Democracy in a clergyman’s attire? Gender and Catholicism in Poland

by Hannah Phillips

‘In times of oppression the struggle for independence is considered a serious matter, and the fight for women’s rights is not… It took some time before I realized that democracy in Poland has a masculine gender’ – Marion Janion (Conference of Polish Women, 2009)

Last month, in defiance of Poland’s Conservative Catholic right, Poland’s ruling Civic Platform party appointed Małgorzata Fuszara as Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment. As a well-known feminist, lawyer, multilingual published author and Professor of gender studies her appointment has been considered a defiant step towards what the Conservatives call “Genderism”. Subsequently, this has renewed interest in Poland’s most recent battle of morals and the politicisation of the Polish church in a “secular” society.

Fuszara’s appointment is but a recent development in a long-lasting, emotionally charged debate that has been unfolding in Poland. Similar to the 1990s anti-feminist backlash in the USA and Britain, two opposing camps are at loggerheads in Poland: the conservative right alongside the Church on one side versus the feminists on the other. With fear-mongering banners and statements such as ‘Gender=666’ and ‘Gender- the devastation of man and the family’ strung across buildings and scattering the news, it is clear that a war has been declared against the so-called “Gender ideology”.

A banner hung in Lublin city council in October 2013: “Gender destroys Poland! Gender destroys the family! Stop Gender!!!”  ©

A banner hung in Lublin city council in October 2013: “Gender destroys Poland! Gender destroys the family! Stop Gender!!!”

Like most meaningful political and social concepts, Gender theory has been notoriously difficult to define and is largely in the process of transformation and revision. Having been sculpted by post-structuralist thought, it has criticised concepts that have been accepted as “natural” and “nonambiguous”, such as sexual identity, illustrating the oppressive capabilities of socially constructed “norms”. The rather abstract nature of Gender construction has led, unfortunately, to an easy manipulation of meaning by Catholic conservatives and right-wing politicians in Poland.

On 29 December 2013, the annual ‘Feast of the Holy Family’ for Roman Catholics, the Polish Episcopate publically declared in its Pastoral letter that Gender was the official enemy of the Church. The letter paints a conspiratorial picture of Gender as a parasitic-type ideology infiltrating various social structures, such as the education and health systems, without the consent or knowledge of Poles. Supposedly an accumulation of foreign concepts, including radical feminism, Communism and eugenics, it is intent on destroying Polish families and over-sexualising children. The final version of the letter, currently available online, is milder than the original, previously entitled ‘Gender ideology risks the family’. It was revised after a moderate Catholic weekly,Tygodnik Powszechny, published the draft showing the original inflammatory edits.

“'Gender people' are sexually obsessed. They promote homosexuality and same-sex adoption, while gender-focussed sex education is nothing but an expression of sexual depravation, which they want to introduce in primary schools.”  Dariusz Oko giving a lecture in Poznan, March 2014. ©

“’Gender people’ are sexually obsessed. They promote homosexuality and same-sex adoption, while gender-focussed sex education is nothing but an expression of sexual depravation, which they want to introduce in primary schools.” Dariusz Oko giving a lecture in Poznan, March 2014.

The more extreme and exotic claims from the Polish Catholic church entail the vilification of various international institutions, blamed for leading the Gender conspiracy. There is a widely held belief that the Council of Europe’s ‘Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence’ is the vehicle through which Gender ideology penetrates Polish society. According to the Episcopate this Convention is allegedly breaking down the education system in Poland in order to force homosexuality and transgender education on children. More audacious claims insist that the World Health Organisation is even promoting masturbation in Primary schools. This was further echoed in a lecture held in the Polish Parliament earlier this year by the theology Professor and Priest Dariusz Oko, ubiquitously present in the media for his extreme, anti-Gender views.

These views are not, however, uniquely held and promulgated within religious circles. In the political sphere, Conservative politicians have also voiced their contestation, forming a new parliamentary group in January this year named “Stop Gender Ideology”. Open to any MP regardless of political party affiliations, the aim of this group is to defend human sexual identity and work towards legislative changes to defend the rights of traditional families and support family-friendly policies. Beata Kempa, previously a member of the right-wing Law and Justice Party, before forming a new right-wing party United Poland, is currently presiding over this almost entirely male-membered group and plans to promote the anti-Gender campaign during sixteen conferences across Poland this year.


The parliamentary group “Stop Gender Ideology”; led by the right-wing nationalist MP Beata Kempa and her band of men.                                                                       ©

As stated by Małgorzata Fuszara, there is a deliberate intellectual laziness in miscomprehending Gender, as well as an attempt to further the Church’s self-interests. However, in the majority of reputable Polish media outlets the weaknesses of the Church’s arguments have been ardently pointed out. Many Polish Feminists, university Professors, philosophers and politicians have strongly opposed the Church’s conflation of the ills of society into this fictive “Gender ideology”. Magdalena Środa, a philosophy Professor, Feminist and columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, has vehemently challenged the Church, suggesting that it is using scare tactic propaganda against Gender as a distraction from the scandals it got itself embroiled in. It is no coincidence that the anti-Gender debate comes at a time of moral crisis for the Church as scandals of child molestation and ill-treatment of children by religious officials dent its former image as the nation’s moral compass.

It is important, however, to highlight that this debate is not unique to Poland or Eastern Europe for that matter; for instance a similar debate led by religious and political right groups is also currently unfolding in France. Alongside the current economic crisis and uncertainty regarding the future developments of the European Union, there is a pull amongst populations towards a form of stability. For many this means reinforcing the historically cemented roles of the family and the reassuringly fixed structures provided by Catholicism. The debate in Poland is thus illustrative of the stronghold of staunch Catholic religiosity playing a crucial role in the self-identification of Poles. For many Polish feminists it is also a reminder that Poland’s democracy is still male and proudly sporting clergyman attire.

This article was also published by Slovo blog at:

One comment

  1. […] year ago, Polish bishops launched a campaign against “gender ideology,” which they said was being used to promote acceptance of homosexual […]

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