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date: 26 November 2022

Religious Regulation in Polandfree

Religious Regulation in Polandfree

  • Ewa A. GolebiowskaEwa A. GolebiowskaDepartment of Political Science, Wayne State University
  •  and Silviya GanchevaSilviya GanchevaDepartment of Political Science, Wayne State University


It is a truism to say that most Poles are Catholic. Yet, there is also a large number of other churches and religious organizations that are currently registered with the Polish state, although they are very small in the number of adherents they boast. In comparison with other churches and religious organizations, the Catholic Church is a uniquely important social and political actor today and has played an important role in Poland’s over millennium-long history. A brief review of the history of the Catholic Church in Polish society and politics helps illustrate how the Catholic Church has come to play the role it plays in present-day Poland. At present, its relationship to the Polish state is formally outlined in the Constitution, several statutes concerning religion, the country’s criminal code, and an international agreement with the Vatican known as the concordat. Three issues—religious education in public schools, the relationship between the Church and state finances, and the Church’s openness to new religious movements—illustrate how the Catholic Church and state in Poland interact in practice. More informally, religious expression in the country’s public square provides further insight into the relationship between church and state in Poland.


  • Groups and Identities
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies


Recent nationally representative surveys of Polish public opinion inquire about Poles’ sentiments concerning displays of religious sentiment in their country’s public life and thus indirectly capture their views regarding the relationship between the church and state. For example, a survey conducted in 2015 shows that 88% of respondents are not bothered by the display of crosses in public buildings, 82% approve of religious education classes in public schools, 81% are comfortable with the clergy’s involvement in state events and ceremonies, 78% want the clergy blessings of public buildings and sites to continue, and 75% see no problem with the clergy appearing on public TV (Grabowska, 2015). In one clear exception, majorities of the public are uncomfortable with the Catholic Church’s involvement in politics. Specifically, a majority (55%) disapproves of the Church’s involvement in the process of drafting legislation in the lower house of the Polish Parliament (or the Sejm) and an overwhelming majority (84%) frowns upon the clergy’s activism in electoral campaigns. While there is some fluctuation in these aggregate opinions over a 20-year period for which the data are available, they are characterized by remarkable stability overall (Grabowska, 2015). In summary, these surveys demonstrate that—with the exception of the question concerning the clergy’s involvement in politics—most Poles are comfortable with an intermingling of the boundaries between the public and religious spheres.

In keeping with Polish public opinion on the presence of religion in the country’s public life, scholarship on religious regulation suggests that the Catholic Church in Poland has a privileged position (e.g., Neuberger, 2000; Tamadonfar & Jelen, 2013). In the terminology of typologies that summarize the nature of the relationships between church and state in different countries, the Polish case fits the so-called support (Tamadonfar & Jelen, 2013) or endorsed church model (Neuberger, 2000). In such countries, there is one dominant church that benefits from a privileged position, whether in terms of real or symbolic power (Grabowska, 2015).

In this article, we seek to demonstrate in some detail why Poland fits a support or an endorsed church model of the relationship between the church and state. To this end, four types of evidence are scrutinized. The constitutional, statutory, and international documents that define the nature of the relationship between the church and state in Poland are reviewed. Two issues, religious education in public schools and the relationship between church and state finances, are examined closely to illustrate how tightly knit the Catholic Church and the state in Poland are in practice. The status of religious freedom in Poland is examined by assessing state openness to new religious movements. The evidence concerning the permeation of the Polish public square with religious events and objects is reviewed. Some background information concerning Poland’s religious demography and the history of the Catholic Church’s involvement in Poland’s public life is presented. Throughout, an attempt is made to illustrate that religious regulation in Poland is as much about the state regulating religion as about the Catholic Church prevailing over the state.

Religious Demography in Poland

Casual commentary suggests that Poland’s religious demography is uncomplicated, with Catholics dominating the picture and a sprinkling of religious minorities complementing it. While the question about the preponderance of Catholics is not controversial, the question concerning the exact numbers of Catholics and other religious groupings is actually not easy to “divine” because the answer depends on how one measures the presence of different religious groupings in Poland. Two main sources of data are available: evidence from the population surveys conducted by the Polish Census Bureau (Glowny Urzad Statystyczny [GUS]) and estimates from the representatives of different religious organizations (Golebiowska, 2014). The main difference in the conclusions that they reach is that the latter tend to generate significantly higher numbers compared to the official estimates produced by the Census Bureau.

With these caveats in mind, the official data from the population survey conducted by the Polish Census Bureau in 2015 is examined along with reports about the size of their flock that are available from some religious organizations. To our knowledge, the Catholic Church in Poland is the only religious organization that has its own survey research arm that collects information about its faithful (Golebiowska, 2014). According to the official data generated by the Polish statistical bureau, about 87.7% of Poles self-identify as Catholic (GUS, 2016). In contrast, atheists and nonbelievers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek Catholics, Pentecostals, and members of the Polish Orthodox Church account for less than 5% of the population each (U.S. Department of State, 2017). In 2013, the statistical bureau reported that 2,397 individuals were registered with Jewish groups and 1,251 with Muslim groups. In stark contrast, religious organizations that represent these two faiths reported about 20,000 and 25,000 members, respectively (U.S. Department of State, 2017).

