As I have spent time in Krakow, I have begun to grasp the ways that the powers of Catholic Church permeate into daily life. In both the political and social spheres, Catholic values have come to be an integral part of life in Poland. At times, the presence of the Catholic Church can be inescapable; walking throughout Krakow, I was constantly surrounded by churches, nuns, priests, and other religious iconography. Moreover, there were points during my time in Krakow where the presence of religion felt suffocating. But despite my discomfort, I have gained important knowledge in the ways that the Catholic Church exerts its power onto Polish citizens.
It is important that I acknowledge the history that has produced the religious environment within the country. As explained by our site coordinator, Beata Kozak, in her talk about Polish Feminism, Poland has rarely been able to govern themselves; however, the Catholic Church has been the one stable factor throughout the country’s history. The fact that the Catholic Church acted as a point of stability has contributed to the development of Catholicism as a part of the Polish identity. However, because of this, there has been minimal separation between church and state within the country. This lack of segregation has led to Catholic beliefs and values shaping the political and social atmosphere of the country, especially in terms of abortion.
Wanda Nowicka, a member of the Polish parliament, explained the ways in which the Catholic Church and its members have become involved in the anti-abortion movement within Poland. From 1956 to 1990, abortion was fairly accessible within the country. However, following the end of Communist rule, Poland had enacted legislation that severely restricted abortion—making it only accessible in cases of rape, incest, danger to the health of the mother, or if the fetus was severely damaged. The fact that the Catholic Church had been a safe haven for opposition leaders during Communist rule in Poland was a contributing factor to this major shift in abortion legislation. As told by Nowicka, those who opposed Communist rule had found safety and security in the church, and many of those opposition leaders later became parliament members. These parliament members later became further emboldened by John Paul II—who continuously returned to Poland to preach anti-abortion views. Having said that, it is important to note that during the time that the restrictive abortion law was passed, a total of 75% of the Polish population opposed the restriction. Despite minimal support for this legislation, members of parliament were still successful in their attempt to severely restrict access to abortion. The discrepancy between Polish citizens and the members of Parliament underscores the influence of the Catholic Church. However, the complicated relationship between religion and politics is not unique to Poland. Similarly, debates surrounding abortion are often conflated with religious language in the United States. Even though the country tries to present itself as a “secular” nation it is not uncommon that politicians rely on the bible as a source of reasoning for their anti-abortion rhetoric. Additionally, many churches in the United States have the lobbying power to drastically affect legislation. The similarities between the religious influences in these two countries underlines the power of institutionalized religions; the values and rhetoric of the most powerful churches are inseparable from politics, and their power often overrides the opinions of citizens.
The constant presence of Catholicism acts as a subtle reminder of the church’s power and the expectations of those within Poland. However, being surrounded by religious iconography may have been uncomfortable but it was not unfamiliar; my criticism of the influence of the Catholic Church in Poland is one that I often have of the United States. It is important that I acknowledge that my positionality is also greatly affected by the fact that I grew up in Utah—a state that is heavily affected by the presence of the Mormon Church. I found many similarities between Utah and Krakow: the persistent presence of religion in the public sphere, the modest clothing of individuals, and the judgement felt when refusing to conform to the values of the church. This is not to say that religion is inherently bad; however, the power of institutionalized religions has led to a misrepresentation of citizens’ values in government and warped the social spheres of many populations.