Politics and religion often come hand in hand. In many cases, the prevalence of a religious institution in a community or country results from its history of assistance in times of hardship. The incorporation of religion in politics was likely a survival tactic for generations. Unfortunately, in some cases, it may lead to oppressive or harmful policymaking. Recognizing and respecting religious history is vital to encourage engagement in challenging oppressive aspects of these institutions. This is especially important when working with older generations or those with powerful ties to their faith to ensure that change is community-centered and historically respectful.
A contemporary view of the intersection of government and religion in oppressive policy making can be found in Poland. The Catholic Church has been a part of the Polish landscape for generations, historically bringing science, culture, and higher society to the country. Natalia Ochman, a first-generation U.S. resident whose parents came from Poland, shared that her family always said, “When you have nothing else, you have faith” (Ochman, 2020). This sentiment - that Catholicism has been a core pillar of Polish identity for generations - is felt by many in the country.
Catholicism first came to Poland under King Mieszko I. His wife convinced him to baptize the country in 966, and they began to practice Catholicism as a means of distinguishing Poles from Germans, who were largely Lutheran or Orthodox in the East. This conversion pushed out pagan beliefs that were prevalent in Slavic culture at the time. Catholicism in the country remained a prominent cultural unifier for national identity during times of foreign oppression, such as the 17th century Swedish invasion and more recently during World War I.
By the time World War II occurred, Catholicism had become popular, with nearly 65% of Poles identifying as Catholic (Garlinski, 1985). Of the remaining 35% of the population, 10% identified as Jewish and made up a large portion of Polish cities (Gitelman et al., 2003). Mass genocide of Jewish Poles during World War II dramatically increased the Catholic percentage of the population. Catholicism was deeply entrenched in Poles’ lives, and the Catholic Church continued to play a prominent role in the country helping Poland survive the Nazi and Soviet invasions during the war.
Post-World War II, with Poland isolated behind the Iron Curtain, the Catholic Church stepped in to unite communities, provide faith through economic hardship, and protect the surviving Poles (Hetman, 2020). Especially within small villages, the Church acted as a support system. Priests joined families for dinner, comforting them, empathizing with their challenges, and creating ties throughout the community. Community members invited the Church to approve sales related to farming, bless pregnant livestock, and protect the village (Hetman, 2020). Catholic traditions became the shared culture.
The Catholic Church became deeply involved in Polish politics with the fall of communism by ensuring a smooth transition of power to the new Polish democracy. Catholic clergy were always anti-communist as the communist state diminished the role of the Church in state matters. Polish people during communism were not allowed to discuss politics within their Church, and Church leaders were often told by communist officials not to get involved in political action. With the election of the first Polish Pope, John Paul II, in 1978, many Poles began to envision Poland as a country where the Church could play a role in both politics and everyday life (Porter-Szucs, n.d.). As a result, Church basements became meeting places for dissidents working to overthrow communism. (Michel, 1991).
Today, the contemporary Catholic Church in Poland is closely aligned with the Law and Justice party, or PiS, the largest party in Poland at this time. PiS came to power in 2015 by tapping into religious fervor, weaponizing the ideological divide between East and West Poland, playing on the generational differences of Poles, and instilling fear of Europe’s liberalization. PiS relies on support from older Poles who generally live in rural areas. The Church maintains this political support, and in return, PiS promotes policies that align with traditional Catholic values. Family values and a return to a traditional Poland remain at the center of the party’s ideology, with programs such as 500+ supporting stay at home mothers and encouraging childbirth by providing 500 PLN per child per month for each Polish family (“First Results of Poland’s Family 500+,” 2018).
Under the guise of protecting traditional Polish values and families, PiS along with the Church have waged campaigns against the LGBT* community of Poland and opposed abortion rights with some success. Currently, large sections of western Poland claim to be “LGBT ideology free.'' Church sermons and school teaching endorse PiS values. Terrorist threats, violence, and government intervention have cut pride parades short. Additionally, the Polish courts, propped up by PiS and with full support of the Church, ruled in October 2020 that abortion due to fetal abnormality was a form of eugenics and therefore against the Polish Constitution (Scislowska, 2020). Because approximately 98% of abortions currently administered in the country are due to fetal abnormality, this effectively put in place a blanket ban on the practice (“Poland Enforces Controversial,” 2021).