An alternative approach to describing Poland’s religious demography is to scrutinize the universe of churches and religious organizations that are registered with the state. Currently, there are 15 churches and religious organizations in Poland whose relationship with the state is governed by separate statutes—although the relationship between the Polish Catholic Church and the state is also governed by an international agreement with the Holy See that is known as the concordat (see the section “The Concordat”) (Ministerstwo Spraw Wewnętrznych i Administracji[MSWiA], 2017).

Other churches and religious organizations can register with the state if they meet the requisite statutory requirements (see the section “Statutes Concerning Religion”). Altogether, there are currently 196 churches and religious organizations that are registered with the Polish state—although only 178 are actually still in existence (GUS, 2016). A majority of the registered organizations (80) are Protestant, and a relatively small number (10) are Catholic.

In summary, two points can be made about the religious landscape in Poland. Although the numbers shift depending on how they are calculated, a clear majority of Poles self-identify as Catholic. The remaining churches and religious organizations that are currently registered with the state, while large in number, are very small in the number of adherents they boast.

Brief History of Church-State Relations in Poland

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to review the entire history of the relations between church and state in Poland’s over millennium-long history, suffice it to say here that the Catholic Church has been an important social and political actor from the start (Byrnes, 2002; Eberts, 1998). The Church has time and time again played an especially important role as a repository of Polish nationalism, especially during the times of the country’s foreign occupations. The Catholic Church’s role in Polish society and politics going back to the post–World War II period is highlighted here to help illustrate how the Catholic Church has come to play the role it plays in present-day Poland.

It seems commonly known that the Catholic Church played an important role in keeping Polish national identity alive during the country’s Soviet occupation. It is less well-known that the communist period was a time in which the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state was symbiotic—or a time of both “conflicts and coexistence between the Church and the state” (Eberts, 1998; Grzymala-Busse, 2015, p. 343). While the communist regime attempted to weaken the Church’s position in Polish society, it also used it to achieve its goals. Similarly, the Catholic Church kept the national spirit alive and offered a safe haven for dissidents but, at the same time, it cooperated with the state to achieve its own goals (Eberts, 1998; Grzymala-Busse, 2015). As one example of this, the state did not interfere with religious practice in the early years of the communist regime and even allowed its officials to take part in religious ceremonies (Eberts, 1998).

The state’s attitude toward the Church grew more hostile by the early 1950s and was codified in the new constitution that was passed in 1952. Formally, that communist-era constitution established a separation of church and state. Nonetheless, the state ignored it in practice and continued its efforts to control the Church. Yet, the communist regime was also willing to make concessions to the Church when it needed its help to stabilize the domestic situation following a workers’ revolt in Poznan in 1956. Subsequently, it retracted its accommodationist attitude when it no longer needed the Church’s assistance and imposed a ban on religious education in public schools (Eberts, 1998, pp. 819–820).

The communists were once again forced to rely on the Church’s interventions with its faithful in the 1970s and 1980s when the internal affairs of the country became more volatile and the Solidarity movement came into being. The Church’s political influence grew in this time period as a function of the communists needing its help more than ever. As a payback, the Church got a large number of permits for construction of new churches and chapels (Ost, 1990, p. 157).

In a last-ditch effort to forestall the collapse of its rule, the communist regime extended several statutory concessions to the Church in 1989, which, amended, are still in effect today. They include the Statute on Freedom of Conscience and Creed, which guaranteed the freedom of religious belief and participation; the Statute on Social Insurance of Clergymen, which offered a state payment of a large proportion of the costs of the clergy’s social insurance; and the Statute on the Relationship Between the Catholic Church and State, which guaranteed the Church’s independence from the state (Eberts, 1998). As a result of these concessions, “the Church emerged from the communist period not only as the highest moral authority but also as the most powerful institution in the country” (Eberts, 1998, p. 820). It fully expected to play a dominant role in the transition period and beyond. It certainly did play an important role in the initial phase of the transition in at least two ways. First, it was a key participant in the drafting of the new constitution. Second, it used its political muscle to rapidly push through a number of its policy priorities—such as reinstitution of religious education in public schools and severely restricting access to legal abortion services (Grzymala-Busse, 2015).

Since the beginning of the country’s democratic transition, the Catholic Church’s influence in Polish politics has declined for reasons both external and internal to the Church. The former include increasing personalization and privatization of religion (Marody & Mandes, 2012; cf., Borowik, 2010; Tamadonfar & Jelen, 2013). The latter include a backlash against the Church in pluralistic Poland, the revelations about collaboration between some clergy and the communist regime, controversy concerning property restitution to the Church, the clergy sex abuse scandal, and the Vatican’s “ineffective response to this scandal” (Ramet, 2014, pp. 25–26). What is more, Radio Maryja (Radio Mary), an ultranationalist and ultra-Catholic media outlet run by a Toruń priest, Tadeusz Rydzyk, “serves to divide and polarize the Polish Catholic community” (Ramet, 2014, p. 26).

