Throughout the German occupation of Poland during World War II, Polish Catholic clergy were subjected to aggressive methods of imprisonment and extermination. The Soviet regime sought to eradicate what it meant to be Polish altogether, and the Church received special attention. But even in this most repressive environment, the church in Poland was a steadfast defender of Christian European values and individual liberty.
Contrast this with churches in Australia. In a far more hospitable environment, church leaders have become less concerned with Christian pieties, and obsessed instead with leftist dogma. From centralised government and higher taxes, to an undue focus on environmental issues, many Australian churches promote a Greens view of the world. Sadly, this means that our churches are talking less about individual freedoms and more about policies that would hurt the poor.
The courage of Poland’s Catholic church should be remembered as an inspirational movement to save an entire nation from the horrors of communism. Churches today should be mindful not to betray or ignore this legacy.
STRENGTH UNDER ADVERSITY
German and Soviet invaders viewed Catholic clergy as an educated leadership group of national resistance fighting their subsequent planned extermination of Polish culture and faith.
Following the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany on 1 September 1939 and by the Soviet Union 16 days later. These campaigns ended with both countries dividing and annexing Poland. Both Germany and the Soviet Union sought the short term goal of destroying the Polish state and the heinous long-term destruction of Polish consciousness as a unique and separate people.
Of the 10,017 Catholic priests serving in Poland in 1929, 2647 were killed under German and Soviet authority.
After Communist rule was imposed across all of Poland after the war, tensions between church and state continued.
Whilst Polish communists were hostile to all autonomous organisations, the Catholic Church was its primary focus for abolition given that atheism was an inherent component of Marxist ideology. Polish communists viewed Catholicism as a false and malevolent faith that acted as a barrier to the full acceptance by ordinary poles to alleged communist betterment.
The Communist government immediately enacted extreme restrictions on Catholic publications and actively closed Catholic organisations working in the wider society. Many priests, Catholic teachers and lecturers endured constant surveillance, arbitrary arrest and beatings and suffered personal attacks in state media.
In these organised assaults on Catholicism, the Polish Communist Party recognised that Catholicism acted as a powerful agent in forming and sustaining national culture. The Church as an institution carried out a central role as patron of cultural endeavours and acquired a reputation forged under German and Soviet rule for the defence of the Polish language and Western cultural traditions.
Under Polish communist rule, revisionist historians tried to remove Catholicism from all literature and historical works. In falsifying Polish history and literature, communists hoped to cleanse the culture of religious achievements and ideas thereby making the process of secularisation easier.
Paradoxically, Catholic support for traditional values and culture found support amongst large numbers of non-believers. Catholic defence of civil liberties, whilst centred around religious freedom, also fought against all forms of coercion imposed by governments on individuals and social groups.
The clear Catholic defence of traditional values impacted significantly on Marxist claims which usually centred on issues such as ‘equality’ and alleged ‘exploitation’. Importantly, Catholics were able to regularly point to the despotic tendencies of communist bureaucracy and the stultifying nature of communist life and cultural expression.
The Polish expression of communism lamentably prompted a serious number of deep social problems. In addition, the prospect of finding tradesmen, nurses, doctors or even police prepared to attend the needs of their wider community, without incentives, was a constant concern.
THE BATTLE OF IDEAS
This situation encouraged Catholics to refocus their parish communities into centres with an increased emphasis on support, compassion and cooperation. The Catholic lifestyle became a notable contrast to the chaos and disorder that affected many individuals demotivated in their daily contact with Polish communism.
Over time, Polish communism modified its stance towards Catholicism, recognising its right to exist in principle, yet seeking to make that existence a purely private and individual matter. The place of Catholicism within the public sphere was still aggressively criticised and resisted. The Catholic conviction that religious practice ennobled human conduct in community life, business, culture and politics was not one ever to be accepted by communists. In response, Catholics initiated a whole range of programs, such as retreats, public talks on Catholic topics, summer camps and friendship groups for university students. All of these activities sought to stimulate and encourage intellectual discourse on the challenges facing Poland.
It should also be noted that Catholic priests were encouraged by their bishops to engage in these kinds of intellectual endeavours. Liturgical and pastoral responsibilities remained as primary concerns, yet priests were also expected to work with small communities on intellectual and creative responses to problems confronting Polish society. The ‘weeks of Christian Culture’ initiative saw the Church incorporate music, theatre, films, dance, poetry talks and mass into a format that both celebrated Polish culture and Catholicism’s place within it.
Polish resistance to national socialism and communism was led by a Catholic Church unashamedly rooted in Western ideology. It advocated for free speech and a separation of powers that highlighted the church’s rightful place in society, yet a place unhindered by government control. The Church importantly saw these fundamentals as bound strongly to the outcomes they produced: civic engagement, private rights and the equality of women.
