The Roman Catholic Church is the largest religious organization in Poland and maintains considerable influence in social and political life. In 1993, it was granted special recognition by the Polish state as per a Concordat with the Holy See.

Recent developments have seen an attempted near blanket-ban on abortion, backed by the Catholic Church, the celebration of World Youth Day in Krakow in July and the declaration of a new ‘king’: on November 19th, 2016, Polish religious and political leaders, including President Andrzej Duda, attended a ceremony during which Jesus Christ was declared King of Poland.


Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory
Free and Equal

Constitution and government

The current provisions for official church-state relations were outlined in article 25.2 of the Polish Constitution of 1997, stating that interactions between Church and state are based on recognising “the mutual independence of each in its own sphere,” but also a “principle of cooperation for the individual and the common good”.

In practice this “cooperation” between Church and state is deeply ingrained. Throughout Polish history, the Roman Catholic Church has played not only the role of a provider of religious authority, but also a social and political force. Church-state relations in Poland have been shaped by decades of social and political oppression, during which the Church combined religious and political symbols to create a civic religion that symbolized national history and identity for many Poles.

Due to its significant position as a symbol of resistance throughout the socialist era, the Church emerged after the fall of Communism as a strong and respected institution in a position to impose traditional Christian values on Polish society, particularly in the early 1990s. The process of democratisation and the resulting debates that emerged during the transitional period of the 1990s saw a shift in attitudes towards the role of the Catholic Church in Poland, as many grew critical of the Church for its perceived reluctance to adapt to life in a pluralistic society and its interference in political affairs.

Today, however, loyalty to the Church appears to be in longer-term decline as more people are turning away from institutionalised religion. Recent research suggests that younger generations are becoming more selective in their interpretation of religious dictates (75% of regular churchgoers aged 18-24 accept premarital sex, 50% accept divorce, and 20% accept abortion).
<> [Góra, M. and Zielińska, K., “Defenders of faith? Victims of secularisation? Polish politicians and religion in the European Parliament”]

However, the 2015 election results might suggest a resurgence in traditional Catholic thinking, with the conservative, strongly pro-Catholic Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) gaining 37.6% of the vote. Discussions surrounding the debate on religion and individual rights in Poland focus particularly on social matters such as education, reproductive rights, LGBT rights and gender equality, and the Catholic Church appears to be increasingly alienating itself from young Poles through its uncompromising attitude towards such issues.


2015 marked a clear shift to the right, with the conservative party PiS now holding a ruling majority in parliament. The presidential elections of 2015 saw PiS candidate Andrzej Duda replace Bronisław Komorowski, former president from the liberal, more secular-minded Civic Platform party, which had governed for eight years.

PiS has strong links with the Catholic Church, and representatives of the Church have been known to support, and encourage parishioners to support, specific PiS candidates during electoral campaigns. Jarosław Kaczyński, who co-founded PiS with the late president Lech Kaczyński, his identical twin brother, openly professes not only his own allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, but moreover allies the state with the Church; on a pilgrimage to Jasna Góra in 2015 (a sacred Catholic site and religious destination for Poles) Kaczyński declared that, “There is no Poland without the Church; Poland does not have a moral teaching other than that which the Church proclaims”.

Education and children’s rights

General provisions regarding religious education are outlined in Article 53 of the Polish Constitution, which states that parents have the right to raise their children in accordance with their religious convictions. Religious education classes in Poland are centred on the rules and rituals of Roman Catholicism and generally do not include material on other religions or worldviews.

In 2015, activists promoting the project ‘Świecka szkoła’, or ‘secular school’, gathered more than 95,000 signatures in a campaign to reform state financing of religious education in public schools.

Currently, religion classes are taught in 95.6 per cent of public schools . Parents can choose to enrol their child in religious education classes, or in the ethics course offered as a secular alternative, or in both. Both courses are financed by the state, and religious education classes are often taught by members of the clergy.

However, campaigners suggest that in practice many students do not have access to ethics classes and often have to spend the period in isolation if they opt out of religious education:

“Ethics classes are offered in just a few per cent of Polish schools […] State schools also often pressure pupils into taking part in religious celebrations such as masses on Papal Days […] Discrimination and indoctrination are imbedded in educational activities, and even in the design of the schools. For example, the dominance of religious content related to the Roman Catholic denomination can be seen inside the corridors and classrooms.”