In spite of the growing controversy over the Catholic Church’s role in Polish society and politics, it has been pursuing its agenda with renewed vigor in the two years since a pro–Catholic Church, Radio Maryja–affiliated Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) has assumed control of the Polish presidency and Parliament. During the 2015 presidential and parliamentary election campaigns, Law and Justice politicians worked hard to earn the Church’s support, and the Church was a willing participant in this electoral dance (Lubnauer, 2015). The Church was so open about lobbying its faithful in support of Law and Justice candidates that some pundits quipped that the Church had become a political bureau of the party (Kozłowski, 2016). While there was some variation in the individual clergy’s support for Law and Justice candidates, some estimate that as many as 8 out of every 10 clergymen supported Law and Justice (Kozłowski, 2016). To be sure, this was not the first time that the Church has been indirectly (or even directly) involved in elections. Throughout the 1990s and beyond, the Church has been in the habit of pointing out the “right” party to voters or instructing people whom not to support. In that regard, the Church’s close ties with Law and Justice are not an exception to its history of meddling in electoral politics.

Following the elections, the Law and Justice party chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, explicitly thanked Tadeusz Rydzyk for “everything he had done for the Church, for Poland” and said that the party would not have been able to win without Radio Maryja’s support (Wiśniewska, 2015). He went further to suggest that Law and Justice’s victory in the 2015 elections was simultaneously a gift for the Catholic Church and confirmation of its power. Some members of the clergy similarly celebrated the election of Law and Justice by noting that they have never seen such a unification of the church and state in postwar Poland (Wilgocki, 2017).

Emboldened by their electoral victories and control over the two branches of the Polish government, Law and Justice put forward proposals to revise the Polish constitution in order to, among other things, remove any mention of the separation of church and state from it and to include an Invocatio Dei (or a reference to God) in it (Wroński, 2017). In short, in the aftermath of the 2015 parliamentary and presidential elections, the Church and the state have formed a tighter than ever alliance—although neither side acknowledges the nature of this relationship (Szczęsny, 2016; Wilgocki, 2017).

Religion in the Polish Constitution

One formal source of the power on which the Catholic Church draws in Polish society and politics is the country’s current constitution. After eight years of contentious debate, in part driven by the conflict over the relationship between church and state, this constitution was finally ratified in 1997. From the start, the Catholic Church, as a key participant in the debates, took the position that there should be no separation of church and state in the constitution and that the preamble should include an invocation to God. The Church also articulated a number of other demands that it wanted to be enshrined in the new constitution. Those included protection of life from conception to death, defining marriage as an arrangement between a man and a woman only, and reinstituting religious education in public schools. The Church’s “demands became a key point of conflict” during the constitutional debates (Byrnes, 2002; Grzymala-Busse, 2015, p. 165).

The Church was an important actor in the drafting of the new constitution. However, much to its displeasure, it did not fully control the outcome of the debates. Therefore, the final draft of the constitution was a compromise between the religious and secular visions of the state. One need not seek further than the preamble of the document for evidence of the tension between the religious and secular visions of the new state—although that tension is also evident in the remainder of the constitution. Right from the start, the much contested language of the preamble “threatened to torpedo the whole constitutional project” because it mentioned God, in a concession to the Church, but also mentioned the rights of nonbelievers, in a concession to those who lobbied for a secular state (Cholewiński, 1998, p. 266).

As noted, the Church objected to any mention of a separation of church and state in the new constitution. Although the constitution does not in fact build a wall of separation between church and the state, it nonetheless sets up a framework in which the two are designed to function in different spheres (Cholewiński, 1998). The Church also opposed a constitutional self-reference to the highest law of the land but it lost that battle. On the other hand, it won the battle to enshrine a restrictive definition of marriage as available only to heterosexual Poles. In a mostly clear-cut victory for the Church, the constitution declares that the relations between the Catholic Church and the state will be in part governed by an international treaty with the Holy See (or the concordat) (Byrnes, 2002). When all was said and done, the Church was not thrilled with the outcome. Because it was used to getting its way as an unrivaled representative of the Polish nation and the final draft of the new constitution did not meet all of its demands, it opposed ratification.

In spite of the Church’s opposition, the new constitution was ultimately ratified—though by only a small margin and by less than a majority of Poles who had turned out to vote in the ratification referendum. This constitution now provides the formal foundation for the relationship between church and state—understood broadly to include different types of churches and religious organizations. Although the relationship between church and state is discussed in the constitution in broad terms, there is one church that this document mentions explicitly. Only the Catholic Church is mentioned by name and is subject to some unique provisions.

