The Polish Church as an Enemy of the Open Society

Andrzej Flis

In The Open Society and Its Enemies, first published half a century ago, Karl Popper distinguished between two kinds of economic-political systems: closed societies and open societies. The former have a semi-organic nature and place submission to authority among the highest values; the latter are abstract and impersonal entities that, by their very nature, “set free the critical powers of man.”1 Closed societies are permeated by the tenet of the primacy of the collective over the individual. Open societies, to the contrary, are marked by a belief in human initiative and the affirmation of individualism. Closed societies deny the interest of the “human individual as individual” while acknowledging only his interest as a “tribal hero.” Open societies grant their members the right to personal decisions and free choice as long as they do not violate the freedom of others?2

In the “Foreword” to the Polish edition of this book, written just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Karl Popper stressed that he had introduced the term open society as a synonym for the “not very fortuitous term democracy.”3 The essence of democracy, he stated, is political freedom, and its opposite is despotism, a system as old as civilization. “Under despotic government,” the author wrote, “we are terrified and have no right to responsibility for our own deeds. This means that we are stripped of our humanity. Moral responsibility is, after all, part of our humanity.”4

For nearly half a century, the Poles were stripped of part of their humanity by the totalitarian communist system that drew its ideological legitimation from Marxist doc-trine. Before the malignant spread of the communist system over Central Europe as a consequence of the Second World War, this doctrine had already become the object of Sir Karl Popper’s passionate criticism. “The expectation that Marxism would become a major problem,” Popper noted in 1950, “was the reason for treating it at some length.”5

The Poles resisted the communist authorities stubbornly for nearly half a century, laboriously widening their margin of freedom. The dates 1956 (the loss of power by the Stalinist faction in the communist party as a result of workers’ demonstrations in Poznañ), 1968 (student protests), 1970 (a general strike on the Baltic coast), 1976 (strikes in Ursus and Radom), 1980 (the rise of “Solidarity”), and, finally, 1989 (the definitive overthrow of the communist system) mark successive stages in the struggle of civil society against the totalitarian state. This struggle had already begun during the Second World War, prior to the establishment of the communist system, with the heroic, two-month-long Warsaw Uprising, doomed to defeat even before its initiation on August 1, 1944, because of the cynical attitude of the Western Allies.

Like other institutions and social groups, the Catholic church was sup-pressed by the Polish United Workers’ Party throughout the period of communist dictatorship and came out on the side of the political opposition, demanding the introduction of a democratic system in Poland. To the amazement of most observers, conditions for such a development arose in 1989, when the first postwar non-communist government was formed as a result of the Round Table agreement. The head of this government was Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Catholic journalist and one of Lech Walesa’s advisors. It is therefore hardly strange that many Poles then expected the church hierarchy to support that Solidarity government in its efforts to transform Poland into a democratic state and to lend its authority to the difficult task of shaping new patterns of political life different from those that made up the sad legacy of several decades of totalitarian-ism. However, things turned out other-wise. Poland was launched down the road leading back to an ideological state. The bishops decided to fill the post-Marxist doctrinal vacuum with Catholic funda-mentalism. They undertook the task of transforming Poland once again into a closed society—this time, a theocratic one.

Leaving aside its primal, etymological meaning of “rule by God,” theocracy can be understood in two ways: first, as political domination by the clergy and the abolition of the difference between religious and secular authority (as in pre-communist Tibet or today’s Iran); second, as a political system in which the division between the two orders is preserved, but in which the clergy demands that the state compel individuals to observe religious norms (as in medieval Europe). In this second instance, sin is not only a violation of the divine commandments but also a misdemeanor punishable by the secular adminis-tration—and the clergy, the repository of supernatural law, sits in judgment of that administration. In this second instance the clergy becomes something on the order of a super-authority or, to put it another way, an authority over the authorities, since only the clergy knows what is good and what is evil, and the clergy alone, thanks to the competence it enjoys, has the right to assess whether man-made law agrees with supernatural law and to evaluate the observance of that law by all actors in public life, including the state administration.

