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Creeping evangelisation in state schools

Although unwanted by most parents, Catholic Religious Education (catechism) has been inserted stepwise into Polish state schools. In June 2010 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that this violated religious freedom. Two translated newspaper articles report on what's happening in Polish state schools.

A recent study has shown that classes in Religious Education (RE) are wanted by fewer than half of Polish parents. [*] Yet it has been introduced bit by bit over the last 20 years. A bishop admitted that the first step was to get it taught on a voluntary basis. After that it was funded by the taxpayer, made to count towards the grade average and finally rendered effectively compulsory, as the mandatory alternative, ethics, is widely unavailable. Here's how it was done.

Church puts secularist politician under intolerable pressure

The year after the fall of the Communist regime, Poland was in turmoil and Jacek Kuroń was worried. He was a democrat who had been imprisoned by the Communists, a defender of human rights who was beloved by all sides. In 1990 Kuroń was appointed Minister of Labour and Social Policy of the new democracy. This thrust him into a crisis situation: the state was “crumbling”, inflation was “crazy” and, due to Poland's long history of being divvied up by other countries, he considered the neighbours “uncertain”. This was precisely when the Polish bishops chose to increase the pressure on the government: in the new state's tumultuous first year they began to demand that Catholic religion classes be offered in state schools. Kuroń tried to protest that it would be against the law, for the 1952 constitution, then still in force, stated clearly that church and state must be separated.

However, the bishops told Kuroń that they expected the Government to introduce a bill to give them what they wanted. When he demurred, a prominent bishop laid it on the line.

“If the Sejm rejects [the teaching of Catholic] religion [in state schools]”, replied the bishop “we will go out into the streets! We will call for a referendum. We will demand what is our right. We will shout.” [1]

 It was a clever move, as the overwhelmed government couldn't risk a religious insurrection. And in yielding they set a precedent for making illegal concessions to the Church. Rather than ending the matter, Kuroń noted with chagrin that government capitulation only led to further demands by the bishops.

To be honest, I thought that we had avoided a religious war. But I was wrong. Immediately, there was talk of trying to build a religious nation, an argument strengthened by the fact that it was we who broke the law — we, who had loudly demanded that we build the new Poland as a nation governed by law! [2]

Rightwing politician makes catechism count for students’ future

The looming elections in the autumn of 2007 offered the church another opportunity in the form of the extreme rightwing Education Minister and chairman of the League of Polish Families party, Roman Giertych. “The leader of a party that was sinking in the polls was fighting for the orthodox Catholic electorate.” [3] That summer Giertych made Religious Education count for the grade average on this certificate: after consultations with the bishops, he signed a ministerial order. This has made it permanent, since the Education Act (Article 12.2) prevents the government from making any changes to Religious Education without the agreement of religious organisations. [4]

This has forced the students to take it seriously. [5] Making it part of the grade average now helps the priests keep order in the classroom. Previously unwilling students, forced to take catechism just because they'd been baptised Catholic, could be boisterous.

And good grades in catechism require more than doing well on the exam. According to a letter from the Episcopate, the student's religious practices are also taken into account. [6] Here, though, it's harder for a girl to participate than for a boy, since in Poland altar girls are not wanted. They're seen as the thin edge of the wedge: let girls serve at Mass and soon they'll want to become priests! [7] In any case, it remains easier for a student to get good grades if he takes catechism.

My 14-year-old son stated recently that he's an atheist, but he attends [Catholic] Religious Education to raise his average. I asked him to do a little survey in his class to see if seven students [the minimum] would be interested in having ethics. But they've figured out that it pays to attend Religious Education — it's easier to get a “six”. Kids check in the internet to find out what the Sunday Mass was about [instead of attending it] and then write for priest their “thoughts” [about it]. None of them want to take ethics. [8]

Before 1989 it was the class in Marxism-Leninism that could further your future career, but since 2007 it's catechism class that can help you to the red band that will get you into the best universities.

Although many of he students are willing to take the religious bribe for good grades, there has been some political opposition. On 7 May 2008 MP Artur Ostrowski from the left-centre SLD sponsored an amendment to Article 12 of the 1991 Education Act. This would reverse some of the Church moves by no longer permitting Religious Education/Ethics to count for the grade average and by putting the grades for these on a second certificate. There has also been a challenge to the 2007 regulation which made grades in Religious Education count and on 1 July 2009 the Constitutional Court is finally due to hand down its ruling.

