Religion – perpetuation thereof

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This post might be called “Myth #666 – Polish people are religious”, but the myths are Island’s domain and I really couldn’t do them justice so you’ll have to put up with something else.

I’ve already nailed my flag to the mast on 20 east some time ago as regards my own position on the question of religion. Reading that post again, I did promise to come back with more about living in a strongly Catholic country, so here I am.

For some nations it is hard, for outsiders at the very least, to separate religion from state. Israel & Iran are perhaps two good examples, hard to think about either without Jewish and Muslim inserting themselves into the thought process. For other countries, my home country being a prime example, the spiritual undertone is weaker, more cosmopolitan, a mixed signal. I might include the USA in this category but in my opinion the US appears, superficially at least, to be considerably more “Christian” than the UK, which is actually quite surprising now I come to think of it. But where does Poland stand in all this? When people think of Poland do they immediately think of Catholicism, are state and religion inseparable? Is Poland a nation of Catholics, or a Catholic nation? Does it really matter anyway?

Here is what Wikipedia have as their opening passage on “Catholicism in Poland”;

Ever since Poland officially adopted Latin Christianity in 966, the Catholic Church has played an important religious, cultural and political role in the country.

For centuries, Poland has been a predominantly Catholic country, and for most Poles being Catholic is part of the Polish identity. It has historically been part of what separates Polish culture from neighbouring Germany, which is Lutheran, and the countries to the east which are Orthodox. During the times of foreign oppression, the Catholic Church remained for many Poles a cultural bulwark in the fight for independence and national survival. For instance, the Polish abbey in Częstochowa, which successfully resisted a siege in the Swedish invasion of Poland in the 17th century, became a symbol of national resistance to occupation. The establishment of a communist regime controlled by Soviet Russia following World War II allowed the church to continue fulfilling this role. The 1978 election of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II strengthened this it even further, and the Polish Pope’s visits to his mother country became rallying points for both the faithful and for opposition to the regime.

Today, the Roman Catholic Church estimates that about 45.8% of Poles attend Mass weekly, with roughly 30-40 percent church attendance in urban areas and 70-80 percent in rural areas. This is a slight increase since 2005, after a few years of slight drops. Church attendance in Poland reached a record low in 1993, and since has increased and been stable or oscillated. Tarnow is the most religious city in Poland, and Lodz is the least. Generally, the southern and eastern parts of Poland are more religious than those of the West and North. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of Poles continue to declare themselves Catholic and Poland remains one of the few nations in the European Union in which abortion is illegal and same-sex marriage does not exist.

This seems like a fair summing up from my viewpoint with the exception of church attendance in Warsaw, which I would estimate at less than 30%. Certainly amongst the very small sample of young (below 35) people I have recently talked to, regular attendance (outside of the key ceremonies) is less than 5%, but I’d be happy to hear other opinions on current attendance levels. I have noticed a massive difference between Warsaw and provincial towns though (e.g. Garwolin) and driving through the small villages on a Sunday you can see evidence of what must be close to 100% attendance.

Surely though, the question is not really one of attendance figures. I’m not religious but if I lived in a Polish village I’d be a regular attender myself, there’s bugger all else to do! There does seem to be a relation between the size and activity in the city/town/village and attendance at church, or am I just imagining it? It’s easy to have a dominant position if you’re the only act in town, how is the RCC going to perform when there is stronger competition for people’s time & interest?

If you can accept, therefore, that attendance levels might be exaggerated by the RCC’s monopolistic position in the arena of “things to do with my time that don’t cost too much”, outside of major cities, then you’re left with the RCC clinging on to the fact that “the overwhelming majority of Poles continue to declare themselves Catholic”.

I think the key to this aspect is in the middle paragraph from Wikipedia. It is undoubtedly a powerful argument and the area where church and state in Poland become very much intertwined. Even people who might otherwise be tempted to stray from the fold will be inclined to continue declaring themselves Catholic for the reasons given in this paragraph and I can understand that. Being a cynic, I can also believe that the RCC has taken advantage of the situations Poland found itself in to strengthen its own position. Natural enough behaviour for an expansionist organisation.