Beginning in August 1990 with the introduction of religious instruction in public schools—despite current law6 and an initially negative stand by the Mazowiecki government—the Catholic church has followed a scenario for the transformation of Poland into a closed society. Further steps in this process have been the addition of new impediments to divorce, the anti-abortion legislation and the campaign of hysteria that preceded its passage, the December 1992 Radio and Television law that made respect for “Christian values” obligatory for both public and private broadcasters, rules forc-ing soldiers to take part in “field masses” and other religious observances,7 the attempt to force the Seym (Poland’s one-house parliament) to ratify a Concordat that is unfavorable to the state, the pres-sure on the Constitutional Commission of the National Assembly to clericalize the Constitution,8 and, finally, the increasingly aggressive attacks on the policy of integration in the European community.

There are many reasons behind the church’s success to date in its efforts to transform Poland into a closed society. They can be categorized fundamentally as negative and positive. The negative reasons are above all carryovers from the communist regime, which will continue for some time to be a burden on the fate of Poland: the lack of a democratic political culture, the weakness of the state apparatus, and a poorly functioning party system that, with a few exceptions, is made up of small political groupings engaged in ceaseless factional conflict. Among the positive factors, the institutional might of the church is paramount. Thus, in a situation where approximately thirty parties are fighting for parliamentary seats, the well-developed church hierarchy naturally becomes the most powerful actor in political life. Furthermore, the Catholic church is the only centralized organization in Poland, resting on the principle of unquestioning obedience and furnished with abundant material resources, that has branches in every corner of the country and whose highest authorities enjoy complete freedom from social oversight. It is this institutional power of the church that makes it the dominant force in political life and gives it the strength to force through a scenario in which Polish society is “closed” against the will of most of its members. In such a situation, few politicians are able to resist the demands of a Catholic hierarchy that itself lies beyond the scope of public opinion and can therefore systematically carry out the actions that it has planned in advance, needing only to adjust them on the tactical level to the changing balance of forces in parliament.

We are witnessing a paradoxical reversal of roles in the Poland of the nineties. “Now,” as Wojciech Lamentowicz notes, “we have to protect democratic values not so much from a powerful, authoritarian state, but from a powerful, authoritarian church. The church, which before had been the defender of the people, has become the new obstacle to self-expression.”9 This is happening because the Catholic hierarchy has undertaken the effort to transform Poland into a confessional state and, by exerting constant pressure on the state authorities, is trying to raise religious norms to the status of laws that must be followed by all the citizens of the state regardless of their convictions.

Several years ago, this fundamental policy by the Polish church compelled Adam Michnik to formulate a warning against the impending “Iranization” of the country. That term does not reflect the essence of the problem. Iran is a theocracy in the direct sense of the word, while Poland is threatened by indirect theocracy, in which the authorities are secular in the formal sense but subservient to the religious hierarchy. In Iran, the clergy openly exercises authority in the state, both legislative and executive, and bears the political consequences. Things are different in Poland. The leaders of the church exert influence on political life from “off stage,” without holding any public office. Thus, from the formal point of view, it is not the church hierarchy that promulgates such unpopular laws as the ban on abortions or tax exemptions for the clergy, but the politicians who in the final analysis must answer for their decisions before the electorate. This is authority without responsi-bility, a situation that is fundamentally demoralizing and which constitutes a great threat to the future of Polish democracy.

The division of authority from responsibility is accompanied by the progressive extension of ideology throughout the state. The Polish state is thus gradually ceasing to be a territorial organization representing the general interests of its citizens, and slowly being transformed into “the secular arm of the Church,” an institution that represents the mass of believers and leads them towards future salvation with the help of criminal sanctions. The logical consequence of this type of system is the subjugation of all spheres of public life to moral control by the government, over which the church stands as supreme arbiter and highest court.

The progressive extension of ideology throughout the state, as enjoined for several years by the church hierarchy and extremist Catholic movements, can be seen not only in the efforts to make “Christian values” a supreme constitutional principle, but also in the insistent attempts to transform the specific—by its very nature—language of religious fundamentalism into the objective means of public communication and a generalized conceptual system serving to describe the world. Thus, demands for the separation of church and state are called “relegating religion to the catacombs” and the idea of treating Catholics and non-Catholics equally is called “persecution of believers.” Opponents of the omnipotent clergy become “enemies of God,” tolerance is “the acceptance of evil,” and abortion “the killing of children.”

