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The Shadow of the Cross

Though perhaps not a sign of increasing secularization, the ruckus over the presidential cross in Warsaw did show a more widespread willingness to criticize the church.

by Brian Porter-Szucs 15 October 2010

Today we publish two views of a controversy sparked this summer by the presence, or removal, of a cross erected in front of Warsaw’s Presidential Palace to memorialize the late president, Lech Kaczynski. It proved too powerful a symbol to resist for those intent on making a point about contemporary Poland. But both of our writers argue that taking the long view would be more prudent.


See also: Losing the Faith?


A historian should take great care before predicting how his future colleagues might remember his own present. That said, sometimes an event so perfectly crystallizes a particular moment that it seems bound to find its way into the textbooks of generations to come. Such an event took place in Warsaw this summer, when a handful of far-right activists attempted to mobilize Catholic imagery for their cause, only to see it backfire in ways few would have anticipated.


It started with the death of President Lech Kaczynski in the Smolensk plane crash in April. His unpopularity in life (as few as 18 percent of respondents had told pollsters that they intended to vote for his reelection) was set aside amid a stunning outpouring of emotion, as tens of thousands of people came to the presidential palace to light candles, lay flowers, or simply pay their respects.


Media across the ideological spectrum were virtually unanimous in encouraging a mood of national mourning, particularly since among the crash victims were members of every political party.


The first cracks in this apparent unanimity of sorrow came within a matter of days, when it was announced that Lech and Maria Kaczynski would be buried in the royal crypts on Wawel hill in Krakow. The president had some fervent supporters, but at least as many Poles considered his unpredictable antics on the international scene an embarrassment, and his divisive, nationalistic rhetoric dangerous. Few indeed would have ranked him worthy of a place among the national pantheon of heroes: surveys carried out afterward showed that nearly two-thirds of Poles opposed honoring Kaczynski in this way. Nonetheless, it was generally seen as inappropriate to protest too loudly so soon after his death, so the burial went forward.


The elections to replace Kaczynski were relatively subdued, and a bit odd, with Bronislaw Komorowski of the center-right Civic Platform and the late president’s brother, Jaroslaw Kaczynski of the far-right Truth and Justice, trying to woo left-wing voters, who did not have an obvious candidate in the second round of voting.


In the end, with Kaczynski toning down his usual vitriolic criticism of the left, the result was closer than anyone would have predicted. Komorowski won, 53 percent to 47 percent, but this result was widely viewed as a sign that Truth and Justice would henceforth regain its former potency in public life and that Kaczynski’s position as the leader of the opposition was unassailable.


Then came the cross. During the period of mourning in April and May, a group of scouts had erected a simple wooden cross in front of the presidential palace, which quickly became a pilgrimage site for those who wanted to commemorate the deceased president. A few voices from the left complained that it was a violation of the separation of church and state to have such a prominent cross on public property, but those objections did not initially seem to have much traction. Shortly after the election, Komorowski was asked what would happen to the cross and offered the seemingly innocuous response that it would be best to eventually find a “more appropriate” place for it but that he would do so in consultation with church officials.


We may never know precisely how the ensuing protests got started, but very soon after Komorowski’s comment a small cluster of people appeared around the cross, promising to defend it at all costs. In interviews it was apparent that they saw the cross as a symbol of both Lech Kaczynski’s “martyrdom,” and of what they took to be the illegitimate seizure of power by Civic Platform. According to their understanding of events, the plane crash was either staged or at least exploited by Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Komorowski, and their allies in Berlin and Moscow to decapitate Poland’s elite, take control of the country, and steer national policy in accordance with the interests of foreign powers. Jaroslaw Kaczynski himself refused to attend the new president’s inauguration, saying that the leaders of Civic Platform should “withdraw from public life” because of their crimes, and charging them with “moral responsibility” for his brother’s death. He claimed that the cross was a reminder of his brother’s greatness and heroism, and that this was why Komorowski wanted to remove it.


All this put church leaders in a very awkward position. Several prominent bishops supported Kaczynski and embraced the conspiracy theories surrounding the tragedy in April. A great many priests had gone so far as to openly use the pulpit to campaign for Kaczynski, and their bitterness only increased after his defeat. Others in the hierarchy feared the consequences of such an explicit political affiliation and tried to pull back from any direct involvement in these controversies. That proved impossible.