Whether fuelled by these ‘patriotic’ reasons or simply by tradition & habit, the real driving force behind continued adherence to the Catholic faith must be the number of Polish children that are “press-ganged” into the RCC each year through the process of baptism, communion and confirmation. To be honest, I don’t see this as much more than a sanitised version of how the Moonies and other cults recruit people although to be fair to the cults, they generally prey on people more likely to have reached the “age of reason”. No doubt if they started targeting 9 year olds it would be a criminal offence whereas for organised religions this is very much expected and encouraged behaviour, a cause for celebration, not outrage.

My problem here, is the whole question of when someone can be said to have “attained to years of discretion”. A Catholic Encyclopaedia has this to say:

The existing legislation with regard to the Communion of children has been definitely settled by the Fourth Lateran Council, which was afterwards confirmed by the authority of the Council of Trent. According to its provisions children may not be admitted to the Blessed Eucharist until they have attained to years of discretion, but when this period is reached then they are bound to receive this sacrament. When may they be said to have attained the age of discretion? In the best-supported view of theologians this phrase means, not the attainment of a definite number of years, but rather the arrival at a certain stage in mental development, when children become able to discern the Eucharistic from ordinary bread, to realize in some measure the dignity and excellence of the Sacrament of the altar to believe in the Real Presence, and adore Christ under the sacramental veils. De Lugo (De Euch., disp. xiii, n. 36, Ben. XIV, De Syn., vii) says that if children are observed to assist at Mass with devotion and attention it is a sign that they are come to this discretion.

Personally, I find the writing of guidelines on when someone is said to have reached an age of discretion by people with massive vested interests to be rather like asking tobacco companies to set the rules for cigarettes. Especially when there will be no further checks or balances thereafter. Parents will simply follow the rules as laid down by their spiritual leaders. I wonder when was the last time a parent in Poland, or anywhere for that matter, said to the priest “You know what? I’m not sure that little Franek quite understands what he’s getting himself into just yet. Perhaps we should should wait 10 years or so.”. Little Franek may well be able to understand that the Eucharist is not you’re average chleb, but does he understand the Catholic church, its history, its place in the modern world, the obligations he is about to place upon himself and his future family, the other options available to him, etc, etc, or is he just going through the motions because his parents told him this is something he should do? No need to answer that one.

I wonder how many parents put their children through this because it is expected of them, because they are Polish and this is what Polish people do versus because they really believe in everything that goes with being a Roman Catholic and they wish to, effectively, force their offspring in that direction as opposed to giving them any kind of free choice in spiritual matters? Or is it all just a sham because when the kids actually do reach the age of discretion the parents will be happy to let them do whatever they like?

If it is a sham, if they are doing it because it is expected, because that’s what Polish people do, what does that say about the true underlying strength of the Catholic faith in Poland?

Having said all that, will I be there with my daughter when comes the very premature time for her communion? I expect I will, because the thought of standing up to my wife and our entire Polish family and saying “No” is just not worth thinking about. In our case, that’s not because we are a deeply Catholic family , that’s because we are Polish and it is expected. Am I a hypocritical coward? I suppose I am. Will I be making sure my daughter understands my point of view anyway? You bet I will.

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34 thoughts on “Religion – perpetuation thereof

  1. Biluś says:

    A good point, well made – however… isn’t what you like about Polish society, culture and people due in great part to the very things you talk about here, the way all of these things have been filtered through organised religion?

  2. guest says:

    Scatts the whole communion thing is really just fun and positive exitment for the children (and families). You should not be “worried” about it.

    The communion is only a 2nd step (after baptism) to being catholic.
    When Zosia gets older she still can say ,i do not want to be catholic and refuse this final 3rd step.

    And BTW ,believing in “god” helps the children really a lot when they are young. Even if I were an atheist i would say my kids that there is “someone” “an angel” who guards them…(when they are honest of course ;) ) As a child (with a LOT of fantasy) it is always good to believe in something “positive”.

  3. darthsida says:

    An excellent post.

    But what seems to be a major irritant here? Is it RCC specifically, religion – more broadly, or most generally anything taken as backward / superstitious? The answer to this can help a lot. How would you take on a sentence: “the overwhelming majority of Poles continue to declare themselves honest taxpayers”, Scatts?

    A sham you say. Is Queen’s Speech a sham? I mean, HM speaks what her PM should, or? Oh, and bugger me if too much leisure time of the villager is what mostly packs the kirk-gangers in.

