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The year 966, when Duke Mieszko was baptised on the occasion of his marriage with the Bohemian princess Dąbrówka (Dobrava), is regarded as the foundation year of the Polish State and the birth of Christianity on Polish soil. In 968 the first diocese was founded in Poznań; this was followed in the year 1000 by the Archbishopric of Gniezno and dioceses in Kraków, Kołobrzeg and Wrocław. From the beginning, Poland was part of Western Christianity.
In 1385 Lithuania was christianised as a consequence of a spectacular marriage: Polish Saint Jadwiga (Hedwig from the House of Anjou), married the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagello. A final union between the two States was established only in 1569 in Lublin. Thus was created a Republic of Both Nations (Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów): a multinational and multi-religious state, in which each noble had a passive and active right: either to elect the king or to be elected as king. This period, which lasted until the third partition of Poland in 1795, is known as the First Republic and existed as a republic of the nobles.
In the first half of the 16th century relatively large numbers of the richer strata of society followed Lutheranism, Calvinism, and the “Polish brothers” (the so-called Arians, who opposed the doctrine of the Trinity). During the course of the Counter-Reformation many returned to Catholicism, but in the 16th century Poland experienced relative religious freedom compared with other European States. In the time between the death of one king and the election of the next, the Primate, the Archbishop of Gniezno, was ex officio the Interrex.
Of particular importance was the Confederation of Warsaw of 1573, which introduced the principle of the equal treatment of religions. In 1596 an agreement was concluded between the Catholics and that part of the Orthodox Church which had kept to their customs but which recognised the Pope as head of the church: this was the foundation of the ByzantineUkrainian rite, popularly known as Greek-Catholic. In 1668 a law was adopted according to which a change from Catholic belief to any other should incur the death penalty. However, in the Kingdom of Poland there was very little persecution of Protestants and only a limited number of witch trials took place.
Only as late as 1716 was the building of Protestant churches prohibited. In 1768 religious tolerance was once again recognised in law. The Polish Constitution adopted on 3 May 1791 was the first modern constitution in Europe; it contained some provisions relevant to religion. Even in the Preamble it was stated: “In the name of God within the Trinity”, and in Article 1 it was established that “The dominant national religion is and will be the Holy Roman Catholic faith with all its rights. The change from the ruling religion to any other confession will be punished as Apostasy. Yet, because our same belief orders us to love other brothers we shall offer all people of any confession religious peace and government protection, and we guarantee the freedom of all rites and religions in Polish territories according to the laws”.
The Constitution was, however, not able to prevent the end of the First Republic, and so came the complete partition of Poland in the years 1772, 1793 and 1795. During this time the church played a special role in preserving Polish identity, culture, and language. Cardinal Mieczysław Ledóchowski, Archbishop of Gniezno, was for this reason imprisoned by the Prussian government.
The first constitution after the partitions, the Constitution of March 1921, contained only a short Invocatio Dei: “In the name of the almighty God”, by way of a compromise in recognition of the Jewish and Muslim communities. The first Concordat with the Holy See was concluded in the year 1925.
The war and post-war periods were characterised by the great personalities of three cardinals: Adam Stefan Sapieha, Stefan Wyszyński, and Karol Wojtyła. The Archbishop of Kraków, Adam Stefan Sapieha, offered unprecedented resistance against the occupying powers of the First and Second World Wars. The two heroes of the second half of the 20th century – Cardinals Stefan Wyszyński and Karol Wojtyła (the latter elected as Pope John Paul II in 1978) successfully challenged the communist regime. Ostensibly favourable laws (such as that introducing the church fund which only existed on paper), violations of existing laws (expropriation of the property against the provisions of this law), and numerous mysterious deaths of clergy, always caused by “unknown delinquents”, were permanent features of the anti-church policy of the communist regime.
The death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 led to a spontaneous national mourning, including closure on that day of many private establishments, like cinemas and restaurants. The government, led by L. Miller, declared that there is no need to adopt any measures, since “the Polish society knows anyway how to behave”. A few years later, in 2010, the death of the President of the Republic, L. Kaczyński in a plane crash near Smoleńsk and the following burial in the Cathedral in the royal castle of Wawel in Kraków showed very close links between the State and Church.
To certain extent symbolic is the question of the crucifix, hanging in the plenary room of the Sejm (lower chamber of the Parliament). It was placed during a night by two deputies in October 1997. In 2011, the deputies of the anti-clerical Palikot Movement requested the crucifix to be removed, as a sign of the neutrality of the State, expressed in article 25 of the Constitution. The Speaker of the Sejm ordered four legal opinions and on their base came to a conclusion, that since there was no legal basis for the placement of this crucifix, there is no legal basis for the reversed action, i.e. the removal. The government of D. Tusk welcomed this approach. The crucifix remained in the room.
The majority of the statutes which are in force today were adopted shortly before or after the political changes that came about in 1989. An important change was brought about by the Law of 1989 guaranteeing the freedoms of conscience and confession, which was negotiated with the (Catholic) Bishops’Conference. Recent steps in the history of Polish civil ecclesiastical law are marked by the Concordat of 1993 and by the Constitution of 1997).
Rinkowski, M. (2019). State and Church in Poland. In G. Robbers (Ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 463-466.
In order to acquire legal personality, they need to be entered into the special ministerial register (which currently lists about 170 of churches and other religious organizations). This does not pertain to philosophical and non-confessional organizations, which operate as associations.
According to the Constitution, the relations between the state and non-Catholic religious organizations “shall be determined by statutes adopted pursuant to agreements concluded between their appropriate representatives and the Council of Ministers” (Art. 25 Para. 4). However, since the Constitution entered into force, no new statute has been adopted to comprehensively regulate the legal status of any minority religious organization. Breaking this impasse is undoubtedly one of the most serious challenges faced by Polish legislators as far as religious minorities are concerned.
The principle of equal rights for all religious organizations is clearly the most important factor influencing the status of religious minorities in Poland. Based on this principle, for example, all legally recognized religious organizations have the right to teach their religion at schools. Nevertheless, the equal rights principle has not yet been realized to a full extent and the actual social position of various religious groups does not only depend on legal regulations.
Data and information concerning religious demography are provided by Todd M. Johnson and Brian J. Grim, eds., World Religion Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill).
General information on minority issues (including some references to religious or belief ones) can be found at the page devoted to Poland in Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.
Information on the legal status of the main religious denominations is available (in Polish, but with a partial translation) at http://www.iskk.pl.
Legislative acts on religious organizations are available (in Polish) at https://isap.sejm.gov.pl. For the Act of 17 May 1989 on the Guarantees of Freedom of Conscience and Belief see: https://isap.sejm.gov.pl.
A report on the Polish legal system and government policies about freedom of religion (with some references to religious or belief minorities) is provided in Department Reports and Publications - United States Department of State.
For an analysis of the State-religion legal system see
P. Stanisz, Religion and law in Poland, Alphen aan den Rijn: Wolters Kluwer, 2020.
Z. Pasek, Religious Minorities in Contemporary Poland, in S. Ramet, & I. Borowik (Eds.), Religion, Politics, and Values in Poland. Continuity and Change Since 1989, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 161-182.