Freedom of the press in Poland has also been under fire with the PiS administration, resulting in recent taxation on independent news sources that will leave most of these organizations bankrupt, making TVP, the national news station run by PiS, as virtually the sole media source for Poles. This attack on freedom of the press has been admonished internationally because TVP is known to be a biased news source (Schmitz, 2021). However, the Catholic Church has been willing to support the taxation of independent news sources because TVP provides the Church with access to messaging. The symbiotic relationship between PiS and the Catholic Church reinforces a conservative agenda. Through its privileged connection to the media, the Church promotes messaging that Poland must remain traditional.
Many Poles have become aware of PiS’s moves to severely limit free press, effectively eliminate abortion, and oppress LGBT people harmed their communities, and they have begun fighting back. For example, last fall, communities across Poland began to protest the abortion ban. Tens of thousands of women, teenagers, and male allies took to the streets for weeks, resulting in the largest protests since the fall of communism in 1989 (Taub, 2020). Even Poles from some conservative, PiS-controlled communities showed up to fight this encroachment of Church values and government regulation on women’s rights. The government delayed the passage of the abortion ban, and Polish women continued leading organized protests every Monday through December 2020, indicating their concern that an abortion ban law would be passed if their voices became silent. Despite these efforts, the abortion ruling went into place on January 27, 2021, leading to renewed protests across the country. The PiS ministry has responded by possibly incorporating “a room to cry in” in hospitals for women forced to give birth (Tilles, 2021).
Despite their ties to the Catholic Church, members of the older generations, with the exception of PiS politicians, tended to support the abortion protests. Poland was one of the first European countries to allow women access to abortion in 1956, and the country only began to legislate against it in 1996 when Church influence increased again after helping to end communism (Chazin, 1996). This nuanced history with abortion helps explain why many Poles support it to this day in cases of rape, incest, danger to the mother, and fetal abnormality. Nonetheless, older Poles generally remain loyal to PiS despite disagreeing with some of its social policies. One reason for this is that older Poles tend to live in more rural areas where the Church continues to hold influence and encourage members of the community to support PiS.
As evidenced by the abortion ban protests, young Poles are leading the fight against the imposition of Catholic beliefs into their lives. In order to continue supporting their fight, the global community must increase infrastructure for affordable internet access across the country, increase access to education on social justice in Polish classrooms, and encourage freedom of the press in spite of restrictive PiS policies. Exposure to the world outside of Poland through social media and the internet has already resulted in the Church no longer being the main factor in the development and socialization of children. Young Poles' consumption of pop culture around LGBT issues reduces the stigma surrounding this population (Hetman, 2020). In addition, Polish education is shifting away from strict Catholic Church values by slowly including contemporary political action and social justice courses. Exposure to contemporary ideas helps Polish youth challenge Church and political ideologies without discarding their Polish traditions.
Poland’s Catholic Church has a history of supporting and upholding Polish communities, traditions, and values. As described earlier, the Church provided aid during times of historical trauma and supported changes of government that proved beneficial to the country. Despite these impactful and important supports, the Church’s relationship with political parties today has proven detrimental to marginalized groups such as LGBT Poles and women trying to access healthcare. These connections cannot be overlooked, and to effectively break them, the global community and social workers must take steps to educate Polish youth, increase access to information, and encourage protesting. The international community must continue to support cultural exchange. Current EU financial sanctions against the “LGBT ideology free zones,” while working in some Polish communities to pressure them to reverse this label, have largely entrenched rural, religious, and poor communities in their harmful beliefs (Higgens, 2021). The best solution is through restorative discussions and a free flow of ideas, concepts, and values through cultural partnerships.
The global community, including government leaders, policymakers, and community organizers, should reflect on the recent protests in order to better support advocacy in Poland. The next Polish elections are not until 2023, unless a snap election is called. During the election delay, the international community can continue to support Polish protestors in their fight against these harmful policies as well as limiting the ties between the Church and PiS. The time to act through organizing, education, and connection is now, to best secure a safer future for all Poles. Effective response in Poland can serve as a model for assisting other countries in separating faith from policymaking in the future.
* The LGBT community in Poland is inclusive of all individuals within the gender and sexuality spectra including those who identify as intersex, asexual, and queer. However, in Poland, this group is referred to as LGBT.
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