As noted, the constitution does not embrace a clear-cut principle of the separation of church and state. Instead, Article 25 defines the relationship between the state and churches and other religious associations to be based on respect for their autonomy and respective independence within their own spheres. It also states that the relationship between church and state is to be based on the principle of cooperation in the name of individual and common good.

The legal status of all churches and religious associations is also discussed in Article 25. This article addresses the equality of churches and religious associations, impartiality of the state in religious, worldview, or philosophical matters, and freedom of public expression (MSWiA, 2017). Finally, with one exception, this portion of the constitution indicates that the relationship between the state and other churches and religious associations is to be governed only by statute (Constitution of the Polish People’s Republic, 1997). Uniquely referencing the Catholic Church, Article 25 states that the relationship between the state and the Catholic Church is to be governed by an international agreement with the Holy See in addition to statute.

In regulating religion in newly democratic Poland, the 1997 constitution discusses the subject of human rights, including religious freedom, in addition to outlining the relationship between the church and state. Although the process of drafting the constitution was contentious and lengthy, all the parties involved in it were in agreement on the importance of protecting human rights (Cholewiński, 1998). One measure of how important human rights are meant to be is the amount of space that is devoted in the constitution to their discussion. Chapter II of the constitution, which is the main repository of discussion concerning human rights, is the longest section of the entire document (Cholewiński, 1998).

Most relevant to the subject of this chapter is the discussion of religious freedom and restrictions on religious freedom that is found in Article 53. This article protects the freedom of conscience and religion, whether chosen and practiced on one’s own or collectively with others, and whether practiced in private or public. It also indicates that this freedom includes a right to organize places of worship and a right for parents to raise their children according to moral and religious principles that they favor. Article 53 also guarantees a right to practice and not to practice a religion and a right not to reveal one’s worldview, religious beliefs, and faith to the state.

Adding a constitutional stamp to the earlier enacted statute concerning the teaching of religious education in public schools, Article 53 formally provides for the teaching of religious education in public schools. However, it notes that religious education is to be available only for the churches and religious associations that are formally registered with the state. As an aside, the fact that religious education is mentioned in the constitution is a relatively rare phenomenon in the world (Zwierżdżyński, 2017).

In further discussion of religious freedom, Article 53 delineates permissible restrictions on the freedom of religion. It notes that such restrictions must be enacted by law and need to be motivated by one of several, broad justifications that include national security, public order, health, morality, and freedom and rights of other people. The penultimate article of Chapter II (Article 85) provides for religious exemptions from military service. Finally, churches and religious associations are guaranteed a right to appeal to Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal (Articles 79 and 191) (MSWiA, 2017).

In summary, the constitution deals with the subject of the separation of church and state and religious freedom in several places. However, as a document that enumerates only broad principles, it does not provide specific guidelines for their implementation. Relevant statutory instruments, provisions of Poland’s criminal code, and the treaty between the Catholic Church and the Vatican (or the concordat) need to be examined for a more precise assessment of how government and religion in Poland interact. It will be apparent that religious regulation in the Polish context involves both the state regulating religion and the Catholic Church dominating the state.

Statutes Concerning Religion

The “Religious Demography in Poland” section indicates that there are currently 196 churches and religious associations that are formally registered with the state in Poland. Of those, only 15 are subject to specific statutes that govern their relationships with the state (MSWiA, 2017). In keeping with the constitutional mandate, the statute governing the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state supplements the concordat, or the agreement between it and the Holy See. The domestic statute pertains only to matters that are not covered in the concordat.

The churches and religious associations that are currently registered with the state owe their legal status to the 1989 Statute Concerning Freedom of Conscience and Faith (MSWiA, 2017). This statute outlines the process for registering new religious entities, guarantees freedom of conscience and faith, and explicitly protects the rights of nonbelievers in the country’s political, economic, social, and cultural life (Article 1, section 3). As significantly, this legislation declares that Poland is a secular country that is neutral in matters of religion and faith (Article 10, Section 1) and that churches and religious associations, in their performance of religious functions, enjoy independence from the state (Article 11). This law also gives churches and religious associations the rights to operate schools and kindergartens and to teach religious education in public schools, the terms of which it leaves to separate legislation.

While the 1989 statute addresses the relationship between church and state directly, two important recent laws have direct and indirect implications for the status of religious freedoms to which the country’s religious minorities are entitled. The 2005 law on national and ethnic minorities “applies to the freedom to practice their minority religion(s) because it specifically protects the cultural identity of national and ethnic minorities, of which religion is a part” (Golebiowska, 2014, p. 57). More significantly, a comprehensive antidiscrimination statute that was passed in 2010 and went into effect in 2011 spells out the principles of religious freedom and permissible restrictions on religious freedom. It starts out broadly and appears to institute a blanket ban on discrimination on the basis of several group memberships, including religion, faith, and worldview (Golebiowska, 2014). It notes “different forms of discrimination, delineates the areas of its application, and identifies bona fide exceptions to equal treatment” (Golebiowska, 2014, p. 167).

