“The Sleeping Giant” - The Church’s relationship with civil society

Author: Maria Rogaczewska

A The church plays an active role delivering standards and messages in more religious CEE countries, but solidarity, openness and potential for cooperation with civil society is true only for a limited number of church organizations sais Maria Rogaczewska


Although the religious landscape of CEE is changing dynamically, the relationship between the Church and civil society in many countries in the region remains crucial. In this paper I will primarily focus on the CEE Church that I know best from my own research – the Catholic Church in Poland. I hope this analysis will, however, lead to some more general conclusions, which may then inspire further discussion about other major churches in the region.

To a large extent the progress of secularization in CEE is evident, with fewer and fewer people identifying themselves as members of the Church, even in traditionally religious countries like Poland or Slovakia. On the other hand, there has been a significant increase in the amount of people interested in other manifestations of spirituality. A growing number of people refer to themselves as “inherently Catholic” or “deeply religious.” The number of Catholic schools and Catholic charity initiatives is also steadily rising and there are more and more examples of successful cooperation between faith-based organizations and secular institutions.

nother important factor is the conduct of the Church itself. Christian institutions in CEE, particularly Catholic institutions, do not just play a reactive role, passively opposing the pressures of modernization and democratization. On the contrary, in many respects, they have already become very active players in those processes.

The complexity of this situation therefore makes me inclined to eschew one-sided conclusions, whether they present an entirely positive or entirely negative view of the Church’s influence on the development of civil society.

The eve of democracy
The churches of CEE, which are mainly Roman Catholic, held different positions in the public sphere in 1989, largely dictated by their history under Communism. The Roman Catholic Church in Poland arguably enjoyed the strongest position. By 1989, the Polish Church was the undisputed winner of the battle it had been waging against Communism for over 50 years. It possessed astounding resources of popular trust, spiritual power and symbolic capital.

For José Casanova, the Polish Church played a key role in the region’s changing geopolitical situation. “The surprising, some would say miraculous, elevation of Cardinal Wojtyła to the papacy as John Paul II, his triumphal visit to Poland in 1979, the rise of Solidarity a year later, and the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989, bringing to an end the Cold War and the division of Eastern and Western Europe, altered radically the march of history and global geopolitical configurations,” he observes.

It is important to remember, however, that the strong position of the Polish Catholic Church within the public sphere and its prominent objection to political institutions in 1989 did not result in it changing into a civic institution. Maryjane Osa, sees this as a consequence of mistrust between the church and civil society, and warns against any oversimplification of the historical relationship between nationalism and Catholicism in Poland. “First, many of the Polish clergy and Catholic virtuosi were wary of civic rhetoric during the 1980s, considering this to be a smoke screen for a liberal, pro-secularist movement to separate religion from public life,” she notes.

The privileged position of the Polish Catholic Church is directly linked to the role it played in Polish society throughout its history. Unlike the majority of other national Catholic churches in Europe, such as those in France, Spain, Ireland or the Czech Republic, the Polish Church has practically never allied itself with the state against society. On the contrary, the Church has usually strived to be in alliance with society against the state. This is a marked difference compared to many other European countries, where the alliance between the state and the Church made religion and religious institutions instruments of power.

During the partitions of Poland in the nineteenth century and under the Communist regime, the Catholic Church in Poland was institutionally very weak in comparison to its counterparts in Spain, France, Ireland or Italy. This phenomenon manifested itself in a number of ways. Due to the restrictions imposed first by imperial forces and then by communist authorities, up until 1989 there were very few Catholic schools in Poland. This contrasts starkly with the situation in Ireland for example, where almost all schools had been under Church supervision since the early nineteenth century. The ratio of clergy, monks and nuns to laity has also traditionally been relatively low in Poland. Furthermore, faith-based charity initiatives were banned or strictly supervised by the state apparatus.

On the other hand, the Polish Catholic Church managed to establish itself as a great moral and spiritual authority during this period. This made it a very powerful player in the public sphere after the fall of Communism. In many respects, over 20 years later, it is still one of the strongest mobilizing forces in Poland. Polish people still engage in Catholic rituals such as pilgrimage, open-air masses, processions and religious holidays. It is important to appreciate that this religious activity is usually very temporary, restricted to a specific context and not connected with everyday life in Poland. I would therefore claim that the impact of religious commitment on civic commitment is small and not unproblematic in contemporary Poland.