  4. scatts says:

    Biluś, certainly some of what I like about Poland is connected with organised religion but I’d be okay without those things and I think most of what I like would be no different should Poland ever be considerably less Catholic than it is today.

    guest, I know where you’re coming from but I’m not sure I’d use the word ‘excitement’, unless you mean “high stress levels”? The final step (unless you want to go on to be a priest) of confirmation comes at around the age of 13, right? I’d still consider that too young for anyone to know they are making the right decision for the right reasons. Especially in a country where you’re likely to only ever be given one option to choose from – Hobson’s choice. I do believe that it is beneficial even for adults to believe in “something”.

    Darth, major irritant is definitely not RCC, although I have my issues with it. Nor is it anything backward / superstitious, for example, I have a lot of time for paganism which some might see as being far more ‘backward’ than the RCC. I actually like backwardness, the further back, the nearer to the point of origin. I think my main concern is any organised, institutionalised religion, especially ones that recruit children before they know what they are doing. My original church goes straight from baptism to confirmation (did with me anyway) and there’s no way I really knew, or cared, what was going on, so it’s not just the RCC.

    The tax sentence would just crack me up laughing, but I see where you’re coming from.

    Queen’s speech a sham. Interesting. I think for her it is probably very genuine and not written by the PM. I would therefore struggle to compare her speech to my intentions in this article. Not sure I get the first half of the last sentence.

  5. Jolanta says:

    An excellent post indeed.

    Let me show you Polish Catholicism from my personal perspective.
    I was brought up in a Catholic family; my parents have always attendend church on Sunday and on some other days when it was required of them, let the priest into the house at the time of the kolęda (an annual visit) etc. and they still do it all. Somehow, as probably many of their contemporaries, they failed to turn me and my brothers into good Catholics. I stopped going to church when I was in my teens and so did my brothers. When my parents realised what was going on behind their backs it was too late anyway.

    I do not attend church unless I have to (because of weddings, funerals, and first communions) and I have every reason to believe that I have become a hardened atheist. My brothers go to church because their children are now old enough to be aware of what the parents do. The children, who attend religious education classes at school as almost each and every Polish pupil in primary school, complete special forms in which they put the name of the church and the names of the relatives who went there with them on a particular Sunday. On my brothers’ part the whole thing is sheer hypocrisy but they do it for the children’s sake, in order not to alienate the children, I think.

    I am absolutely sure that this kind of religious hypocrisy / conformity is a common phenomenon in today’s Poland. I assume it is quite typical that numerous non-believers (lapsed Catholics) in their thirties “convert” once they have children who need to feel they are part of their age group, who have to be protected from the vindictiveness of the RE teacher, who must get on with the other classmates etc.

    One more thing. People stick to the RCC for practical reasons; they prefer a church wedding to a civil ceremony and they want to be buried in the parish cemetery. What a relief I don’t need either.


  6. michael farris says:

    Interestingly, for a supposedly 95 plus % catholic country, the number of times I’ve met people who wanted to talk about spiritual issues (in well over 10 years here) is firmly in single digits (and a couple of those cases weren’t RC).
    Compare this with the US where everybody’s trying to find/construct their own custom-made religious mix.

    From my point of view, Polish people (with lots of individual exceptions of course) aren’t spiritually oriented or interested in any kind of spiritual fulfillment. They’re religiously political and politically religious.
    That is, Polish people are mostly interested in religion as it allows them to make some kind of political statement. The most deeply felt and expressive forms of religious observance here always have a political undertone for good (RCC functioning as a de facto opposition party in communist times) or ill (Radio Maryja).

    Beyond that, the day to day observance is mostly functional and maintenance oriented, making sure the apparatus will be in good working order when needed.

  7. Raf Uzar says:

    Hold your horses!
    Three distinctions need to be made here:
    1) Being Polish
    2) Being a Catholic
    3) Being a good Christian

    These are NOT necessarily the same so DON’T mix them up.

  8. scatts says:

    Jolanta, it is strange how in most cases parents use their own experiences to the benefit of their children and yet with religion, they ignore them.

