Castles In The Air by Kaz Dziamka (August 1995)

As the train pulls out of German territory through a thickly-wooded border zone, my wife and I catch a glimpse–our first in nine years–of the Polish countryside. The emotion is overwhelming.

When we left, Poland was crippled by a $35 billion foreign debt and paralyzed by a standoff between Solidarity and the Communist government. We had abandoned a country that for centuries has been a Catholic outpost flanked by Protestant Germany and Orthodox Russia; a country burdened by a millennium-long European history and heritage so complex that nothing may ever be accomplished by reason in Central Europe.

When we left, Starachowice, my home town, had two Catholic churches. Since 1980, when Solidarity was formed, three new Catholic churches have been built; another three are being completed. Everywhere we go, crisscrossing the country in a Russian-made Fiat, we see new, magnificent churches amidst the dreariness of high-rise apartment clones. In Sosnowiec, in the industrial wasteland of Upper Silesia, in a city where a quarter million people are defying the logic of environmental science, twenty-two new churches have been added!

We pass through the tiny village of Tur, with barely more than a hundred peasants. But as we follow a winding road through the sea of Poland’s beautiful undulating green fields, yet another Yahweh’s temple, half-finished, aims for the sky.

At a major seaside city, I rest my case. A friend of mine and I are discussing the internationally known ills of Poland’s economy: We know that Poland now has a $40 billion foreign debt, that the unemployment is over one million and expected to rise another million in a few years, that 40 percent of the people are expected to live below the poverty line by the end of this year, and that young married couples may have to wait twenty years before they can move out of their parents’ apartments to their own.

“What’s going on?” I ask stupidly, a stranger in my own country. “How can you–I mean, we, Poles–afford to build and maintain thousands of Catholic churches at the time of such an enormous economic and ecological disaster?” Why do we have to build these sumptuous palaces for a Galilean carpenter whose father, as Mark Twain would have said, could have easily made his Polish children happy, yet didn’t?!

I am trying to control a growing rage at the mind-boggling waste and horror of seeing millions of my countrymen groveling before and building temples to a savage foreign god invented thousands of years ago. But I say nothing and merely ask my friend to explain what to me is inexplicable. I sense, however, a resentment toward me. It seems he would like to tell me that I shouldn’t flaunt my rationalism and American education. People like me left when going got really tough; like rats we abandoned the sinking ship in 1981 just before martial law was imposed. Now we come back, Americanized and apparently monied, and we think we know how to help. We hardly have any right to offer help, let alone to criticize.

But my friend never says what he means. Instead, he rather sadly points out that many Poles have little to hope for and that their faith in the Catholic Church is perhaps the only thing that makes their existence meaningful. (I agree–to some extent: I was raised in a Catholic family, like about 90% of other Poles. As a boy I used to love the rituals and the pageantry.)

And besides, he adds, the Church has money. Lots of it.

In the Polish village, the Catholic priest–unchallenged any longer by the communist apparatchik–has a complete control over the souls of his flock. Every Sunday morning the sheep listen to tales of woe, vice, and virtue. The sheep never look up. They pay, even though, as a Communist newspaper reported several years ago, a Polish Catholic priest earns a hundred times more than an average Polish worker. Nevertheless the sheep continue to pay and work: sometimes they put in two months’ worth of work every year for the local parish. For free, but perhaps for a chance of go to heaven. And then there are millions of Poles living abroad who also pay. And the West pays too. The international effort to help Poland has been an endless stream of money and consumer goods channeled mostly through the Roman Catholic Church.

The international aid has certainly helped strengthen the position of the already powerful Roman Catholic Church in Poland, but not necessarily the position of Poland’s newborn “American-style democracy.”

When I say “American-style democracy,” I don’t mean the current political system of the United States, which, to me, is no longer a democracy in the sense that James Madison, the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, thought America would be.

By “democracy” I mean the type of government advocated by Madison, in which the only guarantor of personal freedom and democratic decision-making is a multitude of political and religious interests. In such a government, no one has the monopoly of truth, and the role of the government is to be an impartial arbiter among the various contending factions of a free and open society. And this is why the Constitution of the United States is designed to protect both majorities and minorities, because a tyranny imposed by a minority is as dangerous as a tyranny imposed by a majority: both destroy the freedom of an individual.

To quote Madison: “The great desideratum in Government is such a modification of the sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions . . .”

But there are no “different interests and factions” in Poland; there is only one major religious and political faction: the Polish Roman Catholic Church, controlled by the Vatican, the worst government in the history of humankind, according to Madison. Over ninety-five percent of Poles are Catholic, and a peculiarity of Polish history is that the Catholic Church cannot escape–even if it wanted to–the role of a powerful political faction.

