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Catholicism and Poland's national soul.

Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland

Brian Porter-Szucs

(Oxford University Press, 2011, 296 pp) 978-0195399059, $55.00


BRIAN PORTER-SZUCS' FAITH and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland is a comprehensive study of Poland's Catholic church over the last two centuries. It explores the development of different schools of thought within the church, as well as the complicated relations between the church and the state at different stages in Poland's history.

It is not an exaggeration to say the book is a must-read for Polish scholars and politicians alike because it deals beautifully with a number of stereotypes that contemporary Poles--Catholic or non-Catholic--have to face. One of these preconceptions is that Poland equals Catholicism--that the Catholic church has always been the cradle of Poland's independence and national spirit.

Porter-Szucs easily proves that both of these ideas are slightly exaggerated, to put it mildly.

First, there has been a great deal of religious diversity in Poland over the centuries. Until the end of the 18th century, the Republic of Poland and Lithuania was a mixture of Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, Armenian Catholics and even Muslims.

Many of today's Poles also believe that ever since the 19th century--when Poland was partitioned and occupied by Russia, Prussia and the Habsburg Empire--the church has been the center of national resistance and played a key role in saving "Polishness." This is not quite true, Porter-Szucs argues--religion was far less important to "national survival" than is usually assumed. Even during the worst years of denationalization, the church was never the only space within which Poles could express and cultivate their ethnicity. In fact, sometimes the opposite was true: the "official institutions of the church tended to oppose the patriotic cause throughout the 19th century, and the Catholic hierarchy became one of the few consistent bastions of loyalism in partitioned Poland," Porter-Szucs says. He adds that the strong link between faith and fatherland emerged only in the beginning of the 20th century, and that "it would be many decades before it became unquestioned common sense that Poles were necessarily Catholic."

However, this popular myth does seem to be set in stone when it comes to the church in Poland's present political and social life and the hierarchy's strong influence over contemporary destinies. The overwhelming conviction that the Catholic church played a pivotal role in regaining Poland's independence and "preserving the nation" subsequently led to the general acceptance that the church leaders have the final say over every issue--be it abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, education or a TV program. The hierarchy, on its side, has started to believe the nation would cease to exist save for its constant intervention.

Obviously, such an attitude has led to serious consequences, especially for women's reproductive rights. In Poland, abortion and contraception have long been less of an individual matter and their repression more like a national raison d'etre, replacing the threat of personal damnation with the danger of national decline. Thus, Porter-Szucs says, when the debate over abortion and birth control intensified in the 1990s, ending with an abortion ban, the focus moved from religious judgments of individual women who have abortions to abortion being discussed as a matter of public policy with consequences for the national soul.

The view that childbearing is not a matter of individual choice, but rather an obligation toward the nation, is strengthened by the cult of the Virgin Mary. On Polish soil this has developed into the female ideal: the Mother-Pole (Matka-Polka). "This cultural figure was characterized by her ability to stand astride the public and private realms: she had a powerful and sometimes domineering nature, but was defined by her service to others; she played a vital role in the life of the nation, but she remained entirely within the domestic sphere.... She was characterized by a limitless ability to endure suffering, as she gave up her own pleasures and dreams so that the nation might survive," Porter-Szucs writes. The Matka-Polka stereotype--still alive today--helps explain why today's Poles are so attached to a sharp division of gender roles and why feminism remains relatively marginal, according to the author.

All the above doesn't mean Faith and Fatherland is addressed solely to the Polish audience--not at all. For foreigners, the book offers an insight into Poland's history seen through the lens of the Roman Catholic church. Without this insight one would find it difficult to comprehend a phenomenon like Father Rydzyk's Radio Maryja broadcasts--which have been called a loudspeaker for the fundamentalist branch of the church or for Poland's streak of anti-Semitism. The truth is, the contemporary trends visible in the Polish church, deeply rooted in the 19th century and the prewar years, remained in cold storage during the Communist regime, but they blossomed after the collapse of the system in 1989. It is difficult to decipher the church's role in modern-day Poland without tracing the story outlined in this book.

But, as Porter-Szucs argues, it would be a mistake and an oversimplification to see Polish Catholicism as a tradition generating nothing more but xenophobic nationalism. In addition to the Polish-centric rhetoric, there has always been a parallel school of thought promoting an open and progressive church. The relationship between ideas and ideologies on one hand, and social groups and individuals on the other, is a subject of frequent misunderstanding and one of the central themes of the book.

"This confusion inspires people to ask how a religion of peace could lead a person to commit an act of violence, how a progressive ideology could draw people to authoritarian politics, how conservative beliefs could coexist with transgressive personal behavior, and so on," the author writes. Such a view is based on a mistaken tendency to see ideology as a static entity that shapes people instead of being shaped by them. "Once we recognize that people participate in ideological formations, appropriate theological concepts, and utilize doctrinal claims, we realize that every large ism is a vehicle for thought and action, hut never the cause," Porter-Szucs says.


That's why the modern, open Lagiewniki Church as well the Torun Church--Radio Maryja's headquarters--can easily exist within the bounds of the same Catholic tradition here in Poland. As the author concludes, "Neither is more genuinely Catholic than the other because both participate in legacies developed over the past couple of centuries."

Despite being a lapsed Catholic converted into an atheist, I never miss an opportunity to expand my knowledge of Poland's ruling religion and its many undercurrents, especially because good, critical or simply unbiased books about Catholicism are still a rarity here. Reading Faith and Fatherland was a real feast for me, and it is recommended for both Poles and non-Poles who want a flesh perspective on the role of a church that has never been synonymous with the Polish state.

MALGORZATA HALABA is a Warsaw-based reporter for Dow Jones Newswires as well as o financial correspondent. She has also worked as an interpreter and a marketing consultant.
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Author:Halaba, Malgorzata
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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