    Raf. Okay! (confused emoticon)

  9. All told, a strong Church is a good thing, rather than a bad thing. Keeps society together (Lowest three divorce rates in the EU are Italy, Spain and Poland in that order). Dads leaving mums to look after boys alone leads to disfunctional boys that go asocial. Violent crime in Poland is lower than in the UK or Ukraine (how many teenage knifings have we had in Warsaw in the past two months? Compare to London.)

    I’m no fan of Radio Has A Snout, but the Church gets knocked about a bit too often. I don’t personally believe in divinity of Joshua Bin Josef, a Christos of Nazareth, but his legacy in the shape of the Church of Rome keeps my 15 year old daughter on the straight and narrow, for which I’m thankful.

  10. guest says:

    And the Aids rate is one of the the lowest..

  11. […] writes about religion in Poland. Posted by Veronica Khokhlova Share […]

  12. darthsida says:

    Scatts, news.

    This case was discontinued in Poland. While these guys had been more (!) lucky.

  13. Roman Catholicism certainly adds to Poles’ hypocrisy and guilt if to anything:)

    There are other ways to raise children other than submitting them to the non-sense of non-existing supernatural creatures and ideology of its believers.

    Humanist ideals would serve your aims equally good if not better.

    Kids end badly rather when parents don’t have a good relationship with them, when they have no time to talk with them and no capacity to guide them.

  14. guest says:

    “There are other ways to raise children other than submitting them to the non-sense of non-existing supernatural creatures and ideology of its believers.”

    Yes, the other ways are…

    -Harry Potter trash
    -Harry Krishna trash
    -Che Guevara cult
    -pseudo ecological movements
    -Yoga ,hyphnosis and other psycho trash
    and so on…

    Richard Dawkins if you think that you can rise yor children in an ideological vacuum ,the you are VERY optimistic….(IMO naive ;) )

  15. scatts says:

    Funny you should mention Scientology. I was asked today whether there might be any problems with our company accepting instructions from this “Church”. It seems they might want to expand, no doubt from the income generated by being associated with Tom Cruise, and will therefore need help with investigation of possible properties. I don’t know if Poland is actually included in the plans because this was a very general enquiry covering CEE region.

    A quick www research showed that they opened an office in Warsaw about a year ago and the head of the church here is a politician. Beetroot did a post about it in April 07.

    I assume it is not illegal here but I can’t imagine it would be very welcome.

    Is there such a thing as “masonism”?

  16. scatts says:

    Darth, interesting links. I’d love to have seen the faces on the TVP execs when they saw the Norwegian band’s set!

    I wonder if this “Recent troubles with sects and Satanist groups…….” is a case of Newton’s third law applied to spiritual matters?

    Takes me back to my Alice Cooper days!

  17. scatts says:

    Guest, thanks, I see what you mean now.

    Che Guevara cult? :) No, it’s okay, I worked it out.

  18. darthsida says:

    => Guest

    Why search Wiki? :) Some answers are plainer.

    => Scatts,

    Newton’s third law no doubt!

    Were I just to shock I’d have written about the Norwegian from Burzum — or about Carpathian Forest — or Rob Darken, a Pole who’s Uglier-than-Thou- [Satan]. But there’s enough in the linked stories to relate to your post:

    1. on one hand we have crosses that are not trademarked — or illegal to use outside churches in Poland. On the other hand, when used during a black metal show, a crossy setting may stir up people talking about “offending religious feelings”. In Behemoth case, only one man found the band’s action criminal enough to seek [religious] justice at [lay] court.

    So, would there be no second just man in the Polish land of Sodom? This could be another argument how lukewarm Christian faith is in Poland.

    2. Gorgoroth made money on their video from the live concert on public TV in Kraków. I see this as an argument there’s no deeply heartfelt Satanism or RCC. There is just money that can be made on blasphemies, and money that can be collected on Sundays. The two players on the market clash. Maybe RCC gets jealous that “sects” get money? [And yes, it’s often been a problem whether Satanism is a sect or not.]

    Since it’s about money, then maybe parental decisions about sacraments etc. are part of their biz-plans: “let’s baptise our kid, hush down the bigots around, as our peace of mind has its price too, while our kid will scorn church preaching anyway when the kid grows up, in the meantime the kid’s going to get some nice presents” )

    Re Queen’s Speech

    The parallel I was trying to draw was:
    (UK) there are our monarchs to parade and our govts to rule, and we pretend govts listen to what monarchs preach.
    (PL) there are our priests to preach and our people to listen, and we pretend people listen to what priests preach.