A STARK CONTRAST
The accomplishments of Polish Catholicism could not be in starker contrast to what we are currently witnessing in the fragile churches of Western Europe and Australia.
The European Union is continuing to spend way beyond its means. An increasing number of bureaucrats, consultants and unelected officials pass thousands of new laws that enshrine permanent deficits. And where are the churches? Almost totally silent and distracted with environmental causes over which they have no influence and which has demonstrably proven to have hurt the poor.
Throughout Europe, home heating costs have tripled, real wages are depressed and poorer Europeans spend more than 10 per cent of their income on energy. The high cost of renewal energy sees around 300,000 German households cut off from electricity each year due to unaffordable bills.
In nations where taxation, spending and borrowing rise each year, climate change is not seen by struggling Europeans as a main game. Employment, border security and cultural integrity are the factors that centrally impinge on daily life.
In a Europe where illegal immigrants can regularly and successfully appeal against deportation on flimsy grounds such as human rights violations (examples include lower health care in home countries being claimed as potential torture and successful grounds for resisting deportation) there is now a strong disconnection between European government and its citizens. Unfortunately, the position of European churches in championing the agendas of rights, refugees and the environment has also ensured a disconnection between church and parishioner.
Australian churches show a profound tendency to mimic their European cousins, yet Australian churches are perhaps at their lowest ebb in our nation’s history. The statistical evidence points to a decline for some churches where recovery is becoming impossible. Anglicans admit that six of their diocese from a total of 23 are currently unviable and all but one or two are in deep financial chaos. Reviews over why this ‘new reality’ has occurred are unable to move beyond superficial laments over the rise of secularism and commercialism.
Yet, the acute disconnection between Australian churches and ordinary Australians is at the heart of this loss of influence and demands a deeper and more honest appraisal.
Emblematic of this disconnect has been the decision in recent years for various Australian churches to ‘divest’ from fossil fuel companies. It’s not objectionable for a Church to refuse to invest in firms that go against their faith, but the decision from the Sydney Anglican Church to withdraw its then-$262 million investment fund from resource stocks in June 2015 was a pointless symbolic gesture. The trustees of the Church fund—and of the other church funds which have made the same decision—should be making investment decisions to maximise returns to reinvest in the Church to fund its core activities in their communities.
The decision of St John’s Anglican Cathedral in Brisbane to offer ‘sanctuary to refugees’ affected by a high court ruling that their detention on Nauru was lawful is a case in point. This was nothing more than a frivolous chase for a headline. Where are the refugee centres established by this church? Where is the purchased property that would allow refugees to live in proper facilities befitting their dignity? Where are the refugee workers established by these churches to nurture and care for refugee individuals and families? When a church has no skin in the game, yet is determined to vigorously critique others, it loudly trumpets its disconnection from reality.
THE NEED FOR CHURCH ENGAGEMENT
Australian society faces a number of core problems. Each of our major cities now has neighbourhoods where individuals and families find no jobs and little hope of improving themselves. These suburbs are marked by high rates of unmarried mothers, absent fathers, drug dependence and total reliance on welfare.
Nevertheless, many Australian churches continue to call for increases in welfare provision failing to recognise the central failings of the system. It is government regulation (such as minimum wages) that makes it so difficult for low skilled individuals to find work. How is it reasonable for churches to continue calls for increased welfare and yet totally omit to call for the abolition of barriers to entry-level work?
Even the Australian branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society, an organisation ostensibly dedicated to serving the poor, argued before the federal election that the incoming government should commit to a ‘fairer tax system’. In particular, the society’s national CEO Dr John Falzon cited negative gearing as a ‘cost’ to taxpayers, and proposed company tax cuts as a giveaway to the big end of town.
Unfortunately, this dismissive attitude to company tax is all too common to socially conscious Christian leaders. But a lower tax liability for businesses means extra capacity to expand their activities, and to employ more people. For the head of St Vincent de Paul to ignore the positive economic effect of tax cuts is surely a terrible
dereliction of his duty. A youth unemployment rate of 13 per cent is a blight on all of us, yet again Australian churches have no commitment to this issue. Surely the promotion of employment is the foundation of the whole social justice agenda.
Employment is the rock that provides for marriage and family, the ownership of a home and the resources to educate and raise children. Australian churches that continue to attack free markets and call for restrictions on job creation fail to understand that broader notions of wealth include the physical, physiological and spiritual benefits that stem from the world of work.
The Polish Catholic response to communism has much to teach modern Australian Christianity. They advocated close contact with ordinary people and their problems and aspirations.
Importantly, the Catholic church connected faith with issues of freedom across a wide social spectrum, not just religious freedoms. It courageously defended people against injustice, violation of human rights, free speech, economic exploitation and other government abuses of power.
Perhaps centrally it suggests that issues of culture, western civilisation and free speech are issues the Australian church must again champion as it seeks to renew a divine mandate for all Australians.