If you’ve ever spent a lot of time in Poland you could be forgiven for thinking there would be words in the constitution like “Poland is proud to be a Catholic country and to uphold the teachings and doctrine of the world’s one true faith”, or something along those lines. This assumption might be formed not only from what you see around you in everyday life, the traditions upheld at times like Easter, Christmas, All Saints and so on but these impressions would be further strengthened when you watch what goes on in political life of the country as well. Arguments about burials, locations of crosses, IVF treatment, Sunday working, etc etc etc etc. Surprising as it may seem, this assumption would be wrong.
The following text is copied directly from The Constitution of the Republic of Poland (1997), chapter 1, article 25:
1. Churches and other religious organizations shall have equal rights.
2. Public authorities in the Republic of Poland shall be impartial in matters of personal conviction, whether religious or philosophical, or in relation to outlooks on life, and shall ensure their freedom of expression within public life.
3. The relationship between the State and churches and other religious organizations shall be based on the principle of respect for their autonomy and the mutual independence of each in its own sphere, as well as on the principle of cooperation for the individual and the common good.
4. The relations between the Republic of Poland and the Roman Catholic Church shall be determined by international treaty concluded with the Holy See, and by statute.
5. The relations between the Republic of Poland and other churches and religious organizations shall be determined by statutes adopted pursuant to agreements concluded between their appropriate representatives and the Council of Ministers.
Point 4 is the only mention in the entire document of the word ‘Catholic’ but it is perhaps worth looking at what is meant by “international treaty concluded with the Holy See”. This may refer to the concordat signed between the Holy See and the Republic of Poland in 1993 although this is not specifically mentioned by name in the constitution. The concordat appears to be a way for the Catholic Church to take care of its income, people, property, legal rights and indeed influence as rightly noted by the text….:
● mindful of the fact that the Catholic religion is professed by the majority of citizens of the Polish Nation;
● cognisant of the mission of the Catholic Church, the role played by the Church in the history of the Polish State for over a thousand years, as well as the importance of the Pontificate of His Holiness Pope John Paul II in the contemporary history of Poland;
….but this is tempered by many other references such as:
● guided by the above-mentioned values and by the general principles of international law and also by the principles respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the elimination of all forms of intolerance and discrimination on religious grounds;
● in the belief that the development of a free and democratic society is founded on a respect for the dignity of people and their rights;
Having taken into account the constitutional principles and laws of the Republic of Poland and the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the Holy See with regard to religious freedom and relations between the Church and society, as well as the norms of Canon Law, [the Republic of Poland and the Holy See] have decided to enter into this present Concordat.
and indeed Article 1 itself, which fell short of using the word ‘separation’ but essentially means the same thing:
The Republic of Poland and the Holy See reaffirm that the State and the Catholic Church are, each in its own domain, independent and autonomous, and that they are fully committed to respecting this principle in all their mutual relations and in co-operating for the promotion of the benefit of humanity and the good of the community.
The concordat is a typically worm-tongued document that attempts to leave as much room for interpretation as possible. It does this because of what it lacks, which is anything to suggest that it in any way overrules, supersedes or should be read as part of the constitution of The Republic of Poland. What it does, quite simply, is protect the Catholic Church’s current and future assets in Poland and allows the church the freedom to continue “doing its business” on Polish soil.
Back to the constitution – In chapter 2, under the heading of Personal Freedoms and Rights, article 53 talks about religion generally:
1. Freedom of conscience and religion shall be ensured to everyone.
2. Freedom of religion shall include the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest such religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing of rites or teaching. Freedom of religion shall also include possession of sanctuaries and other places of worship for the satisfaction of the needs of believers as well as the right of individuals, wherever they may be, to benefit from religious services.
3. Parents shall have the right to ensure their children a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions. The provisions of Article 48, para. 1 shall apply as appropriate [Parents shall have the right to rear their children in accordance with their own convictions. Such upbringing shall respect the degree of maturity of a child as well as his freedom of conscience and belief and also his convictions.]