Defining the Church after 1989
In the early 1990s, just after the fall of the Communist regime, Catholic bishops and the Catholic media in Poland started to mobilize the Church's resources. They attempted to rally the faithful against developments connected with rapid modernization such as the growing presence of minority groups, cultural liberalism, consumerism, sexual morality and the changing role of the family. These panicky reactions towards modernization sometimes resulted in heavy-handed intervention by Church representatives in parliamentary proceedings, policy-making, public education and public debate. The main success of the Catholic Church during this period was the introduction of Catholic religious education in all public schools. This decision was taken without any public discussion or consultation. 

The crusade against rapid modernization also became one of the main priorities of some grassroots Catholic initiatives like “Radio Maryja”. The Catholic radio station and its charismatic leader, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, attracted hundreds of thousands of volunteers and supporters. This is not to say that these attacks constituted a fully coherent movement enjoying universal approval within the Polish Catholic Church. The rapid progress of modernization after 1989 put the Church in a difficult position. Whilst it was critical of many aspects of modernization, it still wanted to preserve its role as a 'stabilizing' and 'integrating' force in Polish society. This ambivalence is still prevalent in the Church's actions and official statements today, leading to very different situations developing in different parts of Poland. Some bishops are very open to cooperation with civic NGOs, and welcome the democratization of religious institutions, supporting the introduction of measures such as financial transparency within parishes. Others continue to treat the idea of building bridges between the Church and the secular world with skepticism.  

The challenge of social welfare
Poland’s Communist welfare system collapsed in 1989, ushering in a period of 20 years of inconsistent and largely ineffective social policy. This has led to high levels of social exclusion and poverty as well as little social cohesion in Poland. To an outside observer, this may seem surprising or even shocking, in the country, where the Solidarity movement was born. A liberal tendency in social policy was apparent in a number of areas. On the eve of the twenty first century, there was a high tolerance of chronic and wide-scale unemployment among young people and women. Benefits for families were scarce and there was a lack of practical support for the long-term unemployed. Poland had the lowest number of pre-school and day-care utilities in the EU and disabled people and women were largely excluded from the labor market. An American-style labor market was also in place. This was characterized by low regulation of employer-employee relations and little protection of workers’ rights, particularly in low-paid jobs, which were dominated by women. This situation is in strong opposition to Catholic teaching on social values, which encourages solidarity, and prioritizes the common good and human dignity. There is still a lot of research to be done if we are to fully understand this discrepancy between the values of the dominant religion and the actual welfare regime in Poland. This is not only an intellectual puzzle, but also a very practical problem.

The key to understanding this discrepancy may lie in a certain evaporation of substantial parts of Catholic social teaching from the pastoral strategy and statements issued by the Polish Catholic Church. James Bagget described a similar process of evaporation in American parishes, as “the ability to avoid connecting the Church teaching to social structures, public policy and broader understandings of community.” I find the concept of evaporation that Bagget uses an inspiring analytical tool. Pastoral letters written by Polish bishops up to 15 years after the fall of Communism were published as Polish society struggled to survive the period of economic shock therapy. In these letters the critical voice of the Church, so cherished by Casanova in his account of the Polish Church during the Communist period, was either weak or very abstract. Polish Bishops focused on cultural battles and defending Catholicism’s role in Polish identity.  They chose to separate, on a conceptual level, a free market from morality. They favored abstract considerations about the dignity of work, instead of accentuating the need to recognize the unemployed. The implicit acceptance of, or at least neutral position towards, neo-liberalism is not only evident in official documents, but also on a pastoral and organizational level. One of the most influential Catholic think-tanks in Poland, Tertio Millennio Institute, was founded by a Dominican father, Maciej Zięba. Financed by the American Enterprise Institute, it lists the promotion of reconciliation of a free market with Catholic teachings as among its most important goals.

In terms of the practical application of Catholic social teaching, it is indisputable that since 1989 there has been a significant increase in the number of Church-based charities in Poland. There are 38 autonomous branches of Caritas and in cooperation with Caritas-Poland they manage hundreds of day-care centers for children, the homeless and the elderly. Caritas organizes holidays for thousands of children at risk of social exclusion each year and coordinates many large-scale seasonal initiatives, such as distributing material aid to those in need, usually before the most important religious holidays. There are also influential charities backed by the Polish Orthodox and Protestant churches, like Eleos and Diakonia. There are other charities, which count the Catholic Church as their biggest donor. Almost all hospices and centers for the terminally ill in Poland are led by Church or faith-based organizations and most volunteers in these centers are practicing Catholics. A considerable number of initiatives are managed by nuns and monks, which help children and the elderly and manage youth centers in Poland’s biggest cities.

