THE BLOG

Church and State in Poland

05/18/2015 10:29 am ET | Updated May 18, 2016

Poland has one of the stricter laws on abortion in Europe. Abortion is illegal except if the life of the mother is at risk, the fetus has a major defect or the pregnancy is the result of a confirmed rape. Poland, Ireland and Malta are the only countries in Europe that do not allow abortion on request. All three countries are also predominantly Catholic (95 percent for Malta, 91 percent for Poland, 84 percent for Ireland).

The Catholic Church is an important and powerful institution in Poland, and the abortion law is just one of the areas of social policy where it exerts influence. As a Catholic intellectual, Michal Luczewski is happy that the Church has this influence. "Poland is the only case where we overturned a very liberal abortion law that made abortion legal for everyone who used it," he told me in an interview in Warsaw in August 2013.

We were able to overturn it and now it really works. We did research last year. More young people favor the 'restrictive' law -- for me it's not restrictive -- than oppose it. The Church worked top down in passing the law, but in the long run it worked well with the masses.

Luczewski is a sociologist who teaches at the University of Warsaw and also serves as the deputy director of a think tank near the university called the Center for the Thought of John Paul II. He has thought a great deal about the relationship of the Church and Polish society. He points out that in some cases the Church is quite conservative, for instance on social issues like abortion or homosexuality, but in other situations, it has been quite radical.

"To my mind, Christianity - Catholicism -- is very closely linked to socialism," Luczewski said.

This is a more British view. We had neo-conservativism here in Poland. I also participated in the Third Millennium summer schools with Michael Nowak, John Richard Neuhaus, George Weigel. They tried to combine religion with modernity, with capitalism even.

They read John Paul II this way. This is something that I acknowledge, and I owe some debt to that kind of thinking. But I see Catholicism and religion linked not to capitalism but to solidarity, especially to the Solidarity movement in Poland. Seen from outside, it was clear that Solidarity was a leftist, socialist movement.

The Church, Luczewski continued, also thrived in opposition.

If you take what happened here in the 1970s and 1980s, the Polish Church was persecuted all the time. But the Church was very innovative in terms of social mobilization. It really mobilized the masses against the Communist regime.

There was even one case in which they built a church in one day. There was extreme innovation and vibrancy. The Catholic Church became a point of focus and reference for everyone. It was also very important for the Left, for Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń who worked closer and closer with the Catholic Church.

They became more Christian at the same time, Christian without God. That's why I'm saying Christianity is very close to socialism in Poland, much closer to socialism than conservatism.

Today, the Church is in the ascendant, closely linked to the state, which enables it to have greater impact on public policy. But that influence comes at a price. "I see a lack of activity and innovation in the institutional Church in Poland," Luczewski argued.

It's not that the Church is closely linked to the rightist party, Law and Justice. It's that the Church is close to the state, linked to the state, dependent on state money. It can't be as courageous or as radical as before. Instead of relying on the masses -- in the sociological meaning of the word -- the Church relies on institutions.

Still, Luczewski is delighted by the vibrancy of intellectual debate in Poland today. "I studied in New York at Columbia University," he recalled.

What struck me was the political correctness at that university. I knew all the Catholics there. It was as if they were hidden. In Poland, when I came back here, I thought, 'This is finally a free country. I can speak my mind freely. I am against abortion, against gay rights, and I can say these things to my friends on the Left.'

This was a very freeing experience. We invite people from Kultura Liberalna, from all those milieus you mentioned, to our center, and we have conversations with them. It's really great when you can quarrel in a decent way.

That's what I miss in the United States, where the liberal, politically correct way of thinking dominated. There was no place for debate. In Poland there's a place for debate with everybody, still.

We talked about his initial anti-clericalism, the diversity of conservative thought in Poland today, and why he appreciates the freedom to travel around Europe, but doesn't appreciate how the European Union has deprived Poland of its agency.

The Interview

Are you happy about the current relationship between Church and state in Poland? If not, how would you change it?