However, from the perspective of protecting Poles’ civil rights, including those that relate to their religious identity, the 2010 statute’s coverage is not as broad as the opening article seems to suggest. Detracting from its seemingly comprehensive coverage, the private sector is excluded from the law’s application, it “bans unequal treatment in such areas as access to social security, social services, and housing only on the basis of sex, race, and ethnic or national background,” and “prohibits unequal treatment in health care and education, including higher education, only on the basis of race and ethnic or national background” (Golebiowska, 2014, p. 167, emphasis in original). Finally, in Article 8, this statute “broadly sanctions unequal treatment on the basis of religion, faith, worldview, and several other categories ‘when it is necessary in a democratic society in the name of public safety and order, protection of health and rights and freedoms of other people or in order to avert otherwise illegal activities’” (Golebiowska, 2014, p. 167, emphasis in original).

In sum, this important antidiscrimination law is far from perfect even if it offers many discriminated-against groups a legal framework from which to challenge the discrimination they suffer. On the downside, it compromises equality of treatment “whether by exclusion of some groups from portions of its coverage or by explicit sanction of discriminatory treatment in certain areas” (Golebiowska, 2014, p. 167).

Poland’s Criminal Code

Religious protections are also safeguarded in Poland’s criminal code, which prohibits speech that offends religious sensibilities and threatens offenders with monetary crimes and imprisonment (Golebiowska, 2014). It prohibits the annihilation of religious groups and imposes sanctions on individuals who “use violence against, threaten, or publicly encourage others to commit violent acts targeting … religious groups or individuals” (Golebiowska, 2014, p. 115). It also prohibits interfering with a “person’s exercise of his/her religion or a public performance of a religious ceremony (including mourning rites) of a church or another religious organization, and offending religious sensibilities by desecrating religious symbols and places of religious worship” (Golebiowska, 2014, p. 115). Finally, the criminal code outlaws hate speech that targets groups because of their religion, or lack of a religion, and potentially imposes a monetary fine and a prison sentence on individuals who violate these prohibitions.

The Concordat

In keeping with the constitutional mandate, Poland’s Catholic Church is subject to an international agreement with the Vatican known as the concordat in addition to the domestic statute that regulates its legal status. The concordat was initially signed in 1993 but did not get ratified until 1998. It triggered pushback for violating the constitution and a large number of Poland’s secular laws because its language allowed it “to trump Polish law” (Ramet, 2017, p. 22). Incredibly, “passage of a new constitution was held up until the draft constitution could be accommodated to the provisions of the draft concordat, rather than the other way around!” (Ramet, 2017, p. 24). The controversy generated by the signing of the concordat also revolved around the privileged status that the concordat accorded the Catholic Church without extending comparable privileges to other religious organizations (Ramet, 2017).

This treaty with the Vatican “lays out the basic parameters of the church’s public role in democratic Poland” and reiterates the constitutional emphasis on cooperation between the Catholic Church and the state (Byrnes, 2002; Grzymala-Busse, 2015). Most importantly, it guarantees the Catholic Church’s autonomy in controlling its internal life, establishes national holidays, and renders Church weddings equal to civil ceremonies (Byrnes, 2002). While the 1989 Statute Concerning Freedom of Conscience and Faith and the constitution both address religious education in public schools, religious education “was sealed by the Concordat” (Zwierżdżyński, 2017, p. 146). The concordat placed the content of religious education and “the appointment of teachers exclusively under church control, and expanded the obligations of the state to the church, such as the maintenance of buildings and subsidies for Catholic schools” (Grzymala-Busse, 2015, p. 166). In short, the concordat cemented the Catholic Church’s role in post-communist Poland’s public life.

Religious Education in Public Schools

The practice of religious education in Poland’s public schools illustrates very well the thin line that separates the public and religious spheres in present-day Poland. As noted in the section “Brief History of Church-State Relations in Poland,” with the exception of a brief period of time at the onset of the communist rule in postwar Poland, religious education was outlawed in communist Poland. At the dawn of a transition from communist governance, reinstituting religious education in public schools became one of the Catholic Church’s most important policy priorities (Grzymala-Busse, 2015). As a result of its successful lobbying, the minister of education quickly signed off in August 1990 on a proposal that would provide for the teaching of religious education in public schools that would not involve any input from the state (Grzymala-Busse, 2015). The status of religious education was then reaffirmed in the constitution and the concordat.

The nondemocratic manner in which religious education was reintroduced into public schools stimulated a lot of controversy because many relevant stakeholders had not been consulted (Zwierżdżyński, 2017). Most importantly, representatives of religious minorities were excluded from the making of this policy. The Polish Ecumenical Council, an organization representing several religions, had attempted to offer its input, arguing that religion should be taught in public schools without discriminating against minority religions. However, its representatives had not been invited to participate in discussions about bringing religion back to public schools. The Catholic Church was the only church that participated in them (Zwierżdżyński, 2017).

