East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1995, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


Postcommunist Poland:
Religious Liberty For All?

Adam Michnik

The [Polish Catholic] Church has not yet found its place in the postcommunist era.  Today it stands at a crossroads.  Does it seek institutional privileges and special rights for itself?  Should it try to use the state to impose Christian values?  Does it seek special influence on governmental policy?  Or will it see its place free from the temptations of party alliances and electoral campaigning, shunning the pursuit of official privileges and eschewing the power to shape state legislation?

In the great black hole after communism, part of the Catholic hierarchy sees the secular state as the new Public Enemy Number One.  In this view--one hears it frequently nowadays--the aggressive atheism of communist society is being replaced by the practical atheism of consumer society.  Western liberalism thus fills the recently vacated slot as the apocalyptic enemy of Catholicism.  In the language of the besieged fortress, dialogue is replaced by anathema.  And indeed, the Church no longer speaks in the language of dialogue.  Instead, there is monologue, spoken from the pulpit and printed in the pastoral letters:  a monologue of warning against the dangers of liberalism.

As the Church tries to legislate values, it is time to concentrate again on the need for dialogue.  For the problem today is that the aggressive language of the Church tends to elicit an equally aggressive language against the Church, a kind of gutter atheism, primitive anticlericalism.  Thus, while the Church rails against liberalism, we hear others charge that the Church is trying to create a police dictatorship and to replace Marxism-Leninism with Catholic doctrine.

And so we have a struggle between two contradictory fundamentalisms:  clerical and anticlerical.  What is one to do?  The answer, I think, is that one should do as always:  defend truth, common sense, and dialogue as opposed to hatred.  One must remember that real participation in politics and true meaning in life can only be provided by three Christian values of faith, hope, and love.  And of these three, the most important is love.

Our affection for civil liberties would be rather suspect were we to desire them only for ourselves.  Our morality would then be the morality of Kali:  "When Kali steals, that is good, but when Kali is robbed, that is bad."  Human rights must exist for everybody or they do not exist for anybody.  That much is indisputable.

But this does not settle the matter.  It is one thing to proclaim the indivisibility and universality of the rights of man and to defend those who are persecuted.  People often say that the Church once again wants to be the "mightiest," that it desires a return to the Constantinian model of exercising spiritual power.  Let me explain this through the words of Bohdan Cywinski, who counterpoised the concept of the "Julianic Church" to that of the "Constantinian Church."  In his book, Genealogies of the Indomitable, Cywinski wrote the following:

None of us means to deny the enormous contribution of Julianism, difficult for us even to comprehend, in the Church's resistance to official lies and coercion.  [However, as David Ost paraphrases Michnik, "What was special about the 'Julianic' Church was not that it was without political power, but that it had just been removed from power and that it sought, above all, to get its power back."]

The Roman Catholic Church will have to decide whether, in this world, its mission is to defend the Church or defend human beings.  Does the Church genuinely seek freedom for every human being, including believers in other religions as well as nonbelievers?  Or does it only seek "freedom for itself, its own faith, its own schools, its own press?"  Does the Church consider it possible to separate freedom for Catholics from a broader sphere of basic freedoms applicable to all citizens?  Further, does the Church desire to be the defender of all the oppressed and downtrodden, the suffering and the persecuted, or does it intend to work for the steady expansion of its own institutional rights until the complete recovery of its privileged position in the state?  Does it wish to carry on its missionary work in conditions of separation of church and state, or does it want to join with the state authorities in exercising power over the people?  Finally, does it want to sponsor religious political parties?

Our conflicts over the past usually reflect disagreements over the nature of Polish national culture.  The episcopate has frequently emphasized the Catholic nature of our culture.  It has often declared that there is an intrinsic connection between Catholicism and Polishness.  This connection can be understood in two ways.  It can mean that Catholicism is an integral part of Polish culture, or it can mean that only that which is Catholic is truly Polish.  If we say that the connection stems from Catholicism's long-lasting presence in our culture, this is obviously true and we can all agree on it.  But if, by speaking of this connection, we mean to reduce Polish culture to only those parts that have been shaped by Catholic thought, this can be quite dangerous.

I am deeply convinced that the strength of our culture is its pluralism, its variety.  This is what lies at the heart of our culture's richness and beauty.  It was not only Catholics who lived and created on this land of ours, but also Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, and nonbelievers, too.  True, there has been more than one attempt to achieve religious homogeneity and mono-ethnicity.  But such attempts were always carried out in ways that, to put it delicately, were not very conducive to the development of our culture.  Its participation in these efforts constitutes a black page in the annals of Polish Catholicism, for I can in no other way describe the expulsion of the Aryans or the limitations placed on civil rights of Protestants.  Although we did not burn anyone at the stake, the result of such policies was an increasing homogeneity of our spiritual life.  Our culture was in danger of being smothered by sheer uniformity.  This is what led Leszek Kolakowski [philosopher and historian who came to reject Marxism] to remark bitterly about the "curse of clerical, fanatical and dimwitted Catholicism, which has been strangling our culture for some four hundred years."  I do not fully agree with Kolakowski.  During the partitions, I feel, Catholicism enriched our culture immensely.  And Kolakowski's remarks are not at all relevant to the situation after 1945.  Nevertheless, Kolakowski has touched upon an essential point, albeit with a touch of journalistic bravado.  For the Roman Catholic Church did indeed win the battle for the "control of souls."  Other faiths almost completely disappeared, leaving only small contingents behind.  And yet this proved to be a Pyrrhic victory, for it came at a very high price?indeed, at too high a price.  Standing alone on the battlefield, Catholicism triumphant became a shallow, anti-intellectual, and extremely conservative movement.

