Story: The fight for Catholicism is on in Poland

The World

In 2010, the largest Jesus statue in the world was erected in a cabbage field opposite a supermarket in western Poland. The 108-foot-high “Christ the King” statue is a clear testament to Polish piety.

And it symbolically guards this oft-conquered country from its latest intruder: secularism.

It might seem that setting up a bulwark against secularism is a bit premature: Surveys of religious attitudes in Poland show that just a small percentage of Poles have been moving away from the Church since Pope John Paul’s death in 2005. But the numbers are growing.

Ula Sawicka and her boyfriend, Piotrek, are both 24-years-old, born just as Poland was emerging from four decades of Communist rule. In between Ula’s shifts as a hostess at a trendy bar in Warsaw’s Old Town, the two eagerly discussed their views on religion and politics in Poland.

“So there’s, for example, abortion, or in vitro (fertilization), something what is really hot topic in Poland. So for me it's, like, people's choice,” Sawicka said. “And maybe it's not right with the Catholic thinking, yeah? But I'm more modern Catholic person.”

“I don't think you'd find an older person in Poland who’s not going to church, but I think that the younger generation is rather like me. I'm not going to church. I don't believe in God. I consider myself an atheist.”

Janusz Palikot believes the young generation would like be free of religion.

Palikot heads up the political party that bears his name.

Two years ago, the Palikot Party became the country’s only explicitly secular faction. Its platform includes such controversial measures as legalizing abortion and marijuana, ending religious education in public schools and cutting off state funding for Catholic Churches.

And the party boasts Poland’s first transgendered parliamentarian.

“I think in next 10 years, the situation in Poland will be absolutely as in Spain or Italy. They were also very Catholic countries 20, 25 years ago. The same will happen in Poland, I hope. And the future is with me,” Palikot said.

But some of Palikot’s more vociferous critics warn that killing Catholicism may lead to unintended, and unpleasant, consequences.

Tomasz Terlikowski is the editor of a right wing quarterly magazine called Fronda, meaning “Slingshot.” Like many conservative Poles, Terlikowski sees Christianity as the essence of Poland. And he’d like to see religion bolstered in society.

Terlikowski said, “We are convinced that if Europe is to remain Europe, then Christianity has to be a very important cultural element in its cultural life. And those currently promoting secularism in Poland will soon face what he calls a much less conciliatory and much more confrontational force: Islam.”

“I am more afraid of Mr. Terlikowski than Muslims,” said Jacek Dobrowolski, a philosophy professor at Warsaw University.

“I would much more prefer Muslims to come here and to admix something to our culture. Actually, we need new people coming here because our society is aging, so we need immigrants. Let them be Muslims as well! Why not?” he asked.

Dobrowolski said that many Poles still view Catholicism as a form of patriotism. The crowds showing up to see the “Christ the King” statue is evidence of that.

In lieu of continually looking to Jesus and the cross as national symbols, Dobrowolski hopes that a new generation of Poles will embrace more secular ones, like the flag of the European Union.

But ironically, it turns out that the man who came up with the design for the 12 stars on the E.U. flag was inspired by artwork featuring the Virgin Mary with a halo of 12 golden stars.