A relatively new trend is Church-based social entrepreneurship, with a few social-economic initiatives starting up in some of the poorest regions of Poland. Last but not least, a well-developed network of Catholic parishes, over 10,000 in total also provides basic help for those in need, though the scale of these initiatives is not accurately known. According to official data from the Institute of Statistics of the Catholic Church (ISKK) there are about 340 various Catholic movements and faith-based organizations in Poland, with approximately 2 million members. This accounts for less then 10 percent of the population, not a significant percentage in a country where half of the population still attends Church regularly.  

Bearing in mind the substantial institutional growth of Catholic initiatives after 1989, it is interesting to discover that many of these organizations, while trying hard to combat the social consequences of shock-therapy, had difficulties attaining official recognition within the Church. Projects which promise to provide extensive and long-term help, such as those aimed at the unemployed, only made it onto Caritas-Poland’s agenda relatively recently, when huge amounts of European Union funding were made available to Poland.   Undoubtedly, the low level of social cohesion in Poland is first and foremost a consequence of the failings of post-communist social policy. The Catholic Church, especially grass-roots faith-based organizations led by monks and nuns and parish-based lay people, softened the social consequences of economic shock-therapy.

On the other hand, Church leaders contributed greatly to legitimizing a certain discourse in the public sphere, which came to characterize the 1990s. In this discourse, the neo-liberal economy was treated as something self-evident and plausible. Social problems were seen not as something with structural origins, which therefore required structural solutions, but rather as something rooted in the personal, or cultural, deficiencies of the individuals or groups affected.

Analysis of Church documents published in the nineties in which social problems were discussed  proves that Catholic social teaching was treated by its authors as an abstract, unearthly ideal rather than a set of critical tools with which to make a moral assessment of Poland’s economic situation. The primary concern of these documents was not the concrete threat to human dignity linked to impoverishment and social exclusion, but rather various, mostly cultural threats to an imagined community - the nation and its Catholic identity. In these documents, Polish society was conceptualized as one organism, with the unity of that organism, rather than justice, prioritized as a common goal for all those to whom the documents were addressed. There is one crucial exception. In sermons given during his Polish pilgrimages, Pope John Paul II diagnosed quite succinctly the concrete threats to human dignity and the deep lack of solidarity in Poland. The details of the Pope’s teachings were, however, usually overlooked in the collective excitement and sense of celebration surrounding his pilgrimages to Poland.

A thorough analysis of the position of the Catholic Church in the public sphere during the first decade of transformation is crucial to understanding the fate of the Catholic religion in Poland in subsequent decades. Many of the faithful, disappointed with the official position of the institutional Church, which was very conservative and focused on defending the status quo and blind to new social and individual problems, had two basic options. Firstly, they could lose trust in the institutional Church and stop practicing Catholicism. The statistics show that many people took this option. The biggest reduction in practicing Catholics occurred among the long-term unemployed, the young, the poorly educated and the working class. There is a clear trend among Poles to lose interest in the Church's teachings. According to data from the European Value Study, in 2008 only 35 percent of Poles admitted that the Church offers the right answers to Poland’s social and political problems, down by over 12 percent since 2005.

The second choice available to the faithful was to use Catholic teachings as a symbolic resource for their own innovative actions and critical thought. This was the case with Radio Maryja, which separate from the mainstream Catholic media, articulated the popular sense of powerlessness and disappointment. The relationship between this radical social movement, which attracted approximately 1 million supporters, and the Polish Episcopate, has always been very problematic. The Episcopate has been very reluctant to solve the Radio Maryja problem, and the station has always enjoyed strong support from a number of bishops. To an extent, Radio Maryja developed as a lone critical voice, representing one of the few manifestations of Catholic public religion in Poland after the glory days of the Church's struggle with Communism.

Poland’s experience shows that the way in which churches and other religious institutions act on the eve of a radical transformation is critical to the fate of mainstream religion in a rapidly modernizing society. Catholic social teaching has not been successfully used in Poland as a vehicle of morally driven, public criticism of injustice. It is not providing effective inspiration for innovative practices of solidarity. It has been used rather as a sometimes randomly selected set of recommendable ideals, to be realized in the private lives of individual members of the faithful.  

Many new Catholic organizations and movements still interpret religious ideas in primarily individualistic terms, as a means to pursue individual perfection rather than guarantee the common good and solidarity. Religious education in schools is also rather abstract and theoretical, which makes it difficult for young people to translate religious ideas into everyday life. Furthermore, there is a problem with the pluralism of attitudes within the Church, which is more often a source of conflict rather than a source of fruitful cooperation and innovative practice. Many honest and engaged citizens have felt deeply divided between a supposedly good, supportive, compassionate Church, personified by Radio Maryja’s charismatic Father Rydzyk, and a supposedly bad Church, personified by Catholic intellectuals, the elite and liberal bishops, allied with the rich middle class in big cities.

