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Taking lay character seriously

Published on February 19, 2010 by: in: Society

The division between state and religion is one of the pillars of the contemporary democracy. The West needed many centuries to secure it by force and make it a norm of modern law-abidance. Religious wars, whose culmination falls in 16th and 17th centuries, made Europe a conflagration site and encouraged a lot of thinkers to seek a remedy for fanatism and fundamentalism in the “wall of separation”, as Thomas Jefferson once put it. After the theoreticians of social agreement it was decided to reinforce the authority of the state’s sovereign at the expense of the Church. The French Revolution sealed this change with blood. Yet, tensions between the sacred and the lay has never faded away indeed. Today, despite the establishing of the secularisation processes, the conflict is still vivid.swieckosc panur

Lay character in Polish way

While western Europeans defend secularisation against ‘Muslim wave’, the Poles are training themselves in lay terms by engaging into encounters with the Catholic Church. Farmally, Poland is a lay country. The Constitution of the Polish Republic applies itself both to the faithful and to those ‘not sharing the faith’.  Besides,  25 article says that ‘public authorities in the Polish Republic remain impartial when it comes to religious beliefs, matters concerning outlook and philosophical convictions so as to secure freedom of expressing them in public life. Moreover, the act guaranteeing the freedom of conscience and religion says that ‘the Republic of Poland is a lay state, neutral towards the matters of religion and beliefs, and that the state and state organisations do not subsidize any churches or religious associations’. In other words, the state should not grant privileges to either side of conflicts concerning outlook in the name of equality before the law. The state ought to create the foundations for mutual respect of opposite convictions.

Actually, the situation seems to be quite different. Poland, alongside with a couple of other countries such as Italy, Spain or Portugal, regulates its relationships with the Church thanks to the concordat, which proves the particular position of religion in our country. Polish clergy hold numerous privileges which are unheard of in other UE countries. Public money is spent on RE lessons at schools, teological faculties or even some Catholic universities, not to mention building of temples. The work of the Financial  Commision, which indemnifies the Church for the assets lost during the times of People’s Republic of Poland with surplus,  is in full swing. The public media, according to their statutory aim, are supposed to protect christin values. They fulfil this obligation more than effectively during numeroun religious festivals, to which the anniversary of the death of Polish Pope has been included recently. Politicians flautingly go to Jasna Góra and worship Our Lady. Meanwhile, everyone who wants to criticise this state of affairs must take into account legal conseqences resulting from the possibility of ‘offending someone’s religious affections’, whatever it means.

Consequently, the Poles possess one of more restrictive anti-abortion and euthanasia laws in UE. However, one must admit, their supporters might be found among the non-believing.

Personal freedeom as the basis for lay character

Under such circumstances, it is not irrelevant to ask “What happened to the secularity?”  You may feel like replying “It is in poor condition”. On the other hand, Poland is far from being a religious state. Although Catholic religion is on the inside track in our society, the relationships prevailing in Iran or even Malta seem to be quite exotic in our eyes. There is a lack of formal discrimination against other denominations or blatant aggression towards agnostic and atheistic views. Therefore, it is worth looking for more adequate terminology.

If constitutional standards concerning the division between state and religion have merely showy character (which means they are either violated or manipulated with), then Poland is a pseudo-lay country. In a pseudo-lay country double standards are in force. There exists a lay constitution and religious engagement in public spheres. Once, ‘outlook neutrality’ is promulgated, another time, however, defence of ‘Christian values’ dominates. On the one hand ‘freedom of conscience’ is postulated for. On the other hand, the choices resulting from it are penalised due to their discrepancy with ‘civilisation of life’.

We can dig deeper and use Ronald Dworkin’s differentiation to our advantage. Namely, the differentiation between religious-tolerant states and lay-toleerant ones. Dworkin in his book ‘Is Democracy Possible Here’ argues that democracy, understood in various ways, is a modern determinant of  relationships between state and church. According to the first model, whose example can be Israel as Dworkin claims, the state supports religion and considers it to be a positive social factor. In a country implementing such a model,  references to God’s will as justification for political actions are acceptable. As for the non-believers, they are ignored silently, according to the rule saying that “majority is always right”.

In a lay-tolerant model, tolerance is understood as a lack of engagement into defence either religion in itself or atheism. A country representing this type ‘is collectively neutral in the matter of God’s or gods’ existence as well as in the matter of which religion – if any – is the best’. In contrast with the former model, there are neither references to God nor presence of religious symbols in the public sphere.

Moreover, the legitimation of both models looks differently. In a religious-tolerant country religious freedom is an end in itself and does not need further justification. This means that religion is granted a particular place in public life. And that in the name of religion certain attitudes, such as homosexualism, can be repudiated as being unwelcome. In a lay-tolerant country, however, religious freedom constitutes only a part of the set of individual rights, which includes also other, equally or even more important, civil liberties.

Poland apparently enrols itself to the religious-tolerant model. Due to the fact that Catholicism is a majority denomination in Poland, there has been created a situation in which ‘Christian values’ are taken for granted, and every attitude at variance with them is considered radical. In addition, the lack of denominational pluralism leads to the growing arrogance of Church hierarchs and politicains nodding their assent.

What is the lay character for?

So what? – some cynical defendors of faith ask. Providing that in Poland, at least statistically, the majority of the sociaety is Catholic, then the principles of coexistance should be Catholic as well – they speak in earnest. After all, democracy is the people in goverment. And because the people here are mostly Catholic, then the situation is the way it is. Moreover, it should remain so – they conclude eventually.