— Dorota Wójcik, Chair of the Board, Warsaw-based Foundation for Freedom from Religion (Fundacja Wolność od Religii)

In 2015, a state-run elementary school in Lublin informed parents that children would not be able to participate in the tradition of fortune-telling on St Andrew’s Eve, the night of 29th – 30th November, because it was not in accordance with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church

Family, community and society

Reproductive rights

The PiS party is strongly opposed to IVF and some PiS ministers, including the Prime Minister Beata Szydło, are in favour of a complete ban on abortion. 2015’s electoral campaign was dominated by the refugee crisis, which has been presented by Polish conservatives as an attack on Poland’s Christian character. Images displayed by the media during the crisis in the summer of 2016 made it easier for PiS to present the influx of non-Christians as a threat to Polish society. A fear of Muslim immigration has contributed to the shift towards religious and social conservatism in Poland.

IVF remains a subject of intense debate in the Polish media, as it is regarded by the Catholic Church as a sin on the grounds that it separates sex from conception. Former president Bronisław Komorowski signed a bill on IVF, long-awaited by progressives, in July 2015, which regulates state funding for IVF treatment. The bill was met with strong opposition from the Church, which considers embryos to be “conceived children”.

Poland is one of several countries in Europe in which access to abortion is extremely limited. Abortions are illegal unless the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life, the foetus is severely malformed or the pregnancy is the result of rape. A 2016 bill put forward in parliament sought to revoke women’s rights to seek abortions in the latter two sets of circumstances and would have resulted in a near-complete ban on abortion had it been passed.

There have been cases in which women have been denied an abortion despite facing serious health risks. In a well-known case in 2000, Alicja Tysiąc, who suffered from myopia, was told independently by three ophthalmologists that the strain of giving birth could cause irreparable damage to her retinas; yet her request to terminate the pregnancy in a Warsaw hospital was refused by the head of gynaecology. Following the delivery, her eyesight deteriorated to the extent that she was deemed unfit to care for her children. In 2007, Tysiąc took her case to the European Court of Human Rights with the complaint that the pregnancy she had tried to terminate had resulted in the almost complete loss of her eyesight. The court awarded Tysiąc damages and ruled that the Polish state had not respected her human rights by failing to grant her an abortion.

According to Poland’s “Conscience clause”, stated under article 39 of the Doctor and Dentist Professions Act, medical personnel may refuse to perform abortions on the grounds that it conflicts with their personal values or beliefs. The doctor is legally obliged to refer the patient to another clinic but, in doing so, the doctors themselves may risk social and professional discrimination, particularly in rural areas. In April 2014, Professor Bogdan Chazan, director of the Holy Family Hospital in Warsaw, was accursed of deliberately delaying a patient’s referral to another doctor when she asked him for an abortion because her unborn child had severe health problems and was unlikely to survive. Chazan was within his rights to deny the abortion according to Polish law, but acted illegally by refusing to refer the patient to another physician and by reportedly ordering unnecessary tests that would carry her past the 24th week of pregnancy without informing her of the deadline, meaning that she was unable to terminate the pregnancy.

The child was born on 30th June 2014 with severe head and facial deformities, and died nine days later. Chazan, to whom the Catholic Church gave its full support, was subsequently dismissed and the hospital was fined 70,000 zloty for failing to refer the patient to another clinic. Romuald Dębski, a professor at the hospital where the child was born, made the following statement to the television station TVN24:

“If Professor Chazan saw the life that he saved, he would have a different attitude […] This child does not have half of its head, has a hanging eyeball, its face is split, it has no brain inside, and will die in a month or two thanks to the professor.”

In May 2014, 3000 people, most of them medical professionals, signed a “Declaration of Faith” recognising ‘the primacy of God’s laws over human laws’ in medicine. According to the declaration, the signatories decline to ‘violate the Ten Commandments’ by performing abortions, in vitro fertilisation and euthanasia, or by administering birth control.

In 2016 there were significant threats to women’s reproductive rights in Poland. In July pro-life activists, backed by the Catholic Church, collected nearly 500,000 signatures to submit a draft law before parliament, which aimed to make abortion illegal with the sole exemption of immediate danger to the mother’s life. The bill was debated in the Sejm (the Polish parliament) with a majority voting to continue working on the draft, whereas a competing bill proposing the liberalization of abortion was rejected outright in the same session. Under the terms of the proposed anti-abortion law, women who terminated pregnancies would have faced five years in prison and doctors would have been required to report every case of miscarriage to the police. With the exception of the jail term, the bill received official backing from Poland’s bishops and Magdalena Korzekwa-Kaliszuk, a pro-life campaigns director at CitizenGO Poland, maintained that ‘even a child conceived through rape should have the right to life.’