When the current Seym began working on the liberalization of the anti-abortion law that had been forced through the previous parliament under concerted church pressure, the suffragan of Lowicz, Bishop Józef Zawitkowski, addressed the parliamentary delegates during a sermon that was broadcast on radio in the following words:

If there have been too few crematoria, concentration camps and crimes against my nation for you, then sign this new act of mass murder! Just don’t use the same hand to sign the Concordat with the Holy See. Take your example from the other capitals where the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah are legal. Then you’ll be progressive. They’ll welcome you to Europe with applause. But God will burn this city!10

His words were not an isolated outburst by a high member of the church hierarchy. The language of Bishop Zawitkowski has been heard throughout the country for several years, as the accepted means by which the Catholic clergy communicates with the outside world, Polish society, and its democratic, secular authorities. “In Poland,” said Father Czeslaw Bartnik at a diaconate conference in December 1991,

against the background of the City of God we are beginning to see … the reg-num diaboli, civitas diaboli, a society in service to the anti-Christ, making for itself the theme of history with its blas-phemous liturgy and its black notoriety for sin, crime and what is anti-human. The civitas diaboli likes to hide itself under the screen of the civitas saecu-laris—the innocent secular society. Its ideal is the secular in opposition to God. Its light is the darkness of sin.11

This Catholic newspeak hardly differs in essence from the communist newspeak disseminated by the media during the ancien regime. Its goals are, first, to neutralize its political opponents at the initial stage of stating their own interests, and second, to lend moral legitimacy to the physical and administrative compulsion used against those opponents when they try to act. This Catholic newspeak is a language of aggression and hatred directed against non-Catholics who demand equal rights and oppose discrimination. As sketched by Bishop Zawitkowski and Father Bartnik, the collective portrait of the non-Catholic is not a picture of a partner in dialogue or even of an opponent, for an opponent deserves some respect. It is the portrait of an enemy. An enemy has nefarious intentions and his arguments are false by their very nature. He says one thing (demanding an “innocent secular society”) and does another (fights against God). He cunningly conceals his true aim (wallowing in sin) and the sources of his strength (a pact with Satan). There is no discussion with an enemy. He must be unmasked, driven out of society, and destroyed. Otherwise, the enemy will destroy the Fatherland and all God’s people.

The desire to transform the state into the secular arm of the church, so very characteristic of the Catholic hierarchy in Poland after communism, is hardly anything new. On the contrary, this type of church-state relation has a long history that reaches back to the medieval period and functioned as a de facto constitutional model until the French Revolution, and as a de jure model until the mid-1960s, when it was abandoned as a doctrine by the Second Vatican Council. The present efforts by the clergy and religious fundamentalists to impose a confessional state on the Poles, however, appeal to a different ideology from what was used in the past. This is no longer the theological legitimation forged in the medieval period, according to which all power derives from God and the bishops, his representatives on earth, enjoy the right to supervise the secular authorities. Rather, this is a quasi-democratic legitimation: the church hierarchy represents Catholics; 95% of Poles are Catholics; therefore the clergy is the natural leadership of all true Poles—and an attack on the church is an attack on the nation.

The bishops have resorted time and again to this secular, quasi-democratic argumentation in their political campaign to transform Poland into a confessional state. For instance, demanding that the Seym introduce pro-Catholic censorship of radio and television in 1992, they posed the following rhetorical question: “Whom do the delegates to parliament represent if, in a country with a decided Christian majority, they reject a proposal to adhere to the Christian system of values in the mass media? … Can the highest state authorities remain passive and indifferent when the religious feelings of the citizens are insulted? Do some secular circles, unfriendly to Christian culture, have the right to eradicate and ridicule Christian values and the values of Polish national culture?”12

It is worth noting in these remarks the linking of Christian values with national values, referring implicitly to the stereotype of the Catholic Pole that has been propagated indefatigably by the disciplined ranks of the clergy and the religious fundamentalists. This linking is intended to suggest that everything that is good for the church is ex definitio good for the state, and everything that harms the church also harms Poland. This simple rhetorical figure inevitably recalls the ideological formula served up to Poles by the former communist regime: whatever is good for the party is good for the nation, and whatever harms the party weakens the nation. Both these constitutional constructions have a great deal in common: they put the interests of the collective above the interests of the individual, they do not pretend to be accepted as the result of mature reflection, they do not tolerate criticism or substantive discussion, and finally they replace the force of argument with the argument of force.