Ethics classes now taught by priests

However, at the end of 2008 still another Church encroachment was announced. Having managed to get control over the unwilling students in catechism classes by making the grades count, the Church is now taking over ethics classes, too. Due to the chicanery outlined below, there are few ethics teachers in Poland: only 0.0037 per school. [9] However, now that students are to be obliged to take one or the other, how providential that there are lots of priests to fill the new demand for teachers of ethics!

Chicanery and salami tactics 

Excerpt from Joanna Podgórska,
“Unethical school”  (“Nieetyczna szkoła”),
Polityka, 24 September 2007

The teaching of ethics from the beginning was, and was meant to be, a fiction; [it provided] an alibi that demonstrated the ideological pluralism of the school system. Now that the grade from [Catholic] Religious Education counts towards the average, parents of non-believing students have started to demand a real alternative to catechism. [...]

At first, there were a considerable number of applicants [to teach ethics], but graduates [in philosophy] quickly realised that schools do not want them, says Professor Środa. They often heard that the school catechist does not welcome their presence, and if it's necessary for these pupils to have ethics, then the [Catholic] Religious Education teacher can take these classes, too. [Editor's note: Prophetic words, as in December 2008 this was revealed as the de facto policy. See above.]

This is where schools play a part in effectively discouraging students from taking ethics. When Religious Education was first introduced (let's recall that this was through the back door, by a Minister’s instruction, rather than a [parliamentary] act, and against enormous social resistance), there was a proposal to organise [Catholic] catechism as the first or the last lesson [of the day]. It was immediately shouted down by the Church hierarchy as almost a personal attack on God. [By contrast] ethics lessons were organised in the so-called zero hour or late afternoon, so that the willing would have to wait 2-3 hours after lessons. In the Warsaw [Gen. Jarosław] Dąbrowski Secondary School 50 students [originally] applied for ethics, but the 7.15 AM [time slot] seemed to be a sufficient deterrent, and three students remained. [...]

Sometimes the School Directorate does not allow even this solution. Czesław Janik, President of Neutrum Association, quotes the example of one secondary school in Bielsko Podlaskie where 20 students asked the school to organise classes in ethics. It was made clear to them that there was no money, no teacher, and in general they should keep quiet as this is the year of their final exams. 

 Ethics as a fig leaf

Ethics, however, is needed as a “fig leaf” to protect catechism in schools from the accusation that it violates the constitutional rights of citizens and constitutes discrimination against non-believers. [...]

In the early 1990s one could still have illusions that there would be some alternative [to Catholic Religious Education]. Today, this is gone. In Polish schools for years there has been a vicious circle: there is no ethics, because there is no demand, no demand because there is no ethics. According to the Church, 5 percent of primary school children and 10 percent of older pupils do not attend Religious Education. Meanwhile, classes in Ethics are organised in around 1 percent of schools. There are towns where there are no such schools at all. [...]

When Religious Education was introduced into schools, only 35 percent of Poles were in favour of this, 60 percent were against. Today the proportions are reversed. According to CBOS last survey from July [2007], 72 percent are in favour of teaching Religious Education in state schools and 24 percent are against. Admittedly, the majority (57 percent) believes that these lessons should above all provide knowledge about various denominations, which is de facto religious education, but who would bother with such details.

“God protect us from the Church”

One of the bishops, [Tadeusz Pieronek], when asked why the Church only now requested that the grade in Religious Education be included in the the overall grade average, admitted with a disarming frankness that earlier the social resistance was too great. Indeed it was, and that is why it was broken only gradually. In 1990 young people sprayed on walls: “Priests to the Moon” [a pun in Polish], “Nuns go abroad” [a rhyme] and “God protect us from the Church”. Protest letters came from Andrzej Wajda, Krystyna Janda, Daniel Olbrychski [the most famous Polish director and two top actors]. It would have been awkward to talk about money then. To burden poor Polish education with salaries for Catholic Religious Education teachers would have completely infuriated the public. Therefore Catholic Religious Education was to cost nothing. In 1995 the Church laid claim to the money, and in 1997 received it. When the public was reconciled to the idea that evangelisation is to be financed from the state budget, the time came for Religious Education to be included in the overall grade average. [...]

