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Poland resists secularization

From crosses in the classroom to religious education, Poland breaks with the European norm.

The Church became the main protector of the Solidarity trade union and of the anti-communist resistance in the 1980s, gaining enormous sympathy from most Poles. That sympathy has eroded over the years — particularly in the early 1990s, when an overweening Church injected itself into public life — but the Church's position is still immensely powerful.

In communist times religion was banned from schools, but it made a return in the 1990s, when Poland ratified a concordat with the Vatican. The curriculum is prepared by the Church, not the ministry of education, and the teachers are also chosen by religious authorities, not the school director. The program is supposed to be based on knowledge, not piety, but there have been cases of catechists marking pupils according to their participation in the life of their local parish.

Theoretically, religion is supposed to be offered together with a secular ethics course, but the vast majority of Polish schools have shied away from offering the subject, citing high costs and low interest. According to the education ministry, ethics is offered in only 334 of Poland's 32,000 schools, while religion is offered in 27,500 schools.

Making religion an official grade was the brainchild of Roman Giertych, the right-wing education minister in the previous government who was in thrall to the ultra-Catholic Radio Maryja network and its charismatic leader, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk.

Although he is no longer in politics, an ebullient Giertych celebrated the constitutional court's decision, saying: “The post-communists suffered a defeat and I'm glad that the tribunal decided I was acting according to the law.”

Many Polish politicians think in a similar fashion to Giertych, trying to avoid a conflict with the Church whenever possible, and taking public stances designed to appeal to true believers. Three years ago, a group of 46 members of parliament even tried to push through a bill that would have named Jesus Christ as the king of Poland.

While the left in traditionally Catholic European countries like Spain and Italy is strong and anti-clerical, Poland's shattered ex-communist rump — which has only about 10 percent support in opinion polls — has made an accommodation with the extraordinary role the Church continues to play in Polish life.

“Our words and our policies should be well-considered,” writes Szmajdzinski, the senior member of the Democratic Left Alliance. “That means we should give it a break with suggestions of the type: remove chaplains from the military ... or stop the financing of catechism from the budget.”