  19. Jolanta says:

    Guest, I am confused. Why are you putting Harry Potter, Che Guevara and drugs together with Hinduism, Islamism and Judaism? Aren’t you taking things a little bit too far? Don’t you notice the difference between dominant religious denominations which were established thousands of years ago and a fictional character or a political leader? And what about Humanism, Enlightement and ecology (by the way, what is “pseudo ecology”?)?


  20. guest says:

    Jolanta, why are you confused ? “atheism” just does NOT exist.

    Karl Marx once said that

    “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.

    And all i wanted to show with all these examples is ,that the so called “religion” has MANY MANY faces.
    There is no ideological vacuum and if I for example see the so called “atheists” who climb the trees in the rospuda valley or dance in the Owsiak woodstock with their Che Guevara T-shirts and sing Hare Krishna songs…. ,then all i can do, is laugh my ass off about their so called “atheism” and “anti religious” “anti radio maryja” attitude. :) …because in reality they are much more fanatic than all the mohair berets together.

  21. Jolanta says:

    Guest, strictly speaking an atheist is a person who does not believe in the existence of God. So, if atheism does not exist, I do not exist either.


  22. guest says:

    OK ,maybe You do not believe in “THIS” God.

    …,but you create your own “small Gods” (even if you do not realize it)

  23. island1 says:

    Whoa whoa ! back up a bit… did anybody notice that comment claiming to be from Richard Dawkins? Ok, it’s probably not actually from him since the English is a bit dodgy, but it links back to his site.

  24. scatts says:

    I must confess the name didn’t register with me and I didn’t follow the link. Shameless admission, I know. Nevertheless, I smell the work of the Sith.

    guest – I really do understand where you’re coming from and I agree with your general thrust. There are always some who will look at the details! :)

  25. darthsida says:

    Island, but naturally, I noticed. One meme impersonating one of its definers.
    My turn: did anyone notice Wiosanna trapped by Darth Akismet?

  26. Jolanta says:

    Island, I did too but I did not want to make a point of it because I thought that attracting everybody’s attention had been the fake Dawkins’ intention.


  27. island1 says:

    Darth: Ah yes, taking a little more time I trace the web back to its peculiar center.

    Scatts: Jolanta is having an existential crises, guest is creating small gods out of thin air, the Darth family is expanding, and somebody mentioned Harry Potter. Now you know why I was too scared to take on the subject.

  28. scatts says:

    Chicken! :-)

  29. geez says:

    Guest, folks who are religious may be fanatical but not necessarily so.

    Atheists may be fanatical but that does not mean they are religious.

    You are mixing up “fanatical” and “religious.”

    Very Dawkin-esque.

    Oh and I am sooo glad that the people who take pot shots at people who do churchy things are not themselves in the least bit hypocritical in anything they do in their lives.

  30. geez says:

    Brainwasher who insists on imposing his will on children:

    “”Kids end badly rather when parents … have … no capacity to guide them.”

    — Fake Dawkins

  31. Jolanta says:

    Geez, of course I (we) am hypocritical. I go to church weddings and funerals and pray, kneel and stand up as verybody else around. Before the Wigilia (Christmas eve supper) I pray aloud with my parents and so do the other members of the family who share the supper with us, even though, judging by what they say and do, they seem to be lapsed Catholics or atheists too. However, I never stoop to welcoming the priest at the time of his annual visit (kolęda) and to pretending that I am a devoted member of the Catholic Church.
    The fact that, from time to time, I am a hypocrite in the religious and other contexts does no make me unable to notice the hypocrisy of others.


  32. geez says:

    I’m not all that devoted, either. But I consider myself a RC. Then again, Some other RCs, upon learning of my way of believing, would undoubtably say I am apostate and should be excommunicated.

    While I’ve never been atheistic, I have been agnostic. And there was a time when I was very anti-organized religion. I still am I spoze in regard to certain ways it is practiced, no matter the religion.

    I’m just not so quick to assert I know what’s in the heart of another person.

    What’s wrong with there being a lot of the room under the tent, so to speak, for people of all kinds of temperments in terms of their religiousity?

    Some are lukewarm at a certain time in their lives and more fervent in others.

    It’s just the human condition.

    Never say never.

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