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Blacks and Reds in Polish Technicolor

In post-communist Poland, the grass gets painted green whenever the Pope comes to visit.
Ewa Pagacz

Issue #45, October 1999

One of the jokes in communist-era Poland was that the grass in heavily polluted Silesia was painted green whenever the First Secretary came to visit.

In post-communist Poland, the difference is that the grass gets painted green whenever the Pope comes to visit. The blacks have triumphed over the reds, and it's the same difference.

Post-communism in Poland has led to a renaissance in the political power of the Catholic Church. Theology has replaced secular ideology. Poland is only today discovering the broad outlines of the Church's vision for its future, a frightening retreat from social rationalism and progress. The Church, which takes primary responsibility for the national defeat of communism, is building its own authoritarian structure in the midst of a new Western-style economy based on cheap labor.

The civic pacifism of Polish Catholicism protects the growing maldistribution of wealth. Forty percent of Poles live in poverty and thirteen percent in extreme destitution. The rate of malnourishment among children is rising rapidly while schools shut down their cheap canteens because they lack necessary funds. More and more orphanages are opened to shelter infants abandoned by mothers who cannot support their children, frequently their tenth child or greater. In villages, people do not have enough to buy even basic groceries: they rely on what they can grow in their small plots. Pensions are too low to let the old have a decent meal every day, and under privatized health care they cannot afford to buy medicines.

In the midst of this poverty, the Church is building an Empire of the Spirit. Since the early 1980s, when Poles could again openly attend church without fear of repercussions, new churches have literally mushroomed throughout the country. They are huge and gloomy edifices, usually made of red brick, with parish houses of almost the same size. The parish house has replaced the party branch office as a center of social power. No social event, no opening of a new public institution, can take place without a priest arriving to give his blessing, which is as important as any establishing legal documents.

This singularization of power is the realization of Church policy following the installation of the first real post-communist government in 1989. In the previous year, a leaked internal document written by Cardinal Glemp, the country's senior prelate, attacked the idea of neutral civic institutions and called for the Catholicization of the state. Glemp specifically rejected the concept of tolerance inasmuch as this limited the diffusion of true Christian values; he termed atheism "abnormal;" and he called for a ban on the right of nonbelievers to organize their own institutions. The core of Glemp's worldview and his insistence on the future centrality of the Church in national policymaking brought his vision close to that of Iranian theocrats. So far, he has failed only in his proposal to have the constitutional separation of church and state eliminated. Glemp and other major Catholic voices, like theologian Joszef Tishner, are calling for a redemption of Poland's 'national soul' from the secularizing effects of Marxism and for the substitution of a monopolistic faith.

Holy Classrooms

As a teacher, whenever I look at another new church and its towering walls of brick, I can only think of how many schools or libraries might be built with the same material and human effort spent on another priest's workplace. There are hundreds of uncounted new churches under construction, but not even one new university. An old-new system of social control is being built to replace the Party's control, and it is a culture of domination that relies equally on imposing its dictates through the educational system.

State and religion have become synonymous in the classroom, as state and party once were. In 1984 the clergy began a campaign to require school authorities to hang a crucifix on the front wall in every classroom, insisting that it should be affixed over the national emblem. They suggested that classes begin with a prayer, the same prayer as they proposed should serve as the opening paragraphs of the new constitution.

Beginning in 1991, Catholicism became a regular subject taught in state primary and secondary schools. The Church prevailed on the government to introduce this change by administrative means, avoiding a parliamentary vote and public debate. Although attendance was supposed to be optional, in practice it is difficult for students to get released. The latest initiative is to introduce Catholicism classes at the pre-school level ("Hey, mom! We did Jesus show-and-tell and I got these neat stigmata!").

Priests and nuns now serve as regular — but privileged — school faculty. They catechize bored children who take notes for memorization, because the religion exams are thorough. Failure in homiletics means being held back a grade. Religion classes provide the New Morality with its center. They are devoted specifically to the "proper" upbringing of youth and creating "good Christians" resistant to the wickedness of the world.

And what is wickedness if not sex? The Church successfully pressured the Ministry of Education in 1988 to withdraw all textbooks containing any information on sex. Priests list sins on the blackboard for students, among which are the use of contraceptives, pre-marital sex, or sex within marriage for reasons other than procreation. Students who demand some explanation or who express a different viewpoint are usually told to leave the classroom. Still, the clergy must know what it is talking about: newspaper articles frequently appear about priests fathering and nuns bearing children, and clergymen seducing young boys.

Morality for the Masses

I have never needed my alarm clock to wake me on Sunday mornings. The low, mournful sound of nearby church bells woke me at six a.m. Masses are available until noon, so whenever you look out the window on Sunday mornings there are crowds of people either going to or returning from church. In small provincial towns like mine, a large majority of the population attends mass; in villages, hardly anyone fails to attend.

The reason is not only religious zeal. In this heart of Europe, there remain many places where sermons are one of the major forms of social entertainment. They are sermons that offer up visions of God's anger together with promises of eternal suffering for hundreds of sins committed daily. Sin's definition is all-inclusive. A sin is what is done and what remains undone; what is read and what is not read; what is thought as well as acted. One wonders why no priest has translated the works of Jonathan Edwards or Michael Wigglesworth for sermon material. Mere anti-Protestant prejudice, for the content is little different.