It is unfortunate that the position of the Polish Roman Catholic Church precludes a reorganization of Poland’s political system that would resemble the principles defined by Madison in, for example, the First Amendment, Federalist #10, or “Observations.”

This is very unfortunate because now is the only time in Polish modern history that Poles have been left to themselves. Russia and Germany, Poland’s traditional foes, are likely to leave Poland alone for a while. Perhaps there will never be a chance like this one.

The decisions of the new “democratic” Polish government have been predictably proCatholic. One of them is to allow a Catholic priest to become a permanent member of every Polish public school. Another one is to institute “voluntary” Catholic prayers in public schools. Such measures are steps directly away from the First Amendment: Polish democracy is rapidly becoming a Catholic theocracy.

But the Roman Catholic Church is as inseparable from Polish culture as wife and husband are inseparable in Catholic theology–for good or for bad. This is why Poland is not a scenario for Madisonian democracy. One would like to think that the current political fragmentation of Solidarity indicates a healthy, diversified political environment. But this fragmentation is like ripples on the surface beneath which there is always the bottom rock of the Roman Catholic Church.

It is now stronger than ever, supported by a vast network of new churches, by the unswerving devotion of millions of Polish Catholics, and by the religious passion of hundreds of Catholic priests. These Polish Catholic priests, many of whom are young and ambitious, work relentlessly to instill forever the Poles’ faith in the Black Madonna, the protector of Poland, a nation they believe to be the martyr, “the Christ, among nations.”

At a farewell party, a man tells me: “Things do not make much sense here. It is getting worse. I don’t think much good will ever be done here. Sometimes I regret I am Polish.” He complains, like all Poles, but he loves Poland.

We are on our way out, passing a bleak town in what used to be the German Democratic Republic, another Communist utopia that failed. The train goes “ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta,” piercing interminably a wall of darkness until at last we will arrive in Frankfurt in Germany and catch a connecting USAir flight. The Polish guard I have been talking to on the train for an hour has grown tired; his defenses have weakened. “Underground facilities, luxurious, fully-furnished housing and administrative units; expensive interior decorations!” he says bitterly. “Sir, those are not churches, those are castles!”

P.S. Several years have passed since I wrote the above. The Polish Roman Catholic Church has intensified a campaign to turn Poland into a showpiece of Catholicism. According to Jan Wolenski, in Warsaw-based Bez Dogmata (Without Dogma),the Vatican, led by the Polish Pope, considers Poland an experiment in designing “a model Catholic state,” an experiment that would be unique in Europe and, needless to say, as anachronistic in today’s politics as the Roman Inquisition.

The political stick to whip Poland under the fold of the Catholic cassock is the Polish concordat written in the Vatican and signed by the Polish government in 1993. (This is adding insult to injury since concordats are usually submitted to the Vatican to be negotiated; such was the case, for example, with the 1925 Polish concordat. This time, however, it is the Vatican that imposes its terms on Polish people.) But fortunately, the current concordat has not been ratified yet, even though both the Polish Roman Catholic Church and the fanatically Catholic Polish President, as well as many high-ranking Polish politicians, have been pushing for the ratification for over a year now.

The 1993 decision of the Polish government to sign the concordat was a preemptive measure to force the concordat upon Polish people before a new constitution is written. Polish lawmakers will now have to write a new constitution as an addendum to the existing concordat if it is ratified. In the meantime, Catholic instruction has been introduced in all public schools. (If the concordat is ratified, Catholic indoctrination would be extended to nurseries and colleges.)

The first class every day opens with a prayer, the last class is followed by a prayer. It is the teacher’s duty to attend church with students if there is a church holiday during the week. Catholic priests have now become permanent members of school boards.

Catholic priests and politicians have succeeded in banning abortion and stigmatizing contraception. Some priests, for instance, refuse absolution unless the “penitent” woman removes or abandons a contraceptive device. Catholic officials encourage–demand –large families “for the glory of God and Poland,” even though Poland has now become one of the most overpopulated and polluted countries in Europe. If the concordat is ratified, all weddings–church and civil–will be registered, making it easier for the Church to make a divorce illegal.

As of now, I have been unable to obtain accurate data about the number of churches built and being built since Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II and the communist government collapsed. However, from the information I obtained from “Zadruga” (a non-Christian, Slavonic Polish organization) and from Dr. Antoni Feldon (president of the Association of Polish Businessmen and a member of “Zadruga”), it seems that the goal of the Polish Roman Catholic Church is to permanently control the Polish population of 40 million through a network of 40, 000 churches, that is, one church per 1,000 people. Perhaps the goal is closer than we want to admit it is.

The writer, a Foundation member living in New Mexico, has a Ph.D. in American studies and teaches at a community college.

Freedom From Religion Foundation