It should come as no surprise that in Poland, a country or “Catholicism has acquired an institutional status and an official place within civil society”, religion is exploited for political activism, including radical.
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Of course, not all far-right nationalist groups have ties to religion and churches, but in contemporary Poland the majority of far-right organizations are considered Catholic. According to a expert on the Polish nationalist movement, Catholicism in its nationalist representations has various dimensions – civilizational, moral, historical and political. This makes Polish right-wing groups an exception and an interesting subject in the field of far-right studies, especially since, for some scholars, “religion remains conspicuously absent from the concepts of the radical right”.
National radical camp: a key expression
The National Radical Camp (ONR) is an example of how a far-right group frequently uses religious argumentation in its political activity. A strong attachment to God is part of the ideological orientations of the ONR. The first point of the guidelines entitled “Salvation—the ultimate goal of a human being” can be seen as the ONR’s confession of faith. The group claims that these guidelines are the commandments of the “traditional Catholic Church” that lead people to discover the truth. Belief in God, as an undisputed principle, also becomes a guiding rule in political life. The group further states: “Underlining the enormous role of Catholicism, which for thousands of years has been a cultural tenet, a pillar of Polishness and an anchor of national identity, we pursue the vision of Greater Poland as a country imbued with the Catholic spirit. ”
The idea of building a nationalist program on a solid religious foundation continues in ONR publications, both online and in print. For example, in the group’s National Horizon magazine, there is an article on the first ideological principle mentioned above. Since the contemporary ONR draws inspiration from another organization operating under the same name in the 1930s, the piece highlights historical continuity. Belief in God and obedience to religious principles are considered an integral part of the nationalist tradition.
An important point of reference for the author of the National Horizon article is Pope Leo XIII and the pre-conciliar church and customs in general. The author notices new challenges for the church and Catholics, especially the modernist movement within the church, saying “the modernists have taken away our holy mass”. Liberal democracy is listed as another contemporary threat. The author of the article goes on to claim that this political system deceives people with ideas of liberty and civil liberties. Consequently, Catholic priests “raised in the liberal spirit” cannot be considered as allies of the ONR.
Interestingly, the application form for those wishing to become a member of the group includes a question about their attitude towards the Catholic Church. Religiosity could therefore be one of the decisive factors in the admission process. This appears to be important for recruitment since many activities organized by the group include religious practices. Wreath-laying ceremonies or other occasions, gatherings of ONR members and followers on various anniversaries, and celebrations of historical events are usually accompanied by prayers or followed by participation in the mass. Regional ONR divisions also meet for a joint Christmas Eve supper or to visit cemeteries on All Saints’ Day.
Although these activities do not seem to be a common practice within the far-right scene, they could be treated as a feature of many other Polish groups. In his work, the academic Dominique Tronina scrupulously followed similar religion-oriented activities of another far-right group, the Polish youth. Of course, in Catholic-oriented groups, religion is also used to support specific political positions, issues concerning the family or certain conservative educational policies.
The Polish Radical Right and Broader Secularization Trends
The ardent Catholicism of far-right groups in Poland becomes even more interesting as we recognize that the religiosity of Polish society is currently on a downward trajectory. The recent publication opinion poll institute CBOS leaves no doubt about this trend, especially among young Poles. Public opinion polls show that the percentage of people aged 18 to 24 describing themselves as religious has fallen from 93% in 1992 to 71% in 2021. This means that the proportion of young people who declare themselves to be non-believers has tripled over the of this period.
At the same time, Polish clerics became less scrupulous in practicing religious rituals. The percentage of young people going to mass regularly or practicing their religion fell from 62% to only 26%. The trend can be seen in society as a whole – with the number of believers falling from 94% to 87% over the past quarter century – but it is particularly evident among younger generations.
The new quantitative evidence summarizing the secularization process of the past 30 years surprises even Poles themselves. What was discussed and suspected has now been proven with exact numbers. Although the phenomenon deserves a deeper understanding through research, several possible explanations have made their way into the public debate These last months.
One of them is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the religious practices of Poles. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020, access to churches has been temporarily restricted and many people have become accustomed to practicing their religion at home. Another reason is a growing negative assessment of the church and the clergy due to the appearance of sex scandals, both in Poland and abroad.
One could also hypothesize that many Poles are simply fed up with the instrumentalization of religious arguments, which have repeatedly been used to justify political (and social) decisions. For example, the conflict between religious and non-religious motivations has become evident in recent debates over changes to Polish abortion laws. The decline in acceptance of the intertwining of public life with religion is also evident when looking at the number of students to assist Catholic catechism classes, declining rapidly in recent years.
Increasing secularization could impact many aspects of social and political life in the future. Given that Polish far-right groups mainly attract young people – who are increasingly secular – it might be interesting to observe whether the decrease in the religiosity of society will have an impact on the activities of the ONR and other similar groups.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.