For all its status as a site of patriarchy, a church in provincial towns and villages is almost the only social exchange available. Pubs are another, but since patriarchy is even stronger there, women — and especially women without male company — are a rare and unwelcome sight. Forget about coffeehouses, bookstores, sports centers, theaters, concert halls, etcetera: they don't exist. In smaller communities, any attempt to break out of the custom of attending masses, let alone public assertion that you are an atheist or not Christian, is to become an outcast. The atmosphere is "miasmatically puritanic," similar to that which Theodore Dreiser attributed to his nineteenth-century hometown of Terre Haute in his autobiography Dawn, a place where "An atheist is a criminal." An invisible line fences off any religious (and hence social) non-conformist. This is a smaller world, removed from the larger cities, one that the Party once governed but could never change.

In the tiny mountain villages of southern Poland, Sunday mini-pilgrimages are a common sight. When I took my son on weekend hiking trips in the mountains, whatever village we passed through we encountered groups of people descending from the hills, walking narrow country roads towards the village church. All of them wore their Sunday best and walked for an hour or two to worship, even longer during winter. There were lines of villagers walking on both sides of the road and since we were headed in the opposite direction from church, we received angry looks. Secular aliens heading for damnation, their looks said.

Aborting Evil Shopping Malls

There is little coherent, identifiable or effective opposition to political demands from the Church, largely because the generation of politicians elevated by Solidarity owes its success to support from the Church. The intellectual attacks of an aging radical anticlericalist like Lescek Kolakowski have given way to isolated journalistic animosity, such as that from Jerzy Urban and the newspaper Nie (No). The real difficulty the Polish Church faces does not come from left-wing dissenters or anticlericalists. There has been expanding access to urban infrastructure and economic changes that promote secular materialism with a rapidity far, far greater than under communism. Given such an emphatic growth in materialism, how will the new morality plays of spiritual virtue be performed? How will the Church remain the paramount force in this consumerist Poland?

Open capital investment markets since the '80s have attracted western European — mainly German and Austrian — firms that have built supermarket chains and shopping malls. They have been multiplying in large towns and cities as fast, possibly even faster, than the churches, and are often built next door. Malls are open on Sunday mornings and are pulling in more and more customer traffic, especially because Sunday is the only day off for workers who remain on a six-day work week. In consequence, attendance at Sunday masses has dropped and the malls have become an official Church enemy. Not only does mall consumerism divert the attention of the faithful. It also diverts their contributions to the Church.

The major political struggle in Poland today concerns the introduction of a ban on Sunday sales on the grounds that "true Christians" must not work on the Sabbath. A bloc of Catholic deputies in the Seym has prepared this national Blue Law for enactment. The current obstacle does not concern the specter of a state-enforced religious norm, but rather the consideration that a Sunday sales ban will become a major obstacle in Poland's effort to join the European Union. In the meantime, impatient and infuriated priests have launched their own private religious war against Satan's malls, not only sermonizing against them as sources of evil but also instigating window-smashing campaigns.

poland Together with targeting Sunday shoppers, the Church has continued its campaign against women and their reproductive health. Even before its faithful servant Lech Walesa swept into office, a Church-sponsored initiative succeeded in outlawing abortions that were available under the communist government. The law affects only poor women, since middle-class women can have the procedure performed in the Czech Republic or Germany, or by bribing a physician (an everyday practice — the current market price is about $500, or two and a half months average salary). The results are tragic and common: corpses of newborns wrapped in plastic bags and dumped in trash bins, abandonment of infants in clinics, death and near-death from septicemia and non-medical abortions. Because labor protections have almost disappeared in the new market economy, women who do bear children frequently lose their jobs because of work absence and their families sink into greater poverty. The Church presses its campaign forward: one of the latest legislative initiatives would criminalize parties to an abortion — a woman and the medical personnel — as responsible infanticidists and murderers. Another proposed law would ban pre-natal examinations entirely.

The Church's self-proclamation as the Great Defender of Human Life resolves into mere words shouted from the pulpit. Words cost nothing. At the century's end, a regressive theopolitics has seized the country, one that tells Poles to accept their miseries and pain, and that specifies God's will as the reason for poverty and income inequalities. Sexuality and the elaboration of a divine morality have become religious cudgels for social control. Religious intolerance of gender orientations other than heterosexuality is inseparable from this control regime: outside a couple of urban areas, gay and lesbian life remains entirely underground. When a deputy minister of health was dismissed after announcing that distribution of condoms would not be sanctioned even as protection against AIDS, since only "deviants" contracted the disease, Cardinal Glemp protested vigorously and compared the dismissal to Stalinist tactics.

The power to make desire legitimate or illegitimate is one of the Church's greatest skills. Desire is the point where the material and the emotional meet to emerge as the conditions of life. Desire is the point where the Church searches for its instruments of control. The historical results of rampant religious triumphalism were apparent some fifty years ago to Witold Gombrowicz, who recorded in his Diaries his dismay as a rationalist: "We were horrified to see that we were surrounded by an abyss made of millions of ignorant minds, which steal away our truths in order to pervert, diminish, and transform them into instruments of their passions." The drive towards theocracy relies on social rationalism both as an ally and as an enemy. To achieve material desire, theocracy relies on rationalistic production and social conditions; to achieve its immaterial desires, theocracy seeks to demonize secular ideologies.

Ewa Pagacz is a former college teacher and occasional essayist. She can be reached at

Copyright © 1999 by Ewa Pagacz. Drawing Mike Mosher 1999. All rights reserved.