Catholic Poland in Question

Portraits of Karol Wojtyla pop up everywhere in Poland, usually when I am least expecting to see him. When I shop for produce in the large open-air market, I see his face peering at me from small plaques on tables otherwise filled with kitchen and cleaning supplies. Bookshops prominently display books about the former pope in store windows to lure in customers. Of course likenesses of Pope John Paul II are included in most of the religious sites I visited in the past few months. Still, my favorite sighting was at the Niedzice Castle in the Polish Tatra Mountains. The photograph seemed out of place on the stone castle walls built in the 14th century, especially after a tour that included many anecdotes about the aristocratic owners’ odd sexual behavior, and I truly doubt the place has any connection to the former pope. In Poland this does not seem to matter.


Courtyard of 14th Century Niedzica Castle


PJP in the Castle

Obviously Poles are extremely proud of Pope John Paul II, and rightly so. In a country reported to be over 90% Catholic this comes as no surprise. Many businesses are closed on Sundays, and I see families walking to church wearing their Sunday finest. However, I wonder how many Poles who self-identify as Catholics are actual believers. In a country where the Church has such a large influence on politics and lifestyle, I would guess that many Poles claim to be Catholic just to be part of a community. This past October, Krakow held a “Freethinkers March” where atheists and agnostics gathered in what the Krakow Post claims to be the first march of its kind not only in Poland, but in Europe as a whole. The group walked through the center of the city with surprisingly little counter-protest. The organizer of the protest Ewelina Podsiad explained to the reporter that there are no reliable statistics on how many nontheists actually live in Poland. “Ms. Podsiad explained that in Poland, ‘many people are afraid to admit that they are nonbelievers,’ and cited scores of letters she has received from those who ‘came out’ to their families or co-workers and were ostracized afterwards.” Funny the phrase “came out,” usually heard in the context of homosexuals identifying their sexual orientation to their family and friends, is used here to describe religion.


Marchers in Krakow with a sign reading "Thank God I'm an Atheist"

The article continues to explain that although religion classes are not mandatory in Polish schools, families that opt out of these classes often face ridicule, especially in the villages. In hospitals, if a patient declines a visit from clergy, they could face discrimination by the hospital staff or other patients. Reading the article about the first “Freethinkers” demonstration in Poland, I wonder what the Catholic Church really means for Poles today. Surely there is more religious diversity than what appears in statistics. Also, I doubt surveys ask little more from participants than to check a box describing their religion and a box to explain their average church attendance. I would like to see a survey that asks people to define their beliefs further…are you a religious Catholic or a cultural Catholic? Do you go to church to pray or so that your fellow parish members note your attendance? Of course this issue is not unique, but interesting in a country claiming to be 90% Catholic, and in an EU member state with as much voting right as Poland. Maybe the freethinkers march will become an annual event with an even bigger participation next year.

Quotes from

    • Caitlin
    • November 8th, 2009

    Pope John Paul II was hands down the cutest Pope we’ve had. Also I think it’s sad that People are still judged and are afraid to “come out”

  1. He also was the Pope who opposed fiercely to the use of condoms and sexual education, helping in this way to spread aids through all over the world, especially in the poorest countries. He also was extremely sexist and homophobic, hid numerousness cases of pedophilia of fellows priests, excommunicated women who committed abortion after being raped… so maybe Poles are proud of this Pope more for political reasons, so he helped decisively to the fall of communism. During the soviet invasion Catholicism meant freedom, religion was opposite to the dictatorship, so who says that he or she is not catholic, the rest of the people feel it like if he or she was saying that is against freedom, democracy and against Poland in general, but the performance of Karol WojtYla ruling the Catholic church is very, very debatable.

      • Christine
      • November 15th, 2009

      Oscar- thanks for the spirited comment and although I agree with your criticisms of the Catholic Church, I feel that a specific discussion of the topics you listed are beyond the scope of this blog. My aim with this post was to pose a question of identity to Poles today in hopes of opening a discussion. I wanted to point out that there is a difference between being religious in the sense of worship and beliefs, and those who are culturally religious. Poland is a country in which religion is very important both culturally and politically, and it would be beneficial for people to make the distinction as Poland forges its future in the European Union.

      I think your comment reinforced my own belief that most Poles, especially the younger generations are religious in the sense of culture and belonging to a community. You are right in that religion is against the general principles of communism and Poles probably see religion as the opposite of their oppressive past. One cannot underestimate the significance of the “Pope factor” in the decline of communism- the fact that a pope was elected from a communist country was huge, and the officials did not have to issue him a passport and the right to travel. I think that this time was a pivotal point in which people felt change in the system and perhaps why Poles cherish Pope John Paul II even today.

      I wish that conventional religion was not so politically driven, but this is reality. Speaking with young Polish students in Krakow, I get the sense that many people of this generation are pretty liberal but there are still many exceptions. My hope for Poland in a post-John Paul II and post-communist era is that they can become more politically liberal. I think the freethinkers march in October in Krakow demonstrated small evidence of change.

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