Poland several times has played a pivotal, spoiler role in overcoming some of the greatest threats to Western civilization. In 1683, a Polish army led by John III Sobieski repelled an Ottoman army besieging the city of Vienna that threatened the survival of all of Christendom. In 1920, at the Miracle of the Vistula, a Polish army repulsed an invading Bolshevik army that aimed to incite an atheistic communist revolution across Europe. And in 1989 Polish voters defeated the communists at the polls and ushered in a new democratic government.
Yet what almost fifty years of communist rule could not achieve—namely, provoking widespread popular animus against a Catholic Church that has been instrumental in all of Poland’s most glorious achievements—has been accomplished in 25 years of EU-driven liberal influence. Following an October 22 decision by Poland’s highest court that rule abortions due to fetal defects to be unconstitutional, more than 100,000 pro-choice protestors hit the streets of Warsaw. Many thousands more protested in the nation’s other urban areas.
Yet this hasn’t been only a reaction against the ruling populist, socially-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS). There has also been a strong anti-Catholic tenor to protests. Demonstrators, some wearing costumes meant to mimic the dystopian novel and television series The Handmaid’s Tale, have interrupted Masses. A woman in Warsaw stood directly in front of the priest at the altar and held a sign saying, “Let us pray for the right to abortion.” In Krakow, protesters gathered at the “Pope’s window” of the archbishop’s palace where St. John Paul II had appeared to bless adoring crowds… except these crowds now chanted “f— the clergy.” Many churches, meanwhile, have been defaced.
Though Poland is one of the most predominantly Catholic nations in Europe, Polish media outlets are now publishing how-to guides for those who wish to officially commit apostasy. People are publicly harassing Catholic priests in the streets. Pro-abortion leader Marta Lempart in turn called on the nation’s Catholics to “oppose” the Church. “At the moment, you partake in what is going on, in this disgusting stuff the Church is doing. And this is the final warning, because you should revolt, your communities, you – engaged in the life of the church,” she said. This even included entering and damaging churches. You should do what you feel, what you think, what is effective and what they deserve,” Lempart added.
In truth, Poland has been on the decline for decades, especially among the youth, who are more likely to be liberal and pro-EU. Indeed, resistance to the country’s “LGBT-free zones,” which are intended as resistance to LGBT ideology, has been strongest among the nation’s younger generation.
Poland’s current crisis is not only political, but profoundly spiritual. President Andrzej Duda of PiS won a narrow reelection earlier this year, much of his support coming from the more pious wing of the electorate. Voter turnout was the highest for a presidential election in 25 years, which proved PiS had a mandate, though a relatively thin one. Hence, the ruckus incited by the recent abortion decision has only aggravated the fault-lines between the older, rural, and devout generations, and younger, urban Poles. The latter may not even remember John Paul II; they certainly seem eager and willing to dispense with what has made Poland truly great—her faith.
The fate of the Catholic Church in Poland means more to American Catholicism than one might think. France might still be called the “eldest daughter of the Church,” but it has been Poland that has in recent memory carried the torch in Europe. This is especially the case now that Catholicism is in precipitous, perhaps permanent decline in the once fervently religious Ireland. Polonia, as the Latins called it, gave the Church some of her most impressive twentieth century saints: Faustina Kowalska, Maximilian Kolbe, and Jerzy Popiełuszko among them. Henryk Sienkiewicz and Czesław Miłosz, who both won the Nobel Prize in Literature in the twentieth century, were also deeply influenced by their Catholic faith.
Thus the decline of Catholicism in Poland, and strong anti-Catholic activism should serve as a bellwether for American Catholics. About a quarter of Americans are either practicing or former Catholics. Despite the many crises the Catholic Church in America has suffered in recent decades, she remains remarkably influential, both politically and spiritually. The pro-life movement is predominantly Catholic, as is the religious liberty movement. Six of nine justices on the Supreme Court are Catholic. That last data point is important, because we may very well see similar court rulings restricting access to abortion in the United States.
This year has witnessed a significant increase in anti-Catholic activism in the United States. Our saints have been vilified, their statues torn down and defaced. There have been numerous attacks on our parish churches. Before that, the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee publicly maligned the Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic fraternal organization in the country. Federal, state, and local governments have targeted Catholic hospitals, adoption agencies, and nonprofits.
It would be naive to think these trends will not continue, especially if we have a pro-life Supreme Court ruling similar to that in Poland. Imagine hundreds of angry, aggressive pro-choice protestors surrounding your parish church, perhaps coming into your sanctuary during Sunday Mass and harassing clergy. If it can happen in Poland, you better believe it can happen here.
“No invader has ever conquered the heart of Poland, that spirit which is the inheritance of sons and daughters, the private passion of families and the ancient, unbreakable tie to all those who came before,” wrote James A. Michener in his epic historical fiction novel Poland. Perhaps he’s right, and that it will ultimately have to be the Poles themselves who are their own undoing. If that’s the case, and hostility towards the Church in Poland continues to grow, it will be a valuable (if sobering) lesson in what lies in store for our Catholicism in America.
This is all the more reason we must commit to pray, not only for the protection and preservation of Catholicism in the United States, but also in distant Poland. She has gifted to America generations of pious patriots, going all the way back to Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko of the Revolutionary War era. If Poland falls, so may we.
Saint Faustina Kowalska, Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko, and Saint John Paul II, ora pro nobis.
[Photo credit: Omar Marques/Getty Images News]