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Brian Porter-Szücs: Faith and Fatherland. Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011, IX + 484 S., ISBN 978-0-19-539905-9, GBP 35,00
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Rezension von:
Ferenc Laczó
Imre Kertész Kolleg, Jena
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Christoph Schutte
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Ferenc Laczó: Rezension von: Brian Porter-Szücs: Faith and Fatherland. Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011, in: sehepunkte 12 (2012), Nr. 9 [15.09.2012], URL:

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Brian Porter-Szücs: Faith and Fatherland

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This book offers ten case studies on the history of central themes and concepts in modern Polish Catholic thought such as the Church, modernity, politics or morality. Analyzing the field of "assumptions, ideals, and principles that make up Catholicism" (13), this detailed and substantial monograph in intellectual history covers each major period of modern Polish history (including reflections on the contemporary situation) and provides an account of "what different people believed to be mandated, encouraged, tolerated, and precluded within the normative ideal of Catholicism in Poland" (14). A central aim of the book is to trace subtle shifts in what has been considered possible, permissible and imaginable for Polish Catholics and thereby to historicize their beliefs and ideas.

Viewing every large "-ism" as a vehicle for thought and action, Brian Porter-Szücs presents his findings in intellectual history without claiming absolute primacy for the discursive realm. Drawing primarily on normative writings such as sermons, pastoral letters and devotional books, he tells "the story of an ideological and theological frame of reference" (13) and explores (explicit or implicit) debates about and tensions between various forms of Polish Catholic discourse. He thus devotes equal attention to the doctrinal core of Catholicism and the outer frontiers of its orthodoxy.

Through its impressive empirical studies on the history of ten terms and concepts, this book provides alternative though largely coherent perspectives on how Catholicism was made modern in Poland. It shows how Polish Catholic authors "appropriated and to some extent domesticated the troublesome vocabulary of modernity" (82). It shows that Catholics developed their own, unmistakably Catholic, democratic but hardly liberal social vision as an alternative to both capitalism and communism, even as they never doubted that the essence of the Church was timeless and stable. Catholics were pulled into the discourse of democracy but because they opposed the "relativism" of accepting indeterminate outcomes, they tended to endow democracy with substantive content, that is, to make religious principles govern political practices. As the will of popular majorities proved not to reflect their religious expectations after 1989, many of them grew disillusioned and disappointed, which should not be all too surprising given that "the Polish Church has probably never been as powerful and influential as it was in the 1980s" (258).

After analyzing the major ways Polish Catholics have related to modernity and politics, Porter-Szücs explores the distinctive features of Catholic ecclesiology. He explains that in the Catholic vocabulary the Church signifies the union between the transcendent and the terrestrial realms and as such constitutes an unassailable keyword. As he shows, "advocating moral rigor, devotional innovation, and even institutional reform" (29) could prove acceptable as long as the sacred authority of the Church was not directly questioned. On the other hand, to depict the Catholic Church as a mere human creation meant to step outside the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy.

The chapter on the uses of the concept the Church also traces the expansion of the boundaries of ecclesiology. Porter-Szücs points out that the egalitarianism of purpose between the clergy and lay Catholics before the momentous changes of the 1960s was not even rhetorically matched by a declaration on the equality of their functions. The Second Vatican Council elevated the laity in this respect but without fully resolving the tension between this new rhetorical prioritizing and continued institutional conservatism. What is more, the author argues that the Polish Catholic Church managed to assimilate the phraseology of Vatican II without the relationship between the laity and the clergy being significantly altered (48).

The chapter on sin presents a similarly multilayered and complex picture of major developments. It traces the story of Catholic moral doctrine, arguing that while its actual content has changed very little, the rationale provided for prohibitions "has proven to be remarkably flexible" (55). Starting as early as the 1920s and 1930s, but taking on much greater force in the postwar period, Catholic moral teachings incorporated more and more elements of humanism, chiefly in the form of personalism, while ascetism was increasingly marginalized. The author thus identifies a momentous shift in the focus of ethical teaching: from suffering, death, and damnation that were accompanied by the image of an angry and vengeful God, the emphasis largely shifted to human dignity and earthly happiness accompanied by presentations of God as benevolent, loving, and merciful.

This process was coupled with the shift of attention from individual transgressors to external enemies who were supposedly threatening the Polish nation. Personal morality and national duty were frequently linked in Catholic texts and national preservation could newly be identified as the goal of moral rectitude. Porter-Szücs insightfully remarks that while conservative clerics used to prefer to call on the faithful to look inward at their own sinfulness, they now tended to locate the sources of evil in the outside world.

The discussion of changing Catholic ideas on morality touches on one of the central preoccupations of the book: the various forms of entanglements between the Catholic Church and Polish nationalism. Porter-Szücs's chief thesis in this regard is that "the bond between faith and fatherland in Poland was more complicated than it might appear at first glance" and that religion was in fact "far less important to 'national survival' than is usually assumed" (7-8). Through his four case studies (chapters 6 to 9), he admirably succeeds at showing that this link "emerged in full force only at the start of the twentieth century" (9). He emphasizes that instead of nationalist dedication, passivity, and loyalism were the officially endorsed political stances of Catholics in the 19th century.

In the eyes of Porter-Szücs, the reconciliation of nationalism and Catholicism was a "contentious and protracted process" (208) that required extraordinary rhetorical efforts on the side of both Catholic representatives and national activists. He argues furthermore that the linkage between religion and ethnicity might seem deeply ingrained but it ought not to be forgotten that it is based on a highly selective reading of Polish national history. While ethno-Catholic interpretations are meant to establish the transhistorical essence of national history and provide an ideal to strive for, they start from the assumption that "religious diversity can exist in the nation, but it cannot be of the nation" (6).

Porter-Szücs's study is interested in understanding Polish Catholics and not in evaluating them. At the same time, he does offer critical perspectives on some important strains. Perhaps most crucially, he exposes that the emergence of the Polak-Katolik ideal was closely related to the struggle for survival ideology that took shape against the backdrop of imagined existential conflicts and, crucially for the inter-war period, of anti-Semitic visions. The book devotes attention to the complex relations and ambiguous convergence between Catholics and National Democrats while showing how the idea of Polak-Katolik remained one of the most prominent themes of Catholic rhetoric in communist Poland. The author even maintains that enemy images have played a central role in holding together the fusion between nation and faith. Though explicit anti-Semitism became less frequent after the Shoah, the author finds that "very few" Polish Catholics seemed willing "to consider the role that the rhetoric of prewar Polish Catholicism might have played in setting the stage for violence" (318).

In sum, this is an ambitious monograph in Catholic intellectual history. Its thoroughly researched chapters on central terms and concepts largely succeed at illuminating the evolution of the specific profile of and the diversity inherent to Polish Catholicism. Its findings can contribute to a better understanding of modern Polish history and deserve to be widely read, discussed and debated.

Ferenc Laczó