5. The Friends and Enemies of Catholic Poland
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5 | || The Friends and Enemies of Catholic Poland In 1927 G. K. Chesterton numbered Poland among a few “certain things in this world that are at once intensely loved and intensely hated.” These were things, he said, “of a strong character and either very good or very bad.”1 As one who loved Poland and indeed thought her very good, Chesterton wrote these words as an attempt to explain her to an uncomprehending England, but they say as much about the author as they do the country he admired as the brave bastion of Christianity. Chesterton was the premier English Catholic publicist of the day, and the text and tenor of his tribute to Poland, both authentically Chestertonian, displayed tendencies that might be called distinctively Catholic of his time and place. His expression of definite, unambiguous opinion, his disregard for fashion or conventional wisdom, and the pairing of stark opposites—love, hate; good, bad—reflected a mind, and its creed, anchored in a sure sense of moral absolutes , of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood, of virtue and sin, judged not by the unreliable standards of mortals, but handed down by an omnipotent yet benevolent God who spoke through his Church. In the meantime , however, believers found themselves forced to wage the war for souls against the relentless foes of Christ in this imperfect earthly realm that had been the duty of the Church for two millennia. Some, like Chesterton, relished the challenge and welcomed it with sunny confidence, while others sounded a grim call of alarm from the trenches against the oncoming hosts of wickedness, which seemed inexorably to be gaining the upper hand in a disordered moment of history, and dug themselves in for a desperate struggle before the promised, ultimate victory. In any event, spiritual and intellectual combat was the natural voice of public Catholicism in early-twentiethcentury Europe. From the perspective of eternity, only things of strong character were worth bothering about, they were either good or bad, and they were properly loved or hated according to their relationship with divine law. So Catholicism reacted intensely to the modern world, using Chesterton ’s revealing adverb, just as he said Poland aroused intense reactions from people of different sorts, and as with Poland, so too with the Polish Church. Chesterton did not say this in so many words, but he might as well have done, for to him Poland was its faith, no more, no less, a particular brand of Catholicism that he applauded but that others found appalling. Polish Catholic culture was traditional, devotional, and doggedly orthodox, better known for solid peasant piety than for sophistication or scholarship, steeped in patriotism through the ages and battle-hardened by long resistance against foreign oppressors, proud of its heritage as defensor fidei and guardian of Christian civilization on its eastern outskirts. More than its counterparts in other lands, the Catholicism of Poland took for granted such propositions as its exclusive claim on truth, the tragic misguidedness of rival varieties of Christianity, the principle that error had no rights, and the unique collective stigma borne by Jews as deicides who persisted in their obstinate rejection of the true Messiah and compounded their guilt by their continuing perverse machinations against his Church. It saw Catholicity as the bedrock of Polish nationhood, took no notice of the peoples in its midst that professed other faiths, except to lecture them on their errancy, and looked down its nose at non-Catholic ethnic Poles as stray sheep at best, as betrayers of the national ideal at worst. To Chesterton, and those who agreed with him, this was Catholicism as it was meant to be, a Church that was steadfast and indomitable in belief, that took its theology whole and without watering down, called a spade a spade, and was willing to fight for the right. To others, it was a bigoted, benighted, provincial, and authoritarian anachronism that held back the progress and development of Polish society like a dead weight. Owing to the vehement responses it excited, pro and con, as well as its own sharp-edged and uncompromising mentality, Polish Catholicism lived within a polarized world of extremes, of white and black, a world populated alike by loyal friends and determined enemies. At the beginning of 1920, the year newly independent Poland barely escaped with its life by beating back the Red Army, Cardinal Kakowski of Warsaw gave an interview to an Italian newspaper on conditions in his recently resurrected country...


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Subject Headings

  • Church and state -- Poland -- History -- 20th century.
  • Catholic Church -- Poland -- Bishops -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poland -- Foreign relations -- Catholic Church.
  • Catholic Church -- Foreign relations -- Poland.
  • Secularism -- Poland -- History -- 20th century.
  • Poland -- Church history -- 20th century.
  • Poland -- Politics and government -- 1918-1945.
  • Piłsudski, Józef, 1867-1935.
  • Catholic Church -- Poland -- History -- 20th century.
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