The proposed bill triggered waves of protests from citizens, women’s and human rights groups. On 3rd October 2016 the ‘Czarny Protest’ drew 100,000 women to the streets, dressed in black in symbolic mourning for their reproductive rights. As part of the protest women across Poland participated in a national strike, inspired by the 1975 Icelandic women’s strike. Protesters carried placards openly criticizing the criminalisation of abortion and the mass mobilization of women demanded the attention of the pro-Catholic Polish government. Agnieszka Graff, a commenter and activist, described the protests:

“The protest was bigger than anyone expected. People were astonished […] Warsaw was swarming with women in black. It was amazing to feel the energy and the anger, the emotional intensity was incredible.”

The protests were a victory for women’s and human rights, as the government made a swift U-turn just three days after the Czarny Protest Jarosław Gowin, minister for science and education, stated that the protests had “caused us to think and taught us humility”

Despite the victory, Poland remains a country with one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe and liberalization is unlikely under the current government. Despite the mass protests, PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński made clear that his party intends to further restrict legislation to force women to give birth to children with birth defects in order for them to be baptized, with clear disregard for the individual belief system of the parents:

“We will strive to ensure that even in pregnancies which are very difficult, when a child is sure to die, strongly deformed, women end up giving birth so that the child can be baptised, buried, and have a name.”

In what could be viewed as a move to set the stage for further attempts to tighten the law on abortion, the Polish government is now offering payments to parents who decide not to abort foetuses shown to have severe disabilities. In November 2016 the government passed a law which offers a one-off payment of 4,000 PLN (€925) to pregnant women whose babies are found to have “severe and irreversible handicap or incurable life-threatening disease” as an incentive to give birth to the child rather than terminate the pregnancy.

Given the government’s close relationship with the Catholic Church, clear stance against abortion and desire to tighten an already restrictive law, the outcome of the Czarny Protest should be viewed as a short-term victory in a country moving increasingly towards religious conservatism.


The subject of gender became the subject of intense media focus in 2013, when a campaign was launched by the religious right in opposition to the perceived threat of “gender” as a concept. On 29th December 2013, the Bishop’s Conference of Poland published a pastoral letter to be read out in churches. The letter characterised the very concept of gender as a threat to traditional Catholic values and summoned parishioners to oppose “gender ideology”:

“According to this ideology, humans can freely determine whether they want to be men or women and freely choose their sexual orientation […] We ask the Holy Spirit for continuous light to let us understand and see the truth in what amounts to a danger and a threat not only to the family, but also to our Homeland and humankind.”

LGBT Rights

Although religious conservatism persists in Polish society, Poland elected its first openly gay MP, Robert Biedroń, and a transgender MP, Anna Grodzka, in the parliamentary elections of 2011. However, LGBT rights remains a difficult topic in Poland and in January 2013, a government-backed bill to introduce civil partnerships for gay couples was narrowly defeated in parliament, despite former prime minister Donald Tusk urging lawmakers to support the reform.

In October 2015, Krzysztof Charamsa, a senior Vatican priest, made a public announcement on the eve a synod of Roman Catholic bishops on family issues; in an act of protest against the Church’s “backwards” attitude towards homosexuality, Monsignor Charamsa revealed that he was gay and in a long-term relationship. Within hours, his actions were deemed ‘irresponsible’ in a Vatican press release and Charamsa was promptly dismissed from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical universities, where he had taught theology. Charamsa criticised the Vatican’s hypocrisy in banning gay priests, stating that the Church makes life “hell” for gay people, persecuting them and causing their families “immeasurable suffering”. He strongly criticised the Church’s “inhuman” treatment of homosexual Catholics, and expressed concerns about the impact his actions may have on how his mother will be treated in Poland following his revelation. In the letter, Charamsa stated: “Be merciful — at least leave us in peace, let the civil states make our lives more humane.”

