Poland’s Battle Between Theocracy and Secular Democracy

Poland’s Battle Between Theocracy and Secular Democracy May 26, 2016

By Beth Holmgren, Duke University.


Kapa1966 / Shutterstock.com


In early April, the Middle Ages engaged in an unusual skirmish with the 21st century in cities across Poland. During a Sunday mass in this overwhelmingly Catholic country, priests read their congregations a letter from the Polish Episcopate calling for an unconditional ban on abortion. Scores of women then walked out in protest, their exodus filmed in famous churches such as St. Mary’s Basilica in Gdańsk and Saint Anne’s Church in Warsaw. In St. Anne’s, one young woman started a heated argument with the priest on camera. Outside, thousands of women gathered on city streets and squares, listening to pro-choice speakers and holding up signs, many homemade, that flashed their opinions: “Hands off my uterus,” “No to torturing women,” “I’ll have a child when I want to.” They brandished coat hangers, an implement of dangerous self-induced abortion first politicized by American feminists in the 1960s.

These actions mark an extraordinary nationwide moment for Polish women and Polish Catholicism. Pro-choice demonstrations are common in other countries, but not in Poland, and never inside its churches. I have been studying Polish culture since the 1980s, when the Catholic Church strived to be the true ally of the working class in a communist state. The 1978 election of a Polish pope, John Paul II, bolstered the rise of Solidarity, an independent trade union that eventually engendered several political parties in post-1989 Poland. The Church produced martyrs for the people’s cause. In the Warsaw neighborhood where I lived in 1984, Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, an outspoken critic of the communist regime, was abducted and murdered by three members of Poland’s secret police.

The Church wielded even greater authority over Polish society after the fall of communism, though that authority remained deeply patriarchal, with liberty and justice for some, not all. John Paul II stood tough against a corrupt communist system and initiated an important rapprochement between Catholics and Jews, but a campaign for women’s reproductive rights lay beyond his religious belief. This Polish pope subscribed fully to the Catholic doctrine that human life begins at conception. Abortion had been legal in communist Poland. In post-communist Poland, the Church helped pushed through what was called a compromise in 1993, a law that allowed women to have abortions only in the case of rape, incest, severe fetal impairment, and risk to the mother’s life. Poland’s abortion law is one of the most restrictive in the world, yet was not ameliorated even after Poland’s 2004 admission into the European Union.

Why, then, did so many Polish women literally turn their backs on the Church in recent weeks? The conservative “Law and Justice” party has wasted no time pushing its nationalist agenda. It has defied the authority of the extant Polish constitution and the Constitutional Tribunal, placed a “leftist” public media under government control, distanced itself from the socially liberal policies of the EU, and tarnished as traitors those who disagree with its anti-pluralist stance on virtually every issue ranging from sexuality to national self-criticism. Now members of “The Committee in Defense of Democracy,” which numbers in the hundreds of thousands, march en masse in Polish cities almost every week, carrying signs and giving speeches. They use social media to organize marches and events; they literally project their demands on government buildings at night.

Even so, Polish Catholic women did not decide to walk out of church on April 3rd until the Episcopate ordered priests to endorse “Law and Justice” legislation during mass. The line separating church and state was quickly erased. A supposedly independent lobbying committee, “Stop Abortion,” collected the 100,000 signatures required to present the abortion ban bill to Parliament; the Church could only approve such a bill; and the all-Catholic “Law and Justice” party could only obey the Church. Lest there be any opposition, the Church enlisted its local representatives to instruct the faithful how to vote.

This church-party strategy backfired, provoking rather than preempting opposition. Once news of the bill and the Church’s planned sanction of it went public, a non-partisan group, “Women for Women,” formed on Facebook overnight, gathering 100,000-plus members and organizing media-savvy weekend protests and church walkouts. Over the last month, the opposition has picked up steam and plenty of left-wing political support, generating a new committee, “Let’s Save Women,” which proposes more radical legislative and educational reform. 

Supporters of “Let’s Save Women” insist that they will not accept a Church-run government; the result, then, is an unheard-of battle between theocracy and secular democracy in 21st-century Poland.

Beth Holmgren_headshotBeth Holmgren is a professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Duke University.

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