Today, an overwhelming majority of religious education classes taught in Polish kindergartens, elementary schools, and secondary schools are Catholic classes. The Catholic Church is responsible for the programs and textbooks used in these classes and, while they are submitted to the Ministry of Education for review, the ministry has no power to change their content (Zwierżdżyński, 2017). These classes are typically taught by Catholic clergy and nuns (Golebiowska, 2014). Classes taught in public schools are financed by the state. They receive partial public financing when they are taught in private schools (Zwierżdżyński, 2017).

One key question that the original version of the legislation concerning religious education did not address concerned adherents of minority religions and nonbelievers. Ultimately, the decree on religious education was amended to include a theoretical option for adherents of all religions to have access to religious education in public schools. The theoretical nature of access to religious education for adherents of all religions is underscored here because, in practice, the only adherents of minority religions who can take religious education in their religion are those who belong to a handful of the country’s largest minority religions, because the law includes what is an insurmountable hurdle for adherents of minority religions (Golebiowska, 2014). Specifically, it stipulates that schools are expected to offer religious education classes in alternative religions only when at least seven students are interested in taking them at their school or at least three students express interest in taking interschool classes in their religion (Zwierżdżyński, 2017).

In theory, students who do not wish to attend any religious education whatsoever have an option to take an ethics class instead—providing that there is sufficient interest in this option, that is. However, a recent estimate suggests that only 12.5% of all public schools in Poland offer this alternative (Zwierżdżyński, 2017). To make matters more problematic from the perspective of the separation of church and state, it is becoming common for the agents of the Catholic Church to teach ethics classes in Poland’s public schools when they are actually offered (Szczęsny, 2016).

Finally, it should be noted that grades for religious education or ethics, for those students who want to and are able to take an ethics class, are listed on students’ transcripts without specifying whether the grade was for religious education or ethics. In contrast, students who opt out of either religious education or ethics have a dash listed in the space designated for a grade for religious education or ethics. In light of these practices, it should come as no surprise that children who belong to minority religions have been incurring major psychological costs. Some research shows that they have been bullied in the past, especially in elementary schools, and experienced a heightened sense of social exclusion, powerlessness, threat, and oppression (Nowicka, 1995).

Church and State Finances

Broadly speaking, the blurry line separating church and state finances in Poland is another example of the intermingling of church and state. A church fund that is administered through the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration has been established in democratic Poland, ostensibly to compensate the church for the properties it lost during and after the war. Formally, the money that is available through the church fund is available to all churches and religious organizations that are registered with the state (MSWiA, 2017). Practically speaking, the Catholic Church is the principal beneficiary of this money. Conversely, the smaller religious groupings that are not eligible to register with the state are not eligible for this support.

The regulations devised by the Ministry of Internal Affairs spell out the permissible uses of the money (e.g., the church’s charitable activities, renovation of church buildings of historic character, as well as payment for the clergy’s social and health insurance) as well as restrictions on their use (e.g., maintenance costs of the renovated buildings are not covered by the fund). A total of 10 million zlotys was made available in the country’s 2017 budget for the purpose of supporting churches and religious organizations that are eligible to compete for these funds (MSWiA, 2017).

In spite of the regulations in place, the Catholic Church has occasionally received sizable state subsidies for projects that are prohibited under the existing laws. For example, under the law, the state is prohibited from financing construction of religious objects. Yet, a new church called the Temple of Divine Providence was built in Warsaw with sizable subsidies from the national and several regional governments. The Catholic Church has also been successful in getting state subsidies for church-run colleges and payment of salaries to the clergy who teach religion in public schools (Zuba, 2010). Both of these public contributions to the Church elude public control.

Finally, the Property Commission was also set up in 1991 and was tasked with processing applications “submitted by the church for restitution of properties seized by the communist authorities” (Zuba, 2010, p. 126). The Commission has been another formal path through which the Catholic Church, but not other groups or individuals, could receive compensation for the property it lost during and after the war (Zuba, 2010). Therefore, some have argued that the Property Commission has functioned as an interest group representing the Catholic Church. Until late 2008, there was little transparency in the process on which the Commission had relied to award compensation. The Church representatives made their own appraisals of the property they were requesting, lowballing the value of the property relative to its market value, and the decisions of the Property Commission could not be appealed. In response to the media reports publicizing these abuses, the process was modified to include additional appraisals to be made by an external auditor—though the decisions of the Property Commission still could not be appealed, not even to Poland’s highest court (Zuba, 2010). Polish scholars who have investigated this issue point out that these modifications were made late in the Property Commission’s existence—it was disbanded in 2011—when only 9% of the applications that had been submitted to it were still waiting to be processed (Zuba, 2010). As a result, some estimate that the Catholic Church has made out like a proverbial bandit in this process (Sedia, 2013).

New Religious Movements

Typically, religious organizations that are registered with the state in Poland are old religions. In contrast, only a few new religious movements are registered with the state, whereas the remaining ones operate under an alternative legal status—whether as associations, limited liability corporations, foundations, or informal groups (Pasek, 2017). These new movements represent a good deal of diversity in terms of their belief and practice. Among others, they include a neo-pagan movement, scientific movements (e.g., UFO cults), occult traditions, and different expressions of satanism (Pasek, 2017).