Appealing to the supposed will of the majority as a means to legitimize theocratic claims borders on the ironic in the case of the Polish church, which has no scruples about scorning democratic institutions, including the institutions of direct democracy, when they come into conflict with “Christian values.” This can be seen particularly clearly in the case of the statement by the bishops in May 1992, when the Episcopate not only opposed a national referendum on the admissibility of abortion, but went on to suggest that such referenda could lead in the future to “other unworthy deeds,” including concentration camps.13 The bishops’ anti-democratic stance finds ideological backing in the teachings of the present pope, especially in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which is an attack on the basic rules of the democratic system—especially on the authority of parliament and the majority. Evangelium Vitae rejects expressis verbis the principle that Thomas Jefferson called “the idea of a republic”—/ex maioris partis, and it calls the supporters of abortion, contraception, and euthanasia (who include the European Parliament) the representatives of “the civilization of death.”

In its claims to be the leading force of the nation, the Polish Episcopate appeals to “democratic” arguments, to the supposed will of the majority, a will that, in view of the hierarchical and monarchical organization of the church, somehow can not be made manifest within its own structure. What is more, the very criterion of the Christian majority is essentially undemocratic. The 95% of the Poles about whom the clergy and the religious fundamentalists so eagerly speak are not Catholics or Christians, but merely the people who have been baptized—incorpo-rated in the community of the faithful de jure, as infants, decades ago, without their own knowledge or consent.

If being a Catholic is defined by use of the criteria of church law, then it turns out that Catholics are a minority in Poland. Thus, according to data published by the Main Statistical Office and the Catholic Mission Society, less than 42% of Poles define themselves as “regularly practicing.” 14 The significance of this figure is enhanced by the fact that a majority of Poles hold views at odds with the official position of the church on such important questions of conduct as the ban on contraception (68%), the ban on abortion (56%) or the ban on premarital sex (53%).15

The most damaging factor for the “democratic” legitimation of the clergy’s theocratic claims, however, is the wide-spread approval of a state that is neutral on questions of conscience, as declared by 75% of Poles, and the even stronger disapproval of the church’s engagement in politics (81%).16 These data show clearly that the overwhelming majority of Poles regard the church solely as a religious institution and do not see it as their political representative. Furthermore, Catholics, or at least a significant number of them, fear the church as a political force. “In the interviews that I have conducted,” says Hanna cewida-Ziemba, “many responses contained an element of fear: the Church can take away our jobs, can harass us, can make the life of the most average family miserable.”17

Fear of the church as a political institution explains why, in a country that is 95% Catholic de jure, the parties of the left that derive from the communist political system won an overwhelming victory in the last parliamentary elections in September 1993 and captured the presidency in November 1995. This fear also demonstrates the falsity of the quasi-democratic legitimation to which the church so readily appeals in its efforts to build a confessional state. “Poland is perhaps the only country in the world,” writes Pawel Smoleñski, “where it seems to us that we live in accord with God, and at the same time there is no agreement with his earthly servants. Therefore everyone . . . who takes a firm stand in the discourse with the Church automatically scores points.”18

In the last parliamentary and presidential elections, the winners were the heirs of those political forces that created a closed society of the communist type after the war. This happened, in large part, because the postcommunists, previously opposed by a grass-roots social movement, now appeared as the main opponents of the campaign to transform Poland back into a closed society—this time, of the clerical-Catholic type. In short, the former communists seem today to be more credible democrats than the Catholic right, despite the unquestioned merits of the latter in overthrowing the communist system in 1989.

The fact that the right did not manage to win even a single seat in the last parliamentary elections, despite the unequivocal support of the church, signals the lack of consent by the preponderant majority of society for the continuation of the program of Christianizing Poland by legal-administrative means. This tendency has not changed as shown by Lech Walesa’s defeat in the presidential elections at the hands of the post-communist, Aleksander Kwaceniewski.