This is a very hard question. The best for Church is persecution. If you take what happened here in the 1970s and 1980s, the Polish Church was persecuted all the time. But the Church was very innovative in terms of social mobilization. It really mobilized the masses against the Communist regime. There was even one case in which they built a church in one day. There was extreme innovation and vibrancy. The Catholic Church became a point of focus and reference for everyone. It was also very important for the Left, for Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń who worked closer and closer with the Catholic Church. They became more Christian at the same time, Christian without God. That's why I'm saying Christianity is very close to socialism in Poland, much closer to socialism than conservatism.

After 1989, in general, I agree the relationship between Church and state is closer, but there has been a cost: less vibrancy. The Church is now cooperating more with the state and not with society. Therefore the Church is not as innovative as it was before. I do, however, agree with some of the cooperation, for instance on abortion law. Poland is the only case where we overturned a very liberal abortion law that made abortion legal for everyone who used it. We were able to overturn it and now it really works. We did research last year. More young people favor the "restrictive" law -- for me it's not restrictive -- than oppose it. The Church worked top down in passing the law, but in the long run it worked well with the masses.

Perhaps a harder case is religion classes in school. I remember my classes in church. Under Communism, we couldn't go to school for religious class. When I was a really young kid, I would go several kilometers to go to church for this class. There was a beautiful nun. And it was like a mystical experience. I wasn't anti-clerical at that time. I wouldn't let my kids go to church as far as I had to go. Then the religious classes were transferred to schools. So, there are some pros and cons with that move. Religion becomes part of something normal, and it's not unusual any more. The priest was just a normal guy that we tried to scandalize, and he had a really hard time with us. We really harassed him. We didn't go to prison. But it was really harassment. After many years, he said that he was thankful for that: to meet 28 wild guys, smartasses, who were also violent in many respects, was a lesson for him. And to meet him also -- from the same perspective -- was a lesson for us.

To make a long story short, I don't have a good answer. It's more paradoxical. I see pros and cons with the relationship between Church and state. My kingdom of God on earth is not now but rather during the Solidarity movement when the Church was persecuted. You could feel the real power of the Church then. Of course I don't want to say that the Church now should be persecuted!

It's an interesting paradox. As the Church becomes institutionalizes, it loses some of its fire.

Exactly.

And when we look at John Paul II, he was in many ways very radical.

Oh, yes.

Someone told me in an interview 23 years ago that if you want to find the most vibrant socialist message at that time, just look at John Paul II's speeches. And the present Pope is also shaking things up on many issues.

Absolutely.

The Church in Poland is a dominant institution -- it's not the Church in Syria, for example. How do you preserve that kind of radicalism in a dominant institution?

This is the crucial paradox. I see a lack of activity and innovation in the institutional Church in Poland. It's not that the Church is closely linked to the rightist party, Law and Justice. It's that the Church is close to the state, linked to the state, dependent on state money. It can't be as courageous or as radical as before. Instead of relying on the masses -- in the sociological meaning of the word - the Church relies on institutions. It's the same with Catholic universities. We don't need Catholic universities. They are not Catholic any more. They got state money, opened themselves up, and took everyone in. But they don't produce a John Paul II generation any more.

What we need to do is start with smaller circles. Our education here at our center starts with small circles, very targeted and intensive. And then we will have a vibrant, radical Catholic message, like the socialist message - but not in a stupid way that says "down with capitalism" but that sees the costs of capitalism. Money has actually become our God. What is sacred, according to Durkheim, is what unites society, and this isn't God any more but money. You have money in your pocket, I have money in my pocket -- that's what unites our society into a single whole. Also sex. All those media, like sex, power, and money, build up our societies. But those societies are at the same time destroyed by the media that are building them. We have to be critical of the reality we see around us. We have to go beyond institutions only. We have to put fire into the institutions.

That's what I want to do here at the Center. This is an institution too with almost 40 people working for us. But if you have an institution, then people become clerks. We must have institutions, but we also must acknowledge the costs of institutions and put fire into the institutions -- just like with the Church. Instead of relying on the state, we lay Catholics have to work at a grassroots level. This is the only way to go on.

If people in Poland challenge this notion that money is the new God, what would that look like in terms of a new economy? How would that change the economy that Poland currently has?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.