As the pressure mounted to do something about the standoff in front of the presidential palace, church officials agreed to remove the cross to a nearby church on 3 August. On that day a pair of young priests in full vestments arrived to lead a procession with the cross, only to be confronted by a large crowd held back by police barricades, and a few dozen people clustered around the cross, refusing to move. The self-proclaimed “defenders of the cross” shouted “shame” (and even some uglier epithets) at the priests, and after a hasty discussion with some officials from the police and the president’s office, the relocation of the cross was called off.


This seemed initially to be a great victory for the far right, but ensuing developments would show that the fallout from all this was far more ambiguous. First of all, the large crowd that day was not, for the most part, supporting the “defenders.” The chants and hymns that some people tried to get started were met with a tepid response, and many of the onlookers were actually laughing at the antics of the protesters. Aside from one moment when a few young men tried to rush the police barricades only to be met by pepper spray, the mood in the crowd was of curiosity and bemusement.


The following week, on 8 August, a very different gathering took place in front of the palace. Another large crowd, this time organized via the Internet with “flash mob” tactics, showed up to demand the removal of the cross. The right-wing press accused the demonstrators of employing “communist” tactics and slogans, and of harassing the mostly elderly “defenders of the cross,” but the mood was mostly ironic, irreverent, and lighthearted. The signs and chants were designed for laughter rather than indignation or mobilization, though a few of them were interpreted by the “defenders” as vulgar. Without any clear leadership, the crowd remained for a while, then gradually drifted away.


What was most significant about that gathering was the way it broke a long-standing taboo against criticizing the church. Of course there have long been media commentators and even a few politicians who opposed some of the policies and practices of the Polish church, but most public figures did their best to avoid the issue. Nonetheless, for the past 20 years, just beneath the surface, some profound changes have been taking place in Polish society. Attendance at Sunday Mass has been steadily but slowly declining, and surveys show widespread opposition to Catholic teachings on matters such as birth control, in vitro fertilization, premarital sex, and even abortion. The once plentiful supply of seminarians in Poland has dried up since the death of John Paul II, and young Poles tend to resemble their peers elsewhere in Europe – a bit more conservative on some issues, but only a bit.


The controversies of this past summer have allowed all this to burst to the surface. When the school year started in September, there were vocal complaints all across the country about the common practice of greeting the students with a religious service – something that had been taken as a matter of course even a year earlier. The role of the church in public life is under scrutiny as never before, and many politicians and commentators are openly calling for a renegotiation of the 1993 Concordat between Poland and the Vatican that gave the church a privileged position as the country’s new constitution was being drafted.


Of particular concern is the continued presence of catechism classes in the public schools. Although students are technically free to take these classes or not, alternatives are rarely available and school officials and teachers pressure the children to attend. In direct reaction to this summer’s controversy, a few politicians are even demanding the withdrawal of crosses from public institutions (they adorn the walls of most schools and government offices). Not only the opposition Union of the Democratic Left but even some members of the ruling Civic Platform have suddenly become outspoken in their demands that the principle of separating church and state be respected more consistently.


Now the cross in front of the presidential palace is gone: it was removed quietly in mid-September and placed in a chapel inside the palace. The controversy, of course, will not go away so easily. It has revealed deep divides in Polish society and sparked intense emotion on all sides. One thing, however, is now clear. The widespread myth of Poland’s homogeneity and the “organic” bond between Polishness and Catholicism has been quite decisively debunked. Majorities (sometimes substantial) of Poles ignore or openly oppose the advice of the clergy in matters both political and personal, and the church is strongly identified (rightly or wrongly) as an ally of one political party (Truth and Justice), not of “the nation” as a whole. Whether this will lead to the secularization of Poland, as similar developments have elsewhere in Europe, is yet to be seen. I’m inclined to doubt any prediction that links religiosity with “backwardness” and agnosticism with “progress.” It is more appropriate to see ebbs and flows: few today seem to remember that before the election of John Paul II, Polish religiosity seemed to be on the decline, only to resurge again in the very particular circumstances of the 1980s. So a future revival is definitely a possibility. For the short term, however, the politicization of the cross that we have witnessed in recent months will make it extremely hard to defend any claim that the church and the nation are one.

Brian Porter-Szucs is a history professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in Polish studies and the history of Roman Catholicism.

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