On November 19, the day of the parliamentary elections, Cardinal Józef Glemp, the Primate of Poland, expressed his opinion that the country was choosing not so much between two candidates as between two systems of values: Christian and neo-pagan.19 “If Kwaceniewski is elected,” the secretary of the Episcopate, bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, had stated several days earlier, “this would mean a defeat for the mission of the Church.”20 The bishops of the Kielce diocese prayed, “Lord, do not permit Poland to be led into the next century by a president who does not acknowledge the Cross, even when our churches are full.”21 Despite the hysterical Catholic propaganda and the dramatic appeals from the clergy, that is exactly what happened. The Catholic church suffered another painful political defeat.

Poles oppose not only the transformation of religion into a state ideology, but also, and this is immensely significant, making it the basis of morality.22 This much is acknowledged by a representative of the clergy, the sociologist and priest Wladyslaw Piwowarski. “The great majority of Catholics,” he writes, “are characterized by what is known as selective religiousness, which is an ongoing tendency.”23 His diagnosis bodes nothing good for the church’s political intentions, which in the future—as at present—will have to be realized on the basis of democratic institutions. These institutions, no matter how vulnerable they may be to overt or behind-the-scenes pressure from the church hierarchy, cannot, in the long run, ignore the mass preferences of society. This fact was clearly demonstrated in the most recent parliamentary and presidential elections.

The chances for the church’s political expansion are therefore undercut by the very nature of Polish religiousness: it is ritualistic, ceremonial, folk-spectacular; in the sphere of the experience of faith it is declarative and superficial, if not down-right empty! Religion, as Father Piwowarski states, is not a personal value in Poland.

The proof of this is the fact that only a small percentage of Catholics (approxi-mately 15%) deepen their faith either through the institutional Church … or through religious communities.24

In such a situation, it is hardly surprising that religious fundamentalism enjoys no significant social support in Poland and that only 9% of the population accepts the engagement of the church hierarchy in political life.25

Nor is this all. The chances for the political expansion of the church are also being weakened by the general social transformations of recent years. Thus, with the fall of communism, the need for the church’s protective-integrating role disappeared in Poland. After decades of subjugation, society recovered its freedom, becoming pluralistic as it gained a voice in its own affairs and became able to pursue the realization of its own needs in an unfettered way. Together with the fall of the communist system, the Polish church ceased to be a surrogate for a sovereign state and became one of many organizations making up the overall institutional system. To these changes is added the ongoing process, which began as long ago as the 1960s, of the disintegration of the canons of national culture based on aristocratic, Romantic, and Catholic patterns and the tendency to replace them with a pluralistic culture containing pronounced cosmopolitan and hedonistic elements. This process has wiped away the bases of the traditional Polish identity, shattered the authority of the church hierarchy—as both a religious and a national institution—and transformed the worldview and aspirations of ever-wider social groups, especially the young, city dwellers, people with secondary and higher education, and the more affluent strata. In short, the extensive systemic transformation has gradually caused the Polish church to lose the support of the most important social groups, the very groups that in large measure will determine the future of the country. In this context, a comparison with Spain is unavoid-able—a state in which, more than half a century ago, the Catholic hierarchy undertook the task of creating a new, closed society on the ruins of the republic, as noted by Karl Popper in The Open Society.

The victory of General Franco in the Civil War in 1939 opened amazing possibilities to the Spanish clergy. Excluded from public life by the anti-clerical, democratic governments of the republic, it secured a dominant position in all spheres of public activity in the fascist state. The Catholic religion was elevated to the rank of state ideology and the status of a central ingredient of Francoism. Church dignitaries sat as full members in the highest organs of the state: in the government, the Cortes, the Regency Council. The Catholic hierarchy quickly established its full control of schooling, the press, publishing, the cinema, and, in practical terms, all other institutions of public life. Nevertheless, despite enormous determination and commitment of resources, the attempt at creating a perfectly Catholic society in total obedience to divine and church law ended finally in utter defeat. Today’s Spain, after all, is one of the most secularized countries in Europe!

