What about the Polish Catholic Church? From Poland’s most influential institution to apostasy

‘Why bother?’, I was asked while handing in my apostasy papers. ‘So many people drift away from the Church, yet do not feel the need to formally withdraw from it,’ the priest continued. It was in 2017 when the word ‘apostate’ was still a bit of a novelty. Three years later, it becomes clear that a rapidly growing number of people know about apostasy. It is a form of a personal protest, organised ‘resistance,’ or seeking that much-needed correspondence between one’s conscience and ‘official’ status as some people do not want to figure in the Church’s statistics.


Searching for concise and reliable data on the subject is rather idle. Yet there seems to be a popular belief that the apostasy has become ‘trendy.’ The total number of apostasies committed in 2010 was 459 - reads the report published by the Institute for Catholic Church Statistics (ICCS). From 2010 until fairly recently, there was no more research conducted in this field, as the topic was deemed insignificant. After comparing the number of baptisms and apostasies performed in those years, the ICCS found the latter negligible. There is not enough official quantitative data on the subject to infer any prediction for the years 2010-2020. How come that despite the lack of official records, the topic has been picked up by the media?


The newly established website LicznikApostazji.pl (‘apostasy counter'), features the name of each person who, having committed apostasy, reported it to the website's administration. The website informs about 816 apostasies committed in 2020 alone. Despite the rather niche character of the website as not everyone has used it, nor is it an official tool, it is plausible to predict an even higher number of cases for last year.


The Genesis

Following the protests against the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling on the women’s abortion rights; the phrase ‘how to commit an apostasy’ had its time as one of the most searched terms on the Polish Google search engine. The ICCS has announced that it will restart its research on apostasy. Until the next report, one is left with not much more than qualitative data, which, despite being tricky, indicates a strong surge in the number of cases. The subsequent analysis and commentary provide enough information to understand the rise of the tendency, yet it will not give a definite answer as to its numeric scale.


The recent scandals connected to the Catholic Church in Poland, such as an investigation regarding sex abuse allegations against the former cardinal Gulbinowicz, situate the institution as utterly repulsive in the eyes majority of the Polish youth. The scale of paedophilia in the Polish Catholic Church remains officially unmeasured, yet, there is a shred of substantial evidence (consisting mostly of the victims’ testimonies) that it is a significant issue. I could even see it as inappropriate to penalise this long-established institution for the atrocities of its employees if it were not for the Church’s mishandling and awkward denial of the issue.


The young ‘Erasmus’ generation, having grown up in a democratic country with freedom of movement and the ability to travel across the continent, both, physically and ‘digitally,’ is familiar with certain European standards. The strives to establish gender equality, Women’s rights to safe abortion, LGBTQ+ rights. All of which stand on the contrary to the Church’s vision for Poland. The youth is, therefore, facing a dilemma. It can either progress as the society or remain in close ties with the Church, with the two being mutually exclusive. Poland’s youth is the fastest atheising social group in the world, finds Pew Research Centre. Shall the tendency continue, the Polish youngsters will even further contribute to the creation of the ‘secular Europe’.

The Gospel

For centuries the Church and the traditions derived from its gospel served as the undeniable foundation of ‘Polishness.’ Attending a Sunday mass used to be the final touch of spirituality in the weekly lives of Poles. Such a traditional, yet ‘plain’ society fitted perfectly in the teaching of the Church. One knew he was good if the gospel saw him good. One knew he was bad if the Church saw him as a sinner. Love, life, beauty, family, home, nation, and nature were all associated with religion as if they were born out of its concepts. In contrast to the experience of the other European nations, such as the French, Poles never experienced an oppressive cleric who would have blatantly tried to control their government. The Church and the State have been separated by merely a membrane, yet separated nevertheless.


The recent surge in the cases of apostasy stands somehow contrary to the Church's position as one of the 'most influential institutions' in Poland. Since its baptism in 966, Poland has always been seen as a catholic country. When the process of secularisation of Europe had begun, the state of the economy rather than religion became the factor indicating a country's Europeanness. Nevertheless, Poland was still seen as more European than, for example, Russia, mostly thanks to its unchanged culture and Christian traditions. Despite the elements of religious tolerance and reformation, the country was still deeply Catholic.


However, had Poland not lost its independence in the late 18th century, it might have secularised along with other European nations. Instead, living in the presumption that Poland, understood as an entity in itself, had suffered more than any other country, so-called Poland’s martyrology was created. The idea which set Poland as the ‘suffering Christ of Europe’ was meant to explain the previous hardships and give the nations inhabiting Poland the will to fight for their country’s independence. With little or no alternative source of hope, the religion and subsequently the Church became the incoherent elements of Poland’s struggles for independence until the democratic transformations in the 80’s/90’s.


Contemporary Poland

It is therefore understandable that with the fight for independence being complete, the martyrology and spiritual dimensions of the Polish identity begin to diminish. They remain important elements of the Polish identity since they set the Poles apart from other European nations. However, different times and agendas require different mindsets, which in turn are supported by different values. Does it mean that religion has partially lost its functionality? Do parents baptise their children in Catholic order to demonstrate their Polishness or just because that’s what their parents, neighbours, friends, and work colleagues did? Is it faith or tradition which leads Poles to churches?


The statistics make it clear. The majority of Polish people believe in God, but it doesn’t mean that they attend every Sunday’s mass or even that they support the institution of the Church. According to Pascal’s wager, a human is better off believing in God as one wins virtually nothing by rejecting his faith, which brings me back to the question I was asked years ago. Why bother? Why commit apostasy? Perhaps Poles realised that they can believe in God even outside the institutional Church. Perhaps the surge of apostasies and subsequent secularization will result in ‘separating’ the Church from the notion of Polishness, yet, it will not mean that all apostates will automatically drop their faith.


Many questions remain unanswered, and more research must be conducted in the field. The image of the Church in Poland has changed and the growing number of apostasies is a response to it. The history and importance of faith in Poland make it unlikely for the nation to drop their faith so easily. Even though the research suggests fast atheisation of the Polish youth, the apostasies might be to a large extent a manifestation of disagreement between the nation and the long-established institution of the Church. Although yet unmeasured, drifting away from the Church is not necessarily synonymous with being an atheist.