4. The religion of a church or other legally recognized religious organization may be taught in schools, but other peoples’ freedom of religion and conscience shall not be infringed thereby.
5. The freedom to publicly express religion may be limited only by means of statute and only where this is necessary for the defence of State security, public order, health, morals or the freedoms and rights of others.
6. No one shall be compelled to participate or not participate in religious practices.
7. No one may be compelled by organs of public authority to disclose his philosophy of life, religious convictions or belief.
Finally in the Constitution, chapter 11, article 233 says:
Limitation of the freedoms and rights of persons and citizens only by reason of race, gender, language, faith or lack of it, social origin, ancestry or property shall be prohibited.
Worth noting additionally that Poland has not yet declared itself to have changed from a democracy to a theocracy nor has it joined with Costa Rica, Liechtenstein, Monaco & Malta in recognising Roman Catholicism as the state or official religion. This is actually more liberal than England, which does recognise the Anglican Church as its state religion. Quite ironic when you have had the opportunity to compare life in both countries.
In my humble and uneducated opinion, in the ways of writing a constitution, the above all seems to be well constructed and protective enough of my rights as an individual, whether a citizen of Poland or a thoroughly embedded alien. What concerns me though is whether Poland is actually “walking the walk”? It may be just the impression I get but I can’t help feeling that a combination of political parties / individuals and the organisation that is the Catholic Church in Poland are actually trying hard to remove or restrict our rights as laid down in the constitution by behaving in ways that suggest that the Catholic Church actually has far more rights and power than any other system of belief or non-belief.
Try getting your child any religious education in school that isn’t Catholic. Try excusing them from religious education altogether. Try skipping the “komunia” thing. Whether it be peer pressure, state pressure or church pressure – it’s not easy to be anything other than Catholic in Poland.
This is surely not a good thing and one that should either lead to a change in the constitution giving everyone a chance to revisit their allegiance to this country when it finally clearly states its real intentions or to steps being taken to ensure Poland’s current official and clearly stated position is enforced.
The recent heated and prolonged debates in parliament about IVF (In vitro fertilisation) are just the latest episode where Church and State have clashed. The question of Poland’s position with regard to IVF has indeed been rumbling on every since I’ve been here and seems, finally, to be coming to a head. Reactions have been quite extreme with the church using blackmail by threatening to ‘excommunicate’ MPs who vote for public funding for IVF and alternative bills being put forward to either completely ban IVF or even make the use of IVF a criminal offense. It is said that 60% of the country would be in favour of IVF if that was the only way for people to have a child. I myself have spoken to many people who have successfully used IVF, some of them deeply Catholic and not helped in coming to terms with it by the state nor the church. Why should these people be made to feel so guilty? IVF, like so many other issues, is a matter of personal choice not a matter to take up the time of this country’s government. People are not stupid. They understand the church’s position and are able to make their own decision about which is more important to them, doctrine or a child. As for all the MPs & political parties, all they need to do is decide whether they wish to reserve IVF as a privilege of those who can afford the up to 15,000 PLN needed for treatment or whether they are going to make it more available to all citizens. I know what I’d do.
Here’s a whacky idea – if the sanctity of human life is so important, how about spending less time arguing about IVF embryos and more time trying to stop another 20-30 grown-up people with families and responsibilities dying on the roads when they perform their Catholic duties next All Saints? Like they did this weekend and the same last year……
Enormous amounts of parliament’s time and energy, not to mention the media, continue to be used up by these spurious clashes between religion and politics. Religion has no part to play in politics, the constitution seems to confirm this and whilst the concordat makes every effort to join the two with a sea of wishy-washy language it ultimately fails to do so. Even if religion were so important there is equally nothing to say in the constitution that the Catholic Church is the only one to be listened to, quite the opposite in fact.
The government does not need the interruptions. The people could live easier without the guilt complex. Please get it sorted one way or another so we all know what’s going on around here!
Not sure which is the greater hypocrisy – England with its state religion that almost nobody cares about or Poland with no state religion that many people are nuts about! :-)
The author would like to state for the record that he’s a big fan for freedom of speech.