Catholics First?

A right-wing fringe blogger ignites debate in Poland over the role of personal religious faith in public education.

WARSAW | A religious pilgrimage site doesn’t seem the likeliest place for the start of an educational controversy. But when a group of doctors chose to make a public “Declaration of Faith” from the historic Jasna Gora monastery in June, the Czestochowa landmark became linked with a movement to encourage Catholic professionals in Poland to place the strictures of their faith over secular ethics.

Since then, about 3,800 Polish doctors and other medical personnel – between 1 and 3 percent of all such professionals in Poland, depending on which groups are being counted – have signed the declaration. The document recognizes “the primacy of God’s laws over human laws” in medicine and prohibits signatories from being involved in carrying out abortions, birth control, in-vitro fertilization, or euthanasia.

While there was public outcry over the declaration, jokes about which profession would next prioritize religious oaths above professional ones also abounded. The pundits didn’t have long to wait. In late July, businessman-turned-activist-Catholic and blogger Janusz Gorzynski published “A Declaration of Faith and Conscience for Polish Teachers” on NEon24, a radical news site.

In the long text Gorzynski proposes that teachers swear to “teach respect and love for the Catholic Church and of every man (my neighbor) and the Polish nation (family of Polish families) and our mother country.” He argues that the laws of God, as set forth by the Catholic Church, should always take priority over civil law and that teachers should stand up to “anti-pedagogical ideologies as well as all indoctrination of today’s lay civilization, which is secular and hostile to God and men and the dissemination of which threatens the restoration of genocidal totalitarianisms.”

Until now, Gorzynski – who did not respond to repeated requests for comment – was best known for his musings on religion and “the greatest Pole of all time, John Paul II,” as well as worldwide conspiracy theories often involving Freemasonry and Judaism

Still, in the media doldrums of late summer, Polish news outlets pounced on the story, transforming it from niche curiosity to national issue. Suddenly, some Catholic educators and right-wing parliamentarians were speaking out in favor of Gorzynski’s ideas.

“The declaration is a very good idea,” Maria Czapiewska, a retired teacher of Polish and activist with the Teachers’ Catholic Association, told the news and cultural website “I’ve been following the doctors’ case, and I’m growing more and more convinced that one cannot force people to do something that is against their conscience and system of values.”

What might be more worrisome for supporters of secular public education is that some right-wing politicians have also voiced enthusiasm for the declaration.

“Teachers who think and feel along the same lines have every right to sign it,” said Marzena Wrobel, a a member of parliament with the Solidarna Polska (United Poland) party. “We’ve already seen the declaration’s spirit at work in practice, for example, when teachers were protesting against the forceful promotion of the ideology of gender at schools,” Wrobel continued.

Poland’s Catholic Church has been issuing dire public warnings to protect children from “gender ideology,” a catch-all for secular evils, for the past year. (Writing in the The New York Times in January, Polish sociologist Slawomir Sierakowski quoted a Poznan priest as saying that “gender leads to the devastation of families” and “is associated with radical feminism, which advocates for abortion, the employment of women, and the detention of children in preschools.”)

Those who see Gorzynski’s notion as divisive and ill-advised have also been speaking out.

“I think this declaration could only worsen relationships among teachers, students, and parents, as well as among teachers themselves,” Katarzyna Spychala, deputy principal of a Warsaw high school, said. “Did the author even consider that in public schools there are teachers and pupils of different religions?”

Poland remains very much a Catholic nation, but regular church attendance has been declining. The Catholic Church’s statistics indicate that the proportion of Poles who regularly attend mass fell from about 47 percent in 1989 to about 39 percent in 2013.

“We have an ethics code already that I don’t think runs against Catholic conscience and that’s what we should stick to. The declaration is a recipe for divisions,” Spychala added.

As the proposed teachers’ declaration of faith gained steam through commentary from both sides, and particularly once right-wing politicians began voicing support for the idea, the Education Ministry released a statement making clear that so long as the current government is in power, the declaration was a non-starter.

“Public schools are neutral. So teachers working in them should remain neutral as well,” Education Minister Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska told radio TOK FM in August. She also said that any teacher trying to teach in line with the declaration would be violating the Polish Constitution, which specifies that “all citizens have the same rights and duties regardless of their religion and worldview.”

Kluzik-Rostkowska’s stance prompted further reaction from some on the Catholic right, accusing the Education Ministry of intimidating teachers in a manner resembling the bygone Communist era.

For now, the controversy remains the province of commentators and politicians, with no plans to formalize the declaration.

“We don’t know of any attempts to introduce the so-called Declaration of Faith in Polish schools,” said Magdalena Kaszulanis, the spokeswoman for the powerful Polish Teachers’ Union.

According to Kaszulanis, a more immediate result of the controversy might be to reopen discussion on the presence of religion in Polish public schools. Religion classes were introduced as part of the standard curriculum 24 years ago. While students can opt out of religion classes, religious instruction on school grounds still represents a break from the Communist era, when religion could be taught only on church premises.

She added that so far, the disputes around the declaration have served to underline that religion in public schools is not in itself a source of major controversy.

“There have been only a few voices calling for religion classes to return to churches,” Kaszulanis said.

For Krystyna Lybacka, an education minister in the leftist SLD government of the early 2000s and current member of the European Parliament, the declaration itself warrants concern. She gave her backing to Kluzik-Rostkowska’s strong statement and warned that the issue could well become a real problem.

“I’m anxious about the declaration,” Lybacka said. “In particular I’m anxious about small towns or villages in areas where the Catholic Church is strong.” She added that if Catholic teachers have trouble reconciling their conscience with their teaching, they should change jobs.


Wojciech Kosc is a TOL correspondent in Warsaw. 


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