Going forward
The Catholic Church in Poland still possesses the greatest assets and mobilizing power of all NGOs active in the public sphere. It is still trusted by most of the Polish population. Church institutions, especially Catholic parishes, enjoy excellent legal opportunities and tax privileges due to the Concordat between the Vatican and Poland. Parishes and Church-based organizations can legally cooperate with all authorities, cultural and non-governmental institutions. Another important asset is the relatively high level of education amongst most of the clergy and the number of Church-based educational institutions such as kindergartens, schools and Catholic universities.

The problem with maximizing the potential of these great assets and thus having a stronger impact on civil society is two-fold. Firstly, there is a time delay with Church structures in Poland. These structures are still more heavily grounded in the past, when the Church was forced to act as a monolithic institution to defend itself against the Communist regime, than in the present conditions of a pluralist society. There are still huge problems with opening up executive positions within Church structures for the laity. All the major positions in the biggest Church organizations like Caritas are monopolized by members of the clergy. There is still a great amount of distrust towards lay people in daily parish life. Only about 10 percent of Polish parishes have a parish council which includes lay people. This distrust between the clergy and the laity seems to be mutual, but once it is successfully overcome, parish life will be able to flourish and we will start to see cases where a parish effectively becomes a local community development center.

The second barrier to the Polish Church having a greater impact on the development of civil society is the crisis of religious-based education in Poland. This may seem astonishing in a country where most children still enroll for lessons in Catholicism in public schools. The problem lies in the fact that this education is highly theoretical and abstract. Religious education in school cannot replace a real education system for prospective Catholic leaders, who would have a strong leadership profile and strong sense of working for the common good. Such leaders and future committed citizens are only trained in a few faith-based organizations, such as the Scouts of the Republic of Poland, the Alliance of Families, Opus Dei, Communione e Liberazione and The Club of Catholic Intelligence. A further problem is that this education is usually reserved for the children of members of the upper and middle classes and intellectuals. There are few Church-based initiatives focused on the future generation like the Siemacha youth centers in Cracow, or Catholic sports organizations such as SALOS or Parafiada, which are open to all young people, regardless of their social background.

The official stance of the Catholic Church still underlines the basic role of the family in a child’s development, but in actual fact the Polish family has lost its prominent role in the younger generation’s education. Radical change in gender roles, demographic changes and the strong pressure put on employees by the labor market, alongside the growing influence of consumer culture mean that families are less and less able to engender a sense of civic ethos and leadership qualities in the younger generation.

Church-based initiatives could have a huge impact on the formation of future civic leaders and committed citizens, not only in Poland. When families and schools lose a degree of authority and involvement with children, religious organizations can teach them altruism, encourage them to prioritize the common good and give them a strong and lasting motivation to actively try to improve their society. We also have to remember that in a country like Poland, as well as in many other CEE countries, Church leaders are still more important than the institution of the Church. Success in developing future generations of committed citizens and faith-motivated volunteers will be impossible without the promotion of lay people. The Church has to overcome the gender bias, introduce a democratic system of decision-making and put a much heavier emphasis on a practical interpretation of Catholic Social Teaching in the contemporary social world, culture and economy.

I hope that these changes will gradually take place within the Polish Church, making it once again one of the most important allies of civil society in Poland, as it was under the Communist regime.

Bagget, Jerome P., 2006, “The Catholic Citizen: Perennial Puzzle or Emergent Oxymoron?”, Social Compass 2006; 53; 291.
Casanova, José, 1994, Public Religions in Modern World, Chicago, University of Chicago Press
Osa, Maryjane, 2003, Solidarity and Contention. Networks of Polish Opposition, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.





Maria Rogaczewska, M.A., born 1978, is a PhD Candidate in Sociology and junior lecturer at Warsaw University. Her scientific interests focus on sociology of religion, and the role of religion within civil society and
public sphere. A member of Experts Board of CIVICUS Civil Society Index in Poland. A member of Community Development Unit of Institute of Sociology in Warsaw. As a researcher and expert, she has cooperated with Polish-American Freedom Foundation, Klon-Jawor Association, Ministry of Social Policy in Poland, School for Leaders Association, and other non-governmental and public institutions. Writer and publicist (publishing in "Wiez", "Tygodnik Powszechny"). Passionately interested in the ideas of parcipative democracy, public sociology and social innovation. A co-founder of "Amicta Sole" - Catholic Women Initiative
for promoting women in the society.

* I would like to thank my Colleague, Sławomir Mandes PhD, for his very helpful comments on my research into Church organizations as well as many inspirational discussions.


This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.



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