Tensions between Protestants and Catholics in Poland

Proselytism in Kindergarten?


When harmonizing, the Polish Lutheran synod sounds like a male choir: Less than 10% of its members are women.  Several Lutheran women in Poland are engaged in pastoral work, but the road for them towards ordination remains long.  In Europe, though, this remains a middle-of-the-road position.  Polish Lutheranism is located between conservative Polish Catholicism and the liberal Protestantism of Western Europe.


This more tolerant stance makes Lutheranism appealing to disenchanted Catholics.  Barbara Engholc-Narzynska, Director of the Polish Bible Society, maintained: "My Catholic friends say that maybe they should become Protestants, because we are more open and democratic.  We had 25 or 26 converts in my Lutheran parish last year.  Mixed marriages have always decimated our ranks, but now Catholics are converting to Protestantism!"


Evangelical statements on abortion contrast strongly with Catholic ones.  Mischievous Polish media enjoy pitting Protestant declarations against those of the Polish Episcopate.  "Abortion should be dealt with by church discipline, not by means of penal law," insisted Bogdan Tranda, Pastor of Warsaw's Reformed congregation.


Two years ago, Protestants lived in fear of a totally Catholic society.  Therefore, last October's election results brought a loud sigh of relief: The parties most loyal to the Episcopate were roundly defeated and forced out of Parliament.  Free, Catholic voters have succeeded where the atheistic state failed: They have shown the Catholic hierarchy the limits of its popular appeal.  Laws prohibiting abortion and requiring the media to spread "Christian values" now appear as relics of a defeated ruling coalition.


Author Piotr Szczypiorski believes election results have proven mass rejection of a confessional state.  "The Poles have long struggled for freedom, and now they finally possess it," he wrote.  "They are defending this freedom vehemently, almost angrily.  Anyone who will again try to limit human and civil rights is bound to lose the confidence of society."


Last July, when the winds were still favorable, a "concordat" was signed between the Vatican and the former government.  But neither house of Parliament has ratified this agreement; opponents believe it gives the Catholic church unfair advantage and power.  Understandably, the Episcopate wants the agreement passed before the political climate turns even colder.


"Our society has become pluralistic," Andrzej Wojtowicz, Director of the Polish Ecumenical Council, explained.  "This causes the Catholic hierarchy major grief."  According to a German magazine, though 90% of the Polish population is Catholic, no more than 10% of Warsaw's population still attends mass regularly.


Protestant-Catholic Disputes

Few concrete Protestant-Catholic disputes remain.  Nearly all Catholic takeovers of Lutheran-owned churches have been resolved.  Protestant religious instruction now enjoys the same legal status as the Catholic one, but the conflict survives on the kindergarten level, where Protestants lack teachers.  "How are we to tell small children that they should not venerate the pictures of Mary as their friends do?" Wojtowicz asked.  "There is a real danger of proselytism in kindergarten."  Catholics have not agreed to an ecumenical form of religious instruction for this age group.


Only the Roman Catholic church is entitled to a concordat; each of the remaining churches will need to negotiate its own agreement with the state.  Jan Szarek, the Lutherans' leading bishop, explained: "The concordat, an international agreement, can only be accepted by Parliament in the form agreed to by the Vatican and the Polish government.  Our own church laws though can be changed by the state without prior consultation with us.  That's discrimination."


Minor snubs still blemish ecumenical relations.  The Protestant churches were not invited to services commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.  "Apparently, the sacrifices and blood of Poland's many non-Catholic heroes don't count," complained Bishop Szarek in his report to the Warsaw synod in April.


Nevertheless, a religious war is clearly not in the offing.  Nearly all Poles are amused by Russian rightist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's efforts to create a pan-Slavic nation.  "That's an Orthodox concept," Andrzej Wojtowicz explained.  "Polish Catholics are very receptive to the idea of 'evangelizing' Europe.  We Protestants though understand 'evangelization' quite differently."


In any case, Poles desire few things more heartily than becoming one of the West's free, consumer-oriented societies.


Dr. William Yoder

Evanston, IL/USA, April 26, 1994


Article written for „The Lutheran” in Chicago, 678 words.