Why Is Poland the Most Religious & Conservative Country in Europe?

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When talking about Poland, “religion” often means “Catholicism”. About 90% of Poles are Roman Catholics, although this number may be overestimated as the statistics often include people who were baptised Catholic, even if they later abandoned the Church.Poland is the most religious country in Europe because of the unique role of the State and civil authorities in its history, coupled with the stability and cultural identity that being a part of the Roman Catholic Church allowed the society adopt.

The area of modern day Poland (which correspond quite closely to the 'borders' of the early State) was home to a number of varied tribes and powerful families that spoke West Slavic languages of the Lechtic branch. In 966, the Piast dynasty united a number of tribes and adopted Christianity. The moment when Piast king Mieszko was baptized in the Latin rite is considered the founding of Poland as a nation and State. This alone is one of the reasons for the religiousity of the nation, since the founding story of the State and nation is tied so closely with the Church.

Beyond this, later in the history of Poland existed a unique system where the King was not the absolute authority but instead was elected by the nobles who had the ability to veto with a single vote ("Golden Liberty") anything the law making body they were members of proposed. This created a system where many nobles had their own interests in the fore, and would often work with regional powers to the detriment of the Kingdom of Poland and later Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania.

It is our personal opinion based on my reading of history, and experiences as a Pole, that even this early history has influenced the people of Poland to see the State and authority arising from it as something to be looked at with caution, and that is working against them personally and as a nation. The current political climate in Poland reflects this, with one party espousing the view that the Polish governing coalition is working with alien forces against the 'Nation' and even framing this argument using the frame of history. In most countries, this would be a small fringe position but in Poland, this party polls close to 25% in the polls.


Why is this history important?

It provides context to the role the Church played in the creation of the historical narrative of Poland. When partly as a result of the untenable political situation that existed with the Golden Liberty, the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth through the partition of the Commonwealth by its neighbors, Eastern Orthodox Russia, Protestant Prussia and Catholic Austria the State ceased to exist entirely. In the Russian and Prussian partioned lands, Russification and Germanification were the policies intended to integrate the newly acquired territories and the Catholic religion of the Polish people provided them with a continued sense of identity (the Austrian partition was relatively milder in terms of linguistic and regional autonomy).




Even in the recent history with the People's Republic of Poland, and the election of Karol Wojtła as Pope John Paul II and his statements against the regime and stance towards the Eastern Bloc allowed the narrative of the Church as the home of the Nation to be continued.

This narrative that I mention leaves out the other religious groups such as a myriad of different Jewish schools of thought that were born, developed and exported from Poland, the influence of Protestant Churches and the Reformation and even early pre-Christian religions that existed among the peoples that called 'Poland' home but I am simply describing the founding mythology and the relevant history that have left Poland as a Nation with the relationship it has today with the Church. To ask a peasant in Poland just a few hundred years ago what group he was a part of he would most likely not respond with 'Polish' but identify as a local person since before the dawn of nationalism most people beyond the single digits of the noble classes had a limited notion of national identity.

Church attendance in Poland is high when compared to other European countries, but is on par with that of the United States and falling year by year. Poland is the most religious country in Eastern Europe (and Europe in general for that matter excluding the Vatican) because of the unique role of the Roman Catholic Church in crafting the historical narrative as a unique identifying force in national identity and as a stabilizing influence for local people who looked with suspicion at State authorities as being enemy to them.


While the entire region was extremely religious as until the end of the 19th century, Poland has remained religious to the 21st century for four reasons:

1. Poland has traditionally been quite agrarian, with many people living in the countryside. The church has always been a stronger force outside cities. There has been a huge shift since the fall of communism, but it will take a few decades to even out.

2. The church was a strong ally in the fight against communism, with clergymen being intimidated, beaten and outright killed. Going to church was an act of defiance against the powers that be.




3. Karol Wojtyła's (Pope John Paul II) 27 year reign in the Vatican.

4. The existence of a Pole-Catholic stereotype. This is in contrast the Russian-Orthodox and Prussian-Protestant stereotypes that existed at that time. In the 1920s, when Poland regained statehood, the stereotype was combined with nationalist views. During the days of communism, it was seen as an anti-communist stance.


There was a huge surge in church-going, especially among under-25s, right after Wojtyła's death. Currently, the Church claims that a little over 40% of Poles go to weekly mass, a number that drops down to as low as 20% in some voivodeships. Church goers also tend to be older – whether they're expressing their traditional religion or just hedging their bets is up to discussion. ;)

The second point is an interesting one, generationally. Much of the current political establishment either comes from or was brought up in the traditions of the anti-communist movement. Prime Minister Donald Tusk and many of his ministers were members of Solidarity.They see the church as liberators, as allies in the fight for freedom. For modern 20-somethings, the church is the opposite. For them, church was something they had to do on Sunday, a teacher that treated them poorly during Religion class at school, someone who's telling them what they can and can't do.

 




Poland Fun fact: Unlike many European countries, Poland doesn't have a church tax. When Poles migrate to countries that have them, they'll sometimes claim to not be members of the church to get out of paying that tax. The church abroad has started contacting those people's home diocese in Poland, they often return to find that they're not members anymore.


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