The church managed to establish and maintain for several decades a tight control over the Spaniards. And yet their moral-religious evolution followed a completely different direction than what was intended. The social-economic transformation in the 1960s crushed the foundations of the post-republican order. It was superseded by an industrial, urbanized society more closely integrated into Western Europe. To this process were added the disintegration of the traditional canons of national culture and the dissemination of a consumer lifestyle. All these changes have led to the present marginalization of religion and the Catholic church in Spain.

The criticism of Spain voiced by Pope John Paul II in 1991, when he accused the country’s inhabitants, and especially the young, of rejecting the faith of their ancestors and submitting to the slavery of consumerism, materialism, and hedonism, echoed around the Catholic world. The successor of the present Bishop of Rome will have ample reasons to level similar words at Poland in twenty years’ time.



  1. Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Kegan Paul, Enemies, London: Routledge and 1984, vol. 1, p.l.
  2. Ibid., p. 190.
  3. Karl Popper, Otwarte spoleczeñstwo i jego wrogowie, Warszawa: PWN, 1993, vol. 1, p. 1.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, vol. 1, p. viii.
  6. The Instruction of the Minister of National Education, dated August 3, 1990, on the introduction of religious instruction to kindergartens and public schools was unconstitutional and in conflict with three legal statutes.
  7. In the Soldier’s Prayerbook (1994), Brigadier General Kazimierz Tomaszewski, second in command of the Warsaw Military Region, instructs his subordinates: “It would be inadmissible to set any such precedent as exclusion from an honor company for reasons touching differences of religion.. . . Refusal to follow the standard is a refusal to carry out an order… Participation in the Ceremonial Roll Call at a Field Mass is a duty, and if you are an unbeliever or a member of another faith, you may refrain from active participation in prayers. Only carry out the commands that are given to you without any public display of the fact that you are dissatisfied.” See Gazeta 11yborcza, December 31, 1994— January
  8. The issues here are above all, although not exclusively, the introduction of an invocation of God in the Preamble of the future Constitution, the abolition of the principle of the separation of church and state, and the acknowledgment of Christian values as the foundation of public life.
  9. Cited by Paul Hockenos, Free to Hate, New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 247.
  10. Gazeta Wyborcza, July 9-10, 1994.
  11. Gazera Wyborcza, November 14-15, 1992.
  12. Komunikat 289. Konferencji Plenarnej Episkopatu Polski.
  13. This equilibristic leap of logic utilized the following reasoning: “Voting for the legalization of the destruction of human life not only violates human law, but also offends the whole natural order. The possible admission of such voting could in consequence lead to other unworthy deeds, such as euthanasia or depriving ill people of life as lacking social usefulness. The most radical form of the questioning of the right to life according to the foregoing criteria was, as we know, the concentration camp.” See Odezwa biskupów polskich w sprawie referendum na temar ¢ycie nie narodzonych, z 2 maja 1991 roku.
  14. Koúció’ katolicki w Polsce 1918-1990, Warszawa, 1991, p. 166.
  15. The percentage of Poles supporting these prohibitions is, respectively, 17%, 29%, and 26%. The data were collected from a nationwide sample by the Center for Public Opinion Research in November 1992. See Polityka, December 5, 1992.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Gazeta Wyborcza, October 28-29, 1995.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Gazeta Wyborcza, November 20, 1995.
  20. Tygodnik Powszechny, November 15, 1995.
  21. Rzeczpospolita, November 10-12, 1995.
  22. According to surveys carried out by the Center for Public Opinion Research in the summer of 1995, only one-third of the respondents accept the view that religion should become the basis for moral renewal in Poland after communism. See Rzeczpospolita, September 19, 1995.
  23. Polityka, May 11, 1991.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Data from the Center for Public Opinion Research, November 1992. See Polityka, December 5, 1992.

Andrzej Flis

Andrzej Flis is Professor of Sociology at Jagiellonian University in Cracow. Established in 1364, it is one of the world's oldest universities.

In The Open Society and Its Enemies, first published half a century ago, Karl Popper distinguished between two kinds of economic-political systems: closed societies and open societies. The former have a semi-organic nature and place submission to authority among the highest values; the latter are abstract and impersonal entities that, by their very nature, “set …

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