes of the group’s work, and the ‘reporter’ for sharing those notes with the whole class.

  • Each group should read the documents and divide them into thematic sets. The group should start by reading and summarizing each document, followed by a free-flowing discussion as to how each set is defined. For example, students might group all primary sources by author, type of source, date, etc. The goal is to have students create an overarching theme/idea to organize the documents. Students should keep notes on their logic and discussion and be prepared to explain them to the whole class.
  • Have each group report out to the whole class on their process and thematic sets. Questions and answers should be encouraged as groups explain their logic. There will be inconsistencies and comments to discuss. Have the entire class come to a consensus on the most effective or illustrative sets.
  • Use the closing time of class to have students reflect on what this exercise reveals about history more broadly and the process of making sense of the pieces of the past, the primary soruces. Be prepared to guide them along this process.

Small Group Activity: Using the best sets generated from the last activity, divide the students into groups again. This part of the activity may go more quickly as students should be familiar with the documents. Their task is to analyze their set, but to go more deeply into the specifics. Suggested questions include:

  • Who wrote the document, and for whom was it written? What does this suggest about the point of view reflected in the document?
  • Why was the document written and what form does it have? A document’s purpose and form (e.g. legal opinion, prohibition, instruction manual) will affect the sorts of material it contains and cause a systematic bias.
  • How do author, audience, purpose, and form relate to the event or phenomenon that the document describes? Was the author in a position to have reliable knowledge of the event or phenomenon? Does the form permit accurate reporting? Does the author have any reason to avoid telling the truth as he or she saw it?
  • In conclusion, how reliable do you think this document is? What other kinds of documents would you want to examine to corroborate its claims?
  • In light of this examination, does the set still make sense? Why or why not?

Have the groups record their answers to these questions. Each group should report their findings to the class as a whole. The reflection here should be on what the students struggled with in examining and interpreting their set? How could the task have been easier? More difficult? What does this task imply for the study of history?

Homework: Each student should choose (and let them to the extent that you can; assigning each student a document would also work) a document to research in more depth. (Note: some of the graphs look easy but will require more work in the following activity.)

Research: Each student can use the notes reported out by the groups in the last activity to orient their first steps. The purpose here is to produce an essay with additional background material that incorporates the source so that each student has the chance to explore the context of a document more completely.

  • The central theme of the research should be answering the question: What does this document (and your research) tell us about the role of the Catholic Church in modern Polish history?

Lecture: To bridge the contextual understanding of the period in Poland, another short lecture is suggested here to allow students time to work on their research and give them a richer sense of the role of the Church in this period. One suggestion would be to use this lecture to cover a more chronological structure.

  • Key Points:
  • 1. Using the Catholics Church’s role in Solidarity would provide a good focal point to reinforce the ideas listed for the firs lecture within this lecture. Thus, the same key points raised concerning the evolution of the Church through the period 1945-1989 can be used here but tied specifically to the evolution of the Solidarity movement.
  • 2. Another track might be to consider the Church’s role in the period of Communist rule and beyond. After 1990, the Church remained a powerful political force, passing laws on “mandatory” religious education, abortion and a Concordat with the Vatican. All of these post-Communist rules create questions concerning a Polish liberal democracy and a single state religion.

Presentation and Discussion: Have students present their research (even read their essays aloud) to the class. This can happen before their essays are completed. Have the entire class reflect on what the research shows in answering the question of how the Catholic Church influenced and shaped modern Polish society.

Wrap Up: Return to the primary sources. You could even repeat the first activity as an interesting way to re-examine the sets. Reflect on the growth in student awareness and sense of mastery of the material. Discuss how the primary sources guided their analysis and inquiry. Brainstorm the how the Church shaped Polish history—in what ways? At particular moments? Finally, discuss student opinions on the ability of the Catholic Church (or any religious organization) to play similar roles in U.S. history. Has it? Should it? Can it? What are the differences between Poland and America that shape the relationships between religion and society and religion and government? What does that tell them about each country?

Document Based Questions:

Use the primary sources to explain how the Catholic Church impacted the changes that occurred in modern Poland.

Identify and analyze two or three Points of View (POV) from the primary sources. How does each document reflect the author’s motives and interests?

Using at least 6 sources, describe the evolution of the Church’s role in Polish society over the three main periods of modern Poland (the Communist era, the transition during the 1980s and post-communist society after 1989).

Explain the reasons why the Catholic Church was and is such an integral part of Polish society. As part of your answer, comment upon whether the Church was and is a positive feature of the modern Polish state.


Provide summaries or highlighted sections of the documents to assist students in processing the primary sources used during the activities. Similarly, pre-organized note sheets (containing key words, ideas, and foreign topics) will aid in comprehension. For the research, provide some short suggestions or summaries to guide student participation. When administering the Document Based Question, allow additional time and provide outline guides for student responses. Allow for differing types of responses rather than simply essay format (editorial cartoons, short audio news “programs,” dictated responses, etc.).

Background Sources for Teachers:

Borowik, Irena. The Catholic Church in the Process of Democratic Transformation: the Case of Poland, Social Compass, 49:2 239-252 (2002).

Eberts, Mirella. “The Roman Catholic Church and Democracy in Poland,” Europe-Asia Studies, 50:5, 817-842 (1998).

Kurczewski, Jacek. “Parliament and the Political Class in the Constitutional Reconstruction of Poland,” International Sociology, 18:1 162-180 (2003).

Andrzej Paczkowski, The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom, trans. Jane Cave, The Pennsylvania University State Press: Pennsylvania (2003).