The Catholic Church as the guardrail of democracy in Poland?

For many years, Poland used to be recognized as the post-communist poster child for democratic reform and economic growth. Contemporary observers warn however, that the country might be backsliding into non-democracy. And while social scientists generally agree that the Catholic Church helped Poland democratize in 1989, we know little about its institutional posture towards democracy today. Will the Catholic Church act as the guardrail of democracy in Poland?

My research project, generously supported by the APSA small research grant, surveyed almost 2,000 priests from seven polish dioceses. To this day, a systematic analysis of clergy’s preferences has not been carried out, even though there are close to 30,000 priests in Poland and the country is a religious monopoly. Poles continue to attend religious services at a very high rate and many people think that being Catholic is indispensable to Polish identity (link). Needles to say, what Catholic priests think and say matters for the quality of democracy in Poland.

I am using a traditional paper survey to analyze how priests in charge of Catholic parishes think about politics. More specifically, I want to understand how they conceptualize key democratic issues, including the separation of church and state, democratic norm breaking, and toleration of political opponents.

Political scientists trace much of the recent democratic backsliding to 2015, when the conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) won both the presidential and parliamentary elections. For the first time in Polish democratic history, one party – PiS – obtained an outright majority and continues to rule without a coalition party. Although PiS is proving capable of attracting voters from different socio-economic backgrounds, its most committed supporters tend to be older and practicing Catholics.

PiS and the Catholic Church overlap in many of their commitments, but their goals are not identical (link). Since the Church is a conservative institution, I expect that priests in my sample will favor PiS over other political parties. It will also be interesting to see if the Church is a monolith. It is possible that support for PiS among Catholic priests is conditioned by the location of their parish (e.g., north vs. south), levels of educational attainment, or other socio-economic factors.

Ultimately, my project addresses a very important and timely tension: does it make sense for authoritarian institutions to support democracy? Under communism (1945-1989) the Polish Church was subjected to oppressions, intimidation, and violence. Thus, it was only natural that Catholic bishops and priests opposed communism. When democracy was introduced, most people and institutions benefited from the newfound stability. Today, the Church is tempted to enter into a silent coalition with PiS and turn a blind eye to its violations. While such strategy might prove beneficial in the short-term because of policy concession granted to the Church, its long-term consequences might be highly unfavorable.

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