And so, a democracy is  the majority’s rule in the first place. But always with the respect of the monority’s rights. The lack of the latter element results in ‘tyrany of the majority’, which was described by J.S. Mill and A. de Toqueville. This was also proved in surplus by 20th century history of totalitarian systems. Secondly, methodical surveys prove that the Polish Catholics are not unanimous in some essential outlook issues, with religion in the background. Apparently, they are rather negatively disposed towards towards Church involving itself in current politics as well as interfering into matters beyond traditionally understood evangelization. Lastly, this is not the people’s government that is determines  democracy, but the lawful government. Then, if there exists a constitutionl regulation referring to outlook issues, it should be abided by.

However, in Poland (considering the heritage of communnism) the state is the main public enemy. The Church, meanwhile (as a former contester of the past authority) makes the most important institution of public trust. Hence, the postulates of law-obserwing country and of the constitutional ethos, unlike in Germany for instance, hardly pack a wallop.

The times are changing, though. The number of vocations is decreasing. The service attendance is also dropping.. Public criticisms of religion can be heard more and more often. The arguments in favour of lay character  seem worth reconsidering, then. Them more so because the division between religion and state is profitable for both sides. Any alliances of authority and faith end up in a mutual defeat. The authority stops serving to the public good and starts serving to the clergy’s well-being, and the faith itself becomes a tool for political purposes.

The separation of state and church authorities is not aimed at extermination of religiousness, to which everyone is entitled within their individual rights. There is allowed for a possibility of the influence exerted by denominational associations on the public sphere provided that they are treated in the same way as other, non-denominational associations. The accusations of promoting militant atheism (as in the former USSR) or anti-religious country (in Albanian mode) are just a misunderstanding.

Modernity versus religion

Finally, it would be worth looking into the relation between religion and democracy as well as its connections with modernity. Religion is a holistic doctrine, which means it explai ns the whole of reality subordinating it to one truth. If we take into account the fact that there are many religions and each of them defines this truth in a different way, we will understand confrontational potential of religiousness. It is bases on a coarse division: fellow – stranger, which in religious terms is expressed by a dualism: believer – dissenter.

Above all, in a democratic system, every member of the community is a citizen, who according to law is entitled to the same rights as others. Secondly, democracy means pluralism. Nobody has a monopoly over the truth, and all the ultimate claims are approached with deep distrust. The consensus, at least in theory, can be reached through a critical debate, which requires rational justification provided by every participant of the discussion Religion, resorting to arbitrary revelation and dogma, does not consent to this model. Whil in democracy there exists the rule of ‘both this and that’, religion is based on a simple principle ‘either – or’.

Obviously, this does not mean that religion is doomed to be in conflict with democracy. Where religion accepts modernity with its basic principles: individual autonomy, tolerance and pluralism, it may actually make a positive factor as a guarantor of morality and the element of self-fulfillment.

In western European countries, although faith lost its importance, it plays such a role actually. An eminent sociologist, P. Berger, came to a conclusion that modernisatisation does not have to go along with secularisation. To put it another way, civilization progress does not necessarily lead to the death of God. In his opinion, religion is currently undergoing the process of privatisation in the West. Modernization brings along not only secularisation but, above all, pluralism. The former disrupts the monopoly of religion for morality, the sense of life and a valuable model of lifestyle, shifting the responsibility for the above upon the individual. Consequently, religion becomes a matter of choice or, as the American put it, preference.

Faith is not, as it used to be, forced upon us by the community but rather created by the individual. This is the individual that choses from the religious offer what they like and rejects all the rest. Berger even coined a hparketeri term to describe this phenomenon. Namely, bricolage, i.e. DIY. An individual behaves as in the hipermarket. He purchases and internalise only those religious substances that suit his short-term needs and tastes. He follows both his convenience as current trends. In consequence, as Berger says ‘faith becomes more vulnerable and sensitive because it is not considered to be something obvious any longer. If I choose a thing, I do not take it for granted. By definition, the possibility of choice results in the possibility of changing one’s mind. Institutional implication of this situation is that religious institutions in Christian context, whether willingly or not, become non-obligatory associations’.

This phenomenon also occures in Poland. It would not be difficult to meet a Catholic who says something like ‘I don’t think contraceptives, divorces or homosexualism are wrong. Besides, I believe in….. reincarnation’. If we ask a Pole about his ‘religious preferences’, we can assume a following answer: ‘I’m a Catholic but…..’. The ‘but’ proves that there is a religious pluralism in the country of John Paul II. Even now Church  hierarchs raise a clamour, perfectly realising the negative effects of this phenomenon for the Church as an institution. If religion becomes merely a matter of individual choice, then the Church ceases to be useful. It loses its authority for the sake of consumers’ tastes.

This is an uncomfortable situation also for the atheists or, more generally, the sceptics who are exposing religious absurdities and encountering resistance expressed in the form of a  statement like “this doesn’t refer to me” accompanied by the declaration of affiliation to one or another denomination. Today, it is difficult to criticise any particular confession as a whole, since, except for a few groups of orthodox people, nobody accepts them with lock, stock and barrel, to refer to the tradition of shepherds’ metaphor.

Certainly, a long time will pass until the Poles approve of the standards of the lay state. Sooner or later, if one can trust Berger, there will be a turning point and Catholicism will abandon its political ambitions. For the time being, the struggle for souls lasts.


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