For decades Poland’s Catholic Church enjoyed a commanding role in society, with few challenges to a role and influence that for many Poles is sacrosanct and an inseparable aspect of Polish identity.
But now a series of billboards sponsored by atheist organisations mushrooming around the country has thrown down a very public challenge.
One of the giant placards that have started to appear in major Polish cities show a series of boxes labelled “Do Not Kill,” “Do Not Steal,” “Do Not Believe”. Each box is ticked. Another billboard asks the question “Don’t believe in God?” and provides the answer: “You are not alone”.
The arrival of the billboards has generated a whirlwind of publicity in a nation where more than 90 per cent of the population still classifies itself as Catholic, and is also the birthplace of Pope John Paul II, pictured below, one of Poland’s most famous sons.
“In a country considered to be Catholic, it’s very hard to be an atheist,” said Jacek Tabisz, president of the Polish Association of Rationalists, one of the organisations responsible for the boards. “Contrary to popular belief, however, there are many of us although not all of us have let our beliefs be known.
“The billboard action is not aimed at believers,” he added. “It is to show people that in a country where the stereotypical Pole is a Catholic there is a large group of atheists.”
The campaign has fed into a widening and in many ways unprecedented debate in Poland over the position and power of the Catholic Church in the country.
Long revered as a bastion of Polish culture and mores, when communism collapsed in 1989 a combination of widespread belief and gratitude to the Church for its role in the downfall of Communism led to the state granting it a number of privileges.
Despite being an officially secular state, priests can give classes in “religion” from kindergarten age upwards, and the Church benefits from the “Church fund”, a raft of supportive financial measures from tax relief and help with pensions, to state funding for ecclesiastical property.
For the best part of two decades these rights, along with the Church’s revered status, have gone almost unchallenged but now times are changing.
Last week, the Palikot Movement, the third largest party in the Polish parliament and one with a clear anti-clerical agenda, called for an end to religious instruction in schools, claiming it contravened articles in the Polish constitution ensuring equality of all faiths.
Even the Polish government has courted a share of criticism from the Church, with talk of reforming and reducing the “Church fund”.
Going one step further last month the government also ignored strident objections from the Catholic Church when it approved state funding for in-vitro fertilisation programmes.
Sociologists quell talk of an anti-clerical revolution in Poland, pointing out that despite the challenges to the Church’s position the Central European state remains a robustly Catholic country.
But they also stress that as Poles travel, work abroad and are exposed to a more cosmopolitan and more secular lifestyle the once formidable power and influence of the Church has begun to wane.