The New Solidarity Movement: Polish Women
For decades, nationalism and Catholicism in Poland have been intertwined. Stemming from the historical role the Church has played in opposing Communism and rebuilding Poland’s national identity, the institution has remained an ever-present force in Polish society - playing an influential role across both personal and political life. However, as the ruling far-right nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) continues to align itself strongly with the Church, cracks between political and public support for the Church are beginning to appear.
In October 2020, Poland experienced the largest protests in the nation’s history since the fall of Communism. Hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the street amidst soaring COVID-19 cases to protest proposed changes to Polish abortion laws. In the context of a country, whose national identity is so intertwined with the Church, the question arises as to what happens when the Church’s position represents a dramatic departure from popular opinion.
Nationalism and the Church
The role of the Church in Poland has always piqued the interest of observers. During the Cold War, while Poland was under Soviet rule, all aspects of the government and State were subject to comprehensive control - with the Church remaining one of the few legitimate, reliable, and semi-independent institutions. Through this historical context, nationalism was strongly interlinked to public support of the Church in a relationship that has remained constant until now.
The Polish Church has been the frequent recipient of significant amounts of financial aid and assistance from the Polish State - making it not only an institution which wields significant social influence, but also political and economic force. This reality further entwines the Polish government and the Church, contributing to the functional elimination of the separation between Church and State. This is further underscored by the contents of the Polish Constitution, which provides for “mutual impartiality” of the two institutions.
Consequently, the majority catholic population has not opposed this phenomenon, with the PiS having maintained its influence as a major political player in government over the past fifteen years.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
The state of existing laws and policies surrounding abortions in the country is unsurprising. Herein, the ruling PiS party’s firm commitment to right wing values and conservatism throughout its political reign has contributed to notoriously divisive policies - resulting in the rise of dissent and civil unrest in response to various mandates.
In late October 2020, it was announced that the country’s Constitutional Tribunal had ruled the undertaking of unconditional abortions as being unconstitutional. This ruling would result in further restrictions regarding the circumstances under which Polish women could seek abortions, by making the abortion of foetuses with abnormalities unconstitutional. Where statistics reveal that less than 200 abortions are performed annually across Poland, further restrictions make access to the procedure unacceptably prohibitive.
This served as the catalyst for the largest protests since the nation’s Cold War Solidarity movement, with protesters gathering in more than 400 communities across the country. This resulted in public calls for the separation of Church and State, as reports emerged that influential members of the Catholic Church had pushed for increased restrictions on abortions. Where there restrictions on abortions were deemed “unconstitutional”, this furthered the view of there being little-to-no separation between the Church and State.
Consequently, much of the protesting has been concentrated around sites of religious significance, with protesters interrupting Church services, painting graffiti on buildings, chanting cries of “F**k the clergy”. Some female protesters took to dressing in red robes - mimicking those seen in the television series “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Others brandished placards covered in anti-Church and government sentiment, decrying “I wish I could abort my government”.
The change in Poland’s abortion laws are the lates in a series of right-wing policies that have sparked controversy in recent years. Firstly, the PiS stacked the judiciary with conservative judges, leading to questions surrounding their impartiality and independence. Secondly, the PiS has actively encouraged anti-LGBTQI sentiment - resulting in several regions in Poland issuing declarations as being “LGBT ideology-free zones”. Third, the PiS has been vehemently anti-immigration in their policies.
Despite much opposition and protest to these changes, the current protests represent the first instance within which public opinion has exhibited significant and open disapproval of both the Church and State. While more than 90% of the population identifies as Catholic, public outrage at these proposed changes shocked even the PiS, causing them to postpone enforcement of the judicial decision.
Out with the old, in with the new?
Mass opposition toward the Church represents a new and unfamiliar phenomenon in Poland. With a devout Catholic population, Poland’s capacity for social progressivism has been described as lagging behind when compared to other EU States, such as Ireland.
While the majority of protestors have come out against the church, a sizable minority of opposing protestors have also come out in support of the Church, voicing that people should “protect the Churches” from vandalism. PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński appealed for the defence of polish Churches during the protests, while attempting to frame his calls for “safety” precautions as justified by the ongoing COVID19 pandemic. However, some leading religious leaders opposed Kaczynski’s pleas, indicating their desire for “a sincere and real openness to dialogue with those thinking differently”.
Mixed messages also emerged within Polish media, with the Associated Press highlighting how one right-wing news outlet's headline bore the title "Devastated Churches, disrupted masses. Scandalous protests by feminists". Conversely, liberal news outlet Gazete Wyborcza posted “how-to” articles for those seeking Apostasy.
The future of Poland’s Church-State relationship
Where the protests stand as indication of the PiS’s plummeting approval ratings, and evidence of growing opposition to the Church within a traditionally religiously conservative Polish society, the event stands as a defining moment for tangible social change for the country.
However, it remains difficult to conclude whether this shift in the attitudes of the Polish people towards the Church will mirror the success of progressive movements in other heavily religious countries such as Ireland.
Regardless, with a growing tendency of contemporary youth in Polish society to shy away from religion, this represents part of a wider trend within European society. The notion that ongoing sociopolitical change will soon bring an end to longstanding union between church and state in Poland thus appears as an inevitable conclusion.
Eliza Archer graduated from a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Melbourne, majoring in Politics and History, and completed a Double Master’s in European Governance at Masaryk University (Czech Republic) and Utrecht University (Netherlands) in 2019. During this time, Eliza interned at NewsMavens, a pan-European news organisation that aimed to combat misinformation and sexist content in the European media. Upon graduation, Eliza pursued a traineeship at the Delegation of the European Union in New Zealand.
Eliza is interested in the role of gender in politics and international relations and particularly in the increasing implementation of Feminist Foreign Policy across the globe.