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  • Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland by Brian Porter-Szűcs
  • Nathaniel D. Wood
Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland. By Brian Porter-Szűcs. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 496 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

With the exception of Italy, perhaps no other nation-state is more closely connected with Roman Catholicism today than Poland, and [End Page 468] with reason: 98 percent of all children born there are baptized into the faith and at least 90 percent of all adult Poles self-identify as Catholic (p. 4). The late Pope John Paul II, as is well known, hailed from Poland, where he served as archbishop of Cracow before taking upon the leadership of the entire Church in 1978. And yet the association of “Pole” with “Catholic” is not limited merely to these largely unassailable facts; rather, as Brian Porter-Szűcs points out in his masterful study Faith and Fatherland, “it is supported by a deeply ingrained but highly selective telling of national history,” a history that makes it difficult to account for the religious diversity of the former incarnations of the Polish state (including before World War II, when only two-thirds of the population was Catholic), to acknowledge the Protestant Reformation there, or to admit that clergy began to connect faith and fatherland only at the beginning of the twentieth century (p. 5).

If Church leaders have sought to remove the Church and the nation from historical time, asserting the constancy (and hegemony) of Polish Catholicism, Porter-Szűcs methodically and emphatically reinserts the specificity and exigency of history back into the narrative, showing how the contours of Polish Catholic thought on matters such as sin, modernity, the nation, the Jews, and the Virgin Mary have morphed over the last two centuries. As he observes, “Profound transformations often involve a seemingly subtle shift in the bounds of the permissible, a normalization of what had been unspeakable or a quiet repudiation of what was once commonplace” (p. 141). This book offers an excellent example of the power of intellectual history to explicate the complex and shifting relationship between two worldviews, the Catholic and the national, while problematizing their simple conflation.

In ten chapters Porter-Szűcs explores key themes in Polish Catholic rhetoric as its adherents struggled to make Catholicism modern. The overarching theme, unsurprisingly, is the encroachment of nationalism into Catholic thought, manifest most importantly and disturbingly in a worldview that blamed Masons, Jews, and Bolsheviks for the perceived challenges of modernity to faith and family. Porter-Szűcs notes the logical inconsistency of a doctrine premised upon love for one’s neighbors combined with the hatred of national exclusivity and anti-Semitism—a subject he explored from the secular side in his first book, When Nationalism Began to Hate (Oxford University Press, 2001)—while showing precisely how such configurations came about. Each chapter—“The Church,” “Sin,” “Modernity,” “The Person and Society,” “Politics,” “The Nation Penitent,” “Ecclesia Militans,” “The Jew,” “Polak-Katolik,” and “Mary, Militant and Maternal”—begins [End Page 469] with nineteenth- or early twentieth-century discourse among Polish Catholic clergy on the given topic, before following its development to the present. Deeply knowledgeable about Catholic theology, both within Poland and in its larger global context, and highly sensitive to the semantics of key Polish words and phrases, Porter-Szűcs offers trenchant analysis of sermons, clerical debates, and public discussions published in sources ranging from official encyclicals to secret police records or Internet chatroom posts.

Overall, one notes a shift in Polish Catholic thought from emphasis on personal sin to national righteousness, from injunctions to “love thy neighbor” to exclusivist and anti-Semitic vitriol, from acceptance of hierarchical social and political arrangements to support for democracy and human rights. The chapters that focus more on the 1970s and 1980s (when the Catholic Church was at its apogee in Poland) reveal greater emphasis on love and the worth of the individual, which incidentally could be used as a weapon against the Communist authorities, while the conclusion reveals a duality or even plurality in Polish Catholic thought today, ranging from a vocal minority’s contemporary reformulation of the anti-Semitic, antimodern conspiracy...


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