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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 213-239

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Thy Kingdom Come:
Patriotism, Prophecy, and the Catholic Hierarchy in Nineteenth-Century Poland

Brian Porter

Few sentences have been more troublesome over the centuries than the second line of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." 1 Many Christians have taken comfort in the promise that an earthly kingdom of God was approaching, and some have turned this hopeful conviction into a moral imperative, building a variety of political and social projects upon a theological foundation. When faced with a world that bore little resemblance to anyone's idea of a divine realm, they have assumed the responsibility of actively creating the kingdom of God. Christianity has generated such revolutionary utopianism from its earliest moments, but those in positions of clerical authority have almost always tried to repress the idea that faith could serve as the inspiration for radical political change. Within the Roman Catholic tradition in particular, theologians have attempted to domesticate the unsettling implications of the belief that God's kingdom was imminent.

In this article I will examine debates about the kingdom of God in nineteenth-century Poland. The Polish example is particularly useful in this case, because it illustrates with unusual clarity the close interaction between theology and politics in the modern world. The enduring strength of Catholicism in Poland allows us to explore how religion and modernity can shape each other when they are compelled to co-exist. In such a country, the transcendent and the mundane are intermeshed in ways that our scholarly categories cannot easily delineate. Historians of modern Europe now take religion seriously—gone are the days [End Page 213] when scholars predicted that organized religion would be vanquished by the onslaught of secularization—but even as the social and political power of faith are recognized as potent forces, we are still limited by our inability to speak about the transcendent while using the language of the mundane. That which cannot be explained with secular terminology is usually either ignored or relegated to the spaces we reserve for "irrational" ideologies and beliefs. Religion, thus, is either conflated with or sharply distinguished from the "real world" of politics, social conflict, and secular culture. Even in some of the best recent books on religious history, churches become social institutions, doctrines become ideologies, and rituals become cultural practices. 2 Although it is not hard for us to talk about theology as an outgrowth of political concerns, we still find it difficult to see modern politics through the prism of theology, to interpret the actions of the faithful in their own terms. To explore the political arguments of Catholic bishops and priests in the context of their deeply held theological convictions will allow us to see how the supernatural can maintain its power even after modernity has reconfigured the public sphere. My basic argument is captured in an aphorism offered by the Polish philosopher Bronislaw Trentowski in 1845: "Religion is the politics of heaven, and politics is the religion of the earth." 3

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were tumultuous for Poles, as their country was conquered and partitioned in 1795, recreated briefly in a truncated form under Napoleonic auspices, then absorbed once again into Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1815. From then until 1830 there existed a semi-autonomous Polish Kingdom, nominally separated from Russia, but with the tsar as its king. As the incompatibility of Polish constitutionalism and Russian autocracy became increasingly apparent in the 1820's, a movement for national independence took shape, leading the country into a war with Russia in 1830. After this revolt was defeated, most markers of Polish autonomy were stripped away and a long era of heavy-handed rule from St. Petersburg began. For a few years the focal points of Polish cultural and intellectual life shifted [End Page 214] away from Warsaw, as most of the country's elites either emigrated to the West, withdrew from public activity...


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