These new religious movements have been controversial since they surfaced in democratic Poland (Doktór, 2004; Kościańska, 2004a; Pasek, 2017). They have been alternately dismissed and called “cults” or “sects” that threaten Polish national identity and Catholicism (Kościańska, 2004a). An anti-cult movement that came into being in Poland in the first half of the 1990s, while ostensibly providing the media and local authorities with information about the new religious movements, instead spread negative stereotypes of these groups and promoted religious intolerance that affected other religious minorities as well (Doktór, 2004; Kościańska, 2004b; Pasek, 2017).

In 2000, the Polish government added fuel to the fire with two moves. First, it published a report that was replete with anti-cult rhetoric. Second, it made it harder for new religious entities to register with the state (Doktór, 2004). Formally, the Polish state’s policy toward the new religious movements is not supposed to reflect the Catholic Church’s policy. However, the Catholic Church has made it a point to wage a campaign against these “dangerous sects” (Pasek, 2017, p. 180). Therefore, in practice, the state and the Catholic Church have cooperated in formulating the policy against new religious movements (Doktór, 2004).

To sum up, this example of the place that new religious movements have found in Poland’s public life provides further evidence that the line between church and state is very fuzzy and that the Catholic Church not only enjoys its institutional privileges but also uses its position as the dominant church to assail the competition. While the antisect legislation did not make it to the Parliament, one cannot but wonder about the impact that the Church has had in increasing the salience of the anti-sect issue and its broader implications for discrimination against all religious difference in Poland.


In keeping with the literature on religious regulation, we have taken the position in this article that the nature of the relationship between church and state in Poland is best described as fitting the support or endorsed church model. In this manifestation of the relationship between church and state, a country’s dominant church enjoys a privileged position in its legal status and public role. The privileged position of Poland’s Catholic Church goes back a long way in the country’s history and continues to this day. However, in democratic Poland, the Church has been forced to accept a reality of a diminished role in public life because it is no longer the only legitimate institution that represents Polish people.

That the Catholic Church’s influence has weakened is not to say that it is no longer a powerful political actor in today’s Poland. Its political muscle has especially gotten a boost in the wake of the 2015 elections, when the clerical authoritarian Law and Justice party that is closely aligned with the Church took control of the Polish Parliament and presidency. It remains to be seen whether this revitalization of the Church’s power represents a permanent turn in Polish politics. We are skeptical that this will happen in the long run. In spite of the continuing (and even growing) popularity of Law and Justice (Flieger, 2017), one out of two Poles is critical of the close relationship between the Church and Law and Justice and would rather that priests did not preach about politics (Orlowski, 2017). Therefore, what the future holds for the power of the Catholic Church in part depends on an interrelated question of how long Law and Justice stays in power and how fed up Poles get with the Church’s involvement in politics. The Church has been capable of some flexibility and creativity in adapting to new circumstances before. It might have to do it again in the near future barring a long-standing continuation of Law and Justice’s popularity.

In the meantime, a final illustration of the hold that Catholicism continues to have on Poland’s public life is presented, although in this case it does not involve the formal reach of the Catholic Church but rather the prevalence of religious expression in the public space. Alongside a transformation of institutional religion in post-1989 Poland’s public life, a transformation of individual religious expression has been taking place. On the one hand, a rise in the personalization and privatization of religion has been noted by sociologists, with more and more Poles distancing themselves from the institutional church (e.g., Marody & Mandes, 2012). Simultaneously, geographers of religion have been recording evidence of religious expression finding its way into Poland’s public spaces (Przybylska, 2014). In reaction to the four decades of desacralization of public spaces in communist Poland, a multifaceted sacralization of public spaces—or filling up of public spaces with objects and events with religious significance—has been taking place in democratic Poland (Przybylska, 2014; see also Szczęsny, 2016). Public institutions such as government offices and public school classrooms have not escaped the wide reach of this sacralization. For example, crucifixes can be found in both houses of the Polish parliament, in many other public buildings, and in public school classrooms (Golebiowska, 2014). Similarly, religious objects are available for purchase at Polish post offices (Wojciech, 2017).

In one comprehensive study of sacralization of public spaces in the period between 1989 and 2013, a threefold typology of sacralization is utilized—architectural, temporal, and terminological (Przybylska, 2014). As the name implies, architectural sacralization refers to the presence of religious buildings, whether churches, chapels, crosses, or monuments in the public space. Temporal sacralization refers to events imbued with religious meaning—such as marches, pilgrimages, blessings of public buildings, or road races—that have been taking place in the country’s public square. Finally, terminological sacralization refers to the practice of naming streets with saints’ names and designating patron saints of cities and schools (Przybylska, 2014). All three forms of sacralization appear to have greatly increased in democratic Poland.