But today the Church stands at a crossroads.  People of the Church must decide?do they seek to replace the official, totalitarian, fundamentalist concept of "socialist" culture with an equally fundamentalist doctrine of "Catholic" culture?  Or do they seek to create the conditions for the free development of the entire national culture?  What exactly do they wish to defend:  our ravaged culture with its inherent pluralism, or only a place for what they call "Catholic culture"? 

Excerpt reprinted with permission from The Church and the Left (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1993).  Available in hardcover for $24.95 from University of Chicago Press, 11030 S. Langley Ave., Chicago, IL 60628; tel:  312-568-1550, 800-621-2736; fax:  312-660-2235.

Adam Michnik, a Polish intellectual imprisoned for his outspoken opposition to Communism, became a key negotiator in the 1989 Round Table discussions that brought an end to Marxist rule in Poland.  Today he is chief editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's most influential daily newspaper.


Adam Michnik, "Postcommunist Poland:  Religious Liberty For All?" East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Summer 1995), 7-8.

A Checklist of Polish Church-State Issues


The Continuing Relevance of The Church and the Left

David Ost

There are at least four reasons why, for a Western audience, this book is more relevant today than when it was written in 1976.

Social and Political Upheavel
1) In the past fifteen years, Poland has experienced one of the most remarkable social and political upheavals of the twentieth century, precipitating the collapse of Communist rule in Eastern Europe, and both Adam Michnik and the ideas expressed in this book played a significant role in bringing this about.  Michnik has been present at both ends of this experience--as a key leader in the pre-Solidarity opposition and as a central player in the 1989 Round Table negotiations that finally brought Communist rule to a close.

The Polish upheaval has been the most fascinating but perhaps the most confusing of all the East European "revolutions."  Here we saw a social movement packed with all the symbols usually associated with the Left, yet with a stocky religious underpinning that seemed part of a different drama altogether.  Workers occupied factories and called for a society of social justice while priests conducted mass in the Lenin Shipyard for thousands.  The confluence of the secular and the religious, of the modern and premodern, seemed unsettling to many in the West but entirely acceptable to liberal Polish intellectuals who had not long before been as anticlerical as any other European intelligentsia.  No other book explains the basis or rationale for the intellectuals' turn to the Church as well as Michnik's does.  Nor does any other work make clear the differences still remaining, differences which become more prominent today.  The Church and the Left gives us a key to understanding many of the developments of this extraordinary recent period in Polish and East European history.

A New Democracy
2) Like the rest of Eastern Europe, Poland is now trying to build a new democratic political system?an uncertain project that requires the precise meaning of democracy to be created anew.  Through Michnik's superb discussions of liberalism and nationalism, of secularism and clericalism, the book teaches us a great deal about the contending sides in the internal struggles now rocking Eastern Europe.

Today's Religious Revival
3) In the 1970s everybody seemed to treat religion as a mere relic of the past, waging a losing battle against progress and mercilessly cast aside by the irrepressible pull of secular modernity.  Even the experts considered Ayatollah Khomeini's struggle for power in Iran a curious sideshow to the "real" struggle between the monarchy and the political Left.  Today, on the contrary, the widespread feeling that secular progress, whether in its liberal or communist variants, only destroyed communities instead of creating the better ones it had promised, has led to a revival of religion and to a questioning of the notion of progress throughout the world including, of course, Poland, where the Church felt strong enough in 1991 to propose the repeal of the constitutional separation of church and state.  Michnik defends the Church as a social institution that has an inalienable right to pursue its pastoral mission for the faithful, but warns against the fundamentalist tendency to establish Catholicism as a state religion and deny others the same rights it reserves for itself.

A Distinctive Voice
4) Finally, publication of The Church and the Left is timely today simply because it was written by Adam Michnik.  Through a wide body of writing over the past fifteen years, and an unswerving political commitment that took him from prison to parliament and leaves him today as the chief editor of Poland's most important daily newspaper, Michnik has earned a place as one of the most influential and innovative European thinkers of our time. 

Excerpt reprinted with permission from The Church and the Left (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1993).  Available in hardcover for $24.95 from University of Chicago Press, 11030 S. Langley Ave., Chicago, IL 60628; tel:  312-568-1550, 800-621-2736; fax:  312-660-2235.

David Ost is the English translator of Michnik's The Church and the Left.


David Ost, "The Continuing Relevance of The Church and the Left," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Summer 1995), 9.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664


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