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values


Many Poles are counted as members of their local parish congregation despite not being practicing Catholics because they have been baptised during infancy, and only the formal act of “apostasy” ensures that they will be excluded from official registers. However, officially leaving the Catholic Church in Poland is itself an arduous process that requires a handwritten letter of resignation from the Catholic Church, provision of a baptism certificate with an appropriate annotation, which is the sole document that can confirm official defection from the Church, the presence of two witnesses and at least two visits to the rector of the relevant parish.

“Blasphemy” law

“Anyone found guilty of offending religious feelings through public defamation of an object or place of worship is liable to a fine, restriction of liberty or a maximum two-year prison sentence…” — Article 196 of the Penal Code

The Polish Constitution guarantees freedom of expression but in recent years several individuals, in particular artists and musicians, have found themselves subject to charges of “blasphemy” brought under Article 196 of the penal code. Although Article 196 is supposed to protect all religions from such “defamation”, in practice it is used mainly to investigate alleged violations against Christian religious symbols.

Highlighted cases

Robert Biedroń, a prominent politician, LGBT activist, and mayor of Slupsk as of December 2014, was being investigated as of June 2015 for removing a portrait of Pope John Paul II from his office in Słupsk. Described as the “Social Media Mayor” and commonly recognised as being “liberal, secular and gay”, the charges filed against Biedroń him by activists affiliated with the conservative political party PiS accuse the mayor of “insulting an object of worship” by removing the picture, and “insulting religious feelings”.

In April 2014, The Krasnals, an anti-establishment art collective in based in Poznan, were accused of “blasphemy” for depicting the late Pope John Paul II being breastfed by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, head of the right-wing Catholic radio station, Radio Maryja. The Krasnals are reportedly being sued by Ryszard Nowak, who famously filed a case against Polish rock singer Adam Darski after he ripped up a copy of the Bible during a concert in 2007. In 2013, Darski was found guilty of offending religious feelings by “intentionally insulting the Holy Bible” but, on appeal, the charges were overturned.

Pop singer Dorota Rabczewska also found herself a target of blasphemy accusations after stating that she believed in dinosaurs more than the Bible because “it is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes” during an interview in 2009. She was found guilty of ‘offending the religious feelings of Christians and Jews’ in 2012 and fined 5,000 zlotys (£1,026).


“[In Poland] a lack of faith is all too often synonymous with lack of values. Priests have a tendency to speak out on topics related to sex and reproduction, what’s worse they even want to talk about sex education, but they are not looking for a discussion. They just want to impose their own values, the only legitimate and correct values. A raped woman should of course give birth. If pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s life, it doesn’t matter, because life should be protected (a clear paradox, because this only protects the life of the child, the woman ceases to be an important element), if a husband beats his wife, he should be re-educated, but she has to endure her lot for better or worse. As a result of that sex education the phenomenon of the “Polish Mother” was founded – a working woman who still has to raise the children, denying herself everything so as to give to the family, devoting herself entirely to her family while giving up her own well being for the well being of her loved ones.”
Dominika K.

“I really liked going to Church, but then I stopped because I was really annoyed that being religious is a part of the grade for religion classes. So for example if you go for communion […] you also have to have some signatures from your teacher for religion. It was really weird because they were giving you grades based on for example how often you’re going to church.”
— Aleksandra B.

“They’re very authoritative. They [the Church] assume that they come from a different place and that they have a certain right to impose their views on others. They think that they should be treated with a lot of respect, and that they should be looked up to, whereas they don’t use the same principles with other people and people who perhaps disagree with them.”
Marcin W.

“This unwillingness [of the Church] to notice there are those different, more difficult, untypical members of the Church is something I cannot respect, because I attend masses, I have learned thousands of sermons in my life, so I can say that there are preachers who preach as if there wasn’t a single gay, there wasn’t a single feminist, there wasn’t a single woman who used contraception, during masses. They treat their communities as homogenous, which is not the case, so they feel free to offend those groups as different, as enemies, not present here. They are not perceived as those who have a right even to be here let alone express themselves.”
Sylwia J.

“I don’t feel discriminated against on a daily basis when it comes to religion, but that’s also because I don’t discuss religious matters. After years of getting into discussion over religion I decided it really doesn’t matter. You feel the differences most of all during religious celebrations and holidays. My family, mainly the female element, tried to convince me that I should have a church wedding. They didn’t want to understand that it would only be a long, tiring ritual that wouldn’t mean any more than a civil ceremony.”
— Agnieszka K.