More specifically, in harmony with the first author’s, Ewa Golebiowska’s, observations in her travel to Poland following a 12-year hiatus that started in the mid-1980s, Przybylska found that the number of Catholic churches and chapels has mushroomed in democratic Poland (2014). In addition, the number of post-accident crosses and crosses that mark the tops of Polish mountains has experienced a large growth. Architectural sacralization has included a significant growth in the number of monuments to Pope John Paul II (a phenomenon another scholar has dubbed as “John-Paul-the-Second-ization”) as well as chapels in hospitals, airports, shopping malls, and soccer stadiums (Czepczyński, 2008; Przybylska, 2014).

While religious rituals in the public square (e.g., pilgrimages, outdoor masses, or Corpus Christi processions) took place in communist Poland, new forms of pilgrimages and religious events exploded with the onset of the country’s democratic transition—including marches, road races, and blessings of public objects (Przybylska, 2014).

Finally, there has been a virtual explosion of terminological sacralization in the time period covered by Przybylska’s study (2014). As noted, this form of sacralization has included the naming and renaming of streets, squares, and traffic circles with religious names—whether of priests, bishops, Pope John Paul II, or saints. The phenomenon of adopting religious patrons for towns, schools, and streets has also been on the rise (Przybylska, 2014). In a related phenomenon, many new religious holidays and rituals have come into being.

The sacralization of the public space in Poland has been controversial because it has mostly involved religious objects and events associated with the country’s Catholic Church. As a consequence, it has fueled a debate that involves Polish believers and nonbelievers on the one hand and a debate among different adherents of the Catholic religion as well (Przybylska, 2014, p. 339). This advances the belief that church-state relations in Poland are complex and there is no clear-cut division between the church and state in Poland. The sacralization of public space in Poland is one of the symbolic resources that the Catholic Church has used to compete in pluralistic Poland.

Further Reading

  • Ramet, S. P. (2017). The Catholic Church in Polish history: From 966 to the present. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Tamadonfar, M., & Jelen, T. G. (Eds.). (2013). Religion and regimes: Support, separation, and opposition. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.


  • Borowik, I. (2010). Why has religiosity in Poland not changed since 1989? Five hypotheses. Politics and Religion, 3(2), 262–275.
  • Byrnes, T. A. (2002). The challenge of pluralism: The Catholic Church in democratic Poland. In T. G. Jelen & C. Wilcox (Eds.), Religion and politics in comparative perspective: The one, the few, and the many. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Cholewiński, R. (1998). The protection of human rights in the new Polish constitution. Fordham International Law Journal, 22(2), 236–291.
  • Czepczyński, M. (2008). Cultural landscape of post-socialist cities: Representation of powers and needs. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
  • Doktór, T. (2004). New religious movements and the state in Poland. In J. T. Richardson (Ed.), Regulating religion: Case studies from around the globe (pp. 259–265). Boston, MA: Springer US.
  • Eberts, M. W. (1998). The Roman Catholic Church and democracy in Poland. Europe-Asia Studies, 50(5), 817–842.
  • Flieger, E. (2017, October 13). CBOS: 47 Proc. Poparcia dla PiS. Gazeta Wyborcza.
  • Glowny Urzad Statystyczny. (2016). Wyznania religijne w Polsce: 2012–2014. Warsaw, Poland: Departament Badań Społecznych i Warunków Życia.
  • Golebiowska, E. A. (2014). The many faces of tolerance: Attitudes toward diversity in Poland. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Grabowska, M. (2015). Boskie i cesarskie: O stosunkach miedzy panstwem i kosciolem(ami). Warsaw, Poland: CBOS report.
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  • Kościańska, A. (2004a). Anti-cult movements and governmental reports on “sects and cults.” In J. T. Richardson (Ed.), Regulating religion: Case studies from around the globe (pp. 267–277). Boston, MA: Springer US.
  • Kościańska, A. (2004b). New religious movements and the state in Poland. In K. Brezinova (Ed.), Social and cultural diversity in central and eastern Europe: Old factors and new (pp. 21–24). Seminar Proceedings. Prague, Czech Republic: Multicultural Center.
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  • Przybylska, L. (2014). Sakralizacja przestrzeni publicznych w Polsce. Gdańsk, Poland: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego.
  • Ramet, S. P. (2014). The Catholic Church in post-communist Poland: Polarization, privatization, and decline in influence. In S. P. Ramet (Ed.), Religion and politics in post-socialist central and southeastern Europe: Challenges since 1989 (pp. 25–52). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Ramet, S. P. (2017). Controversies in the social and political engagement of the Catholic Church in Poland since 1988. In S. P. Ramet & I. Borowik (Eds.), Religions, politics, and values in Poland: Continuity and change since 1989 (pp. 19–40). Palgrave Studies in Religion, Politics, and Policy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
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  • U.S. Department of State. (2017). International religious freedom report.
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  • Zwierżdżyński, M. K. (2017). The politics of religious education in Poland after 1990. In S. P. Ramet & I. Borowik (Eds.), Religions, politics, and values in Poland: Continuity and change since 1989. Palgrave Studies in Religion, Politics, and Policy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.