During much of its modern history Poland was a ball of contention between three imperial centers: Moscow, Vienna and Berlin. Vienna has long lost any imperial aspirations, Moscow would like to assert them again, and Berlin tries hard to hide them if it has any. It turns out, though, that Poland is experiencing an internal contention between two other cities: Rome, the center of global Catholicism and Brussels, the capital of the European Union (and, quite apart from its political function, a fitting symbol of the new European culture—cosmopolitan, colorless and definitely secular).
In April 2010 a plane crash killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and a large group of other prominent Poles. They had been attending a ceremony commemorating the Katyn massacre, at the site where the Soviets had killed thousands of Polish officers early during World War II. The tragic plane crash, understandably, was an enormous shock. It occasioned an outpouring of grief and mourning from what then seemed like a united nation. Days after the disaster a large wooden cross was erected in front of the presidential palace. It became a shrine, where ever since people have gathered to pray, light candles and lay down flowers.
From being an expression of national unity, the cross has become a sign of division. A significant number of Poles have become angry at what they perceive (rightly or wrongly) as the increasing influence of the Catholic Church in public life. The cross in front of the presidential palace has become a lightning rod for their anger. The demand has now been made for its removal, on the ground of its supposedly being a violation of the constitutionally defined separation of church and state. A group that calls itself “defenders of the cross” has faced a vocal opposition by mostly younger people mobilized, in the most postmodern way possible, by an appeal on Facebook. A recent demonstration has gone beyond the cross issue to become a manifestation of anti-Catholic sentiments. Young people danced around a prayer group to rock music blaring from a boom box. Catholic piety was mocked. A demonstrator appeared on a balcony dressed as a pope. The police have now put up a barricade around the cross. The “defenders” are continuing their vigil. At the time of writing it is not clear whether the cross will be moved, as the secularists are demanding.
Given Polish history, this is an extraordinary development. Catholicism was a vital ingredient of Polish national identity, especially in its maintenance against Orthodox Russia and Protestant Prussia. The church was at the center of opposition to the Communist regime, blessing the rise of Solidarity and other anti-Communist groupings, and being enormously encouraged by John Paul II, the celebrated Polish pope. A scene such as the one just described would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. What has been happening?
I would say that we are witnessing here a process of “Europeanization”. This is a cultural process, reinforced by incorporation into the European Union but independent of this political development, and preceding it in time. Quite apart from the acquis to the EU, there is an acquis to what I call the “European package”—an aggregate of attitudes, beliefs and lifestyles, which has a cultural fusion effect within the borders of the EU, but which spills across these borders with varying force. Secularity is an important element of the “European package”. Whether they are initially aware of this or not, countries that come under the influence of this new European culture ipso facto open themselves up to secularization—a decline of traditional religion in the public sphere and in the lives of individuals. It is thus not surprising that Catholicism, in Poland as elsewhere in Europe, has attracted people who are troubled by the loss of national distinctiveness and/or who have not benefited from European economic unification. In an ironic historical sequence, the Catholic Church has morphed from a symbol of liberation to a symbol of conservative nostalgia. This may be unfair, and the empirical situation is almost certainly more complicated, but perceptions matter. They have real consequences. If a substantial number of Poles now perceive the church as a reactionary institution, the perception has the potential of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. A culture war between rosaries and rock music will have implications far beyond a wooden cross in Warsaw,
One learns as a social scientist that predictions are dangerous business. Once in a while, one turns out to gain a degree of plausibility (I agree with Karl Popper that no hypothesis is ever proved—it can be falsified—and if this has not, or not yet, happened, that is cause for satisfaction). Some years ago I wrote in an article that countries are likely to experience secularization as they become absorbed into the new pan-European culture. I mentioned Ireland and Poland, by all measures the most Catholic countries in Europe, as likely candidates for this experience. Much more recently I gave a lecture at the University of Warsaw on religious trends in the contemporary world. During the question-and-answer period a middle-aged academic read out the relevant passage from my old article and asked, in a perfectly friendly manner, whether I would still make this prediction about Poland. I was a little embarrassed, mumbled something about not being sure, then did the cowardly thing—I asked the audience what they thought. Several people responded. I did not make an accurate count. As I remember it, the house was divided, but with a slight majority coming out for Polish exceptionalism. I finally said that, with all due reservations, I would still make the same prediction. Today I would make it with a little more confidence.