When it comes to the overall grade average, the issue assumes a practical dimension. To get “five” [“very good”] or even “six” [“brilliant”] from Religious Education is easy, since Religious Education teachers are often undemanding, so as not to discourage pupils. The grade from Religious Education will increase the overall average, and this can mean getting into a better secondary school, a certificate with a distinction [a red band], awards and scholarships. [...]

“Mandatory Religious Education?”

Excerpt from Krzysztof Lubczyński,
Nauka religii obowiązkowa?
Trybuna, 14 January 2009

In Poland the first step has been taken to legalise religious coercion. From September this year [2009] in many Polish schools Religious Education (RE) may become, in practice, mandatory. How can this be?

“Compulsory Religious Education by deceit”

The starting point is seems innocent enough. Officially it’s a matter of increasing the presence of ethics classes [which form an alternative to RE in the schools]. However, in view of its foreseeable effects, it's not quite what it seems. A few days ago the newspaper Poland wrote that the Ministry of National Education has decided that, beginning in the school year 2009/2010, students will no longer be allowed to opt out of both RE and ethics. They will have to choose one or the other. And because the overwhelming majority of Polish schools, particularly in the villages and small towns, find it impossible for various reasons to provide ethics classes, in actual fact, this means that students will have to attend RE. After all, according to the law, directors [of schools] are not obliged to organise ethics classes if fewer than seven students request this.

“This is an outrageous plan to install compulsory religious education by deceit”, warns the chairman of the Union of the Left (UL) [a small left-wing party], Piotr Musiał. “[...] Because there are so few teachers of ethics, this means in practice compulsory religious instruction, even for non-believing pupils”.

On its website the Union of the Left points out that [where the grades for RE count in the average] some pupils may find it difficult to be promoted to the next class [… and] “strongly protests against this clear violation of the ideological neutrality of the state”.

The bishops develop a fondness for ethics

Significantly, the idea of compulsory ethics was very zealously supported by the Catholic Church. [...] Not that the Bishops had suddenly developed a selfless love of ethics. It was rather that they knew the impossibility of providing it to everyone who wanted it, and that therefore these pupils will be — even against their will — forced to attend RE. As a result, the official rationale of Ministry of Education — that students who do not attend RE will have compulsory ethics — will become a parody of the ostensible purpose, because for the students unable to attend ethics there will be compulsory RE.

Some of the school directors have already announced that if they aren’t able to employ qualified teachers of ethics they will hire catechists. Not hard to imagine that at least some of them, under the pretext of teaching secular ethics, will in practice teach Catholic ethics, in other words: catechism. [...]


* "Less than half want religion in schools", The News (Poland), 6 September 2010. 

1. Quoted by Jacek Kuroń, Siedmiolatka czyli kto ukradł Polskę, (Seven-year plan or who stole Poland), 1997.,1296 

2. Kuroń, ibid.

3. Zbigniew Pendel, "Bishops with a Red Stripe", Gazeta Wyborcza, 20 September 2007.,82049,4403723.html 

4. "GW: Szatan z szóstką z religii?" ("Could Satan earn six in religion?"), Głos Nauczycielsk (Teachers' Voice), 20 September 2007. 

5. "The straight line/no mark on a school report is in fact a signal that a particular pupil did not attend religion classes organized in almost all of the schools." Maciej Bernatt, "Memorandum", Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, 28 June 2008. p. 2. 

6. Ibid.

7. Note the heading: "Girls yes, altar girls no" ("Dziewczyny tak, ministrantki nie"): Michał Bondyra, "Integracja z formacją", Króluj nam Chryste (Be our king, Christ), May 2008. 

8. "Joanna", [reader's comment] "Religion in the schools the height of hypocrisy" ("Religia w szkołach to szczyt obłudy"), Politkya, 30 September 2007.,1,9018,9109,40,0,religia-w-szkolach-to-szczyt-obludy.html#A9109 

9. Anna Węglarczyk, "Education Dept. wants mandatory ethics. This will be taught by catechists?" ("MEN chce obowiązkowej etyki. Będą jej uczyć katecheci?"), 11 December 2008. 


Translated by Renata Anderson

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