Poland is a predominantly Catholic country. In issues relating to desire, the realm of sexuality and reproduction, this is all the more unmistakable. Since Ireland legalized same-sex marriage and abortion, in 2015 and 2018 respectively, we could perhaps say that Poland is the Catholic country of Europe. In contrast to the pan-European secularization process that has taken place over the past half century, the Polish Catholic Church has gained more political influence. It has also become ever more conservative and preoccupied with sex.
Towards Conservatism: Silencing Progressive Theology and Regulating Desire in Poland
Abortion, legalized in Poland in 1956, gradually became available on demand and was widely used by Polish women. The Church responded with various attempts to change society’s approach to birth control. By the time Karol Wojtyła, the future pope, published his 1960 book Love and Responsibility, in which he stated that sex should not only serve procreation but also love and self-realization for both husband and wife, was already stating that only “natural” family planning methods were acceptable. With his strict beliefs about birth control, Wojtyła strayed from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on the primacy of conscience and the achievements of progressive theologians gathered in Pope John XXIII’s Pontifical Commission on Population, Family and Birth Control, who recommended that the Church embrace contraception.
Wojtyła also promoted the concept that abortion equaled the mass murder of unborn children and directed the focus of the Polish Catholic Church steadfastly onto sex. During the 1970s, first as an influential Polish bishop and later as Pope, Wojtyła actively silenced those Polish theologians and activists who, like Catholics in other parts of the world, approached these issues in a more liberal fashion in the 1960s and called for reform of the Church.
Following the demise of Communism in 1989, the democratic Polish state was constructed in alliance with the Catholic Church. Sexuality and reproduction were subject to new regulations and policies, including significantly restricted access to pregnancy termination through the 1993 anti-abortion law. Other reproduction-related issues that fell in line with the Church’s stance included the withdrawal of funding towards the cost of birth control pills and in vitro fertilization.
Reproduction is not the only desire-related issue with which Catholics in Poland are preoccupied. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in 1932, LGBTQ people often face discrimination and stigmatization. The Church has campaigned against LGBTQ rights such as same-sex marriage since the 1990s. This gained momentum during the 2020 presidential campaign, when President Andrzej Duda, supported by prominent Church officials, formed his re-election message around an aversion to what he called “LGBT ideology”, inspiring municipalities across Poland to declare themselves “LGBT free zones”.
The Church has used the state to convey its message about sexuality and reproduction in other ways, such as via school-based sex education. Here, again, developments in Poland have shifted from progressive under socialism to conservative. The only sex education school handbook now available states that sex should only take place in heterosexual marriage with the intention of procreation.
The Sexual Lives of Polish Catholics
How does this increasingly tight alliance between Church and state translate in the sexual and reproductive life of Polish Catholics? Do they follow the Church, or are their desires pulling them away?
Arguably, the majority simply ignore Church directions: while roughly 90 percent of Polish people declare themselves to be Catholic, only around 15 percent use Church-sanctioned birth control methods. Certainly some ignore other Catholic rules: as sociologists of religion have shown, a widespread “selectiveness” of faith can be observed in Poland, with many Catholics freely selecting the rules they follow and truths they believe.
But what about those who strictly follow the rules, or feel guilty when they stray from the mandated path? How do Catholic guidelines influence their sexual lives? How do they resolve conflict between their desires and the directives on both a personal and political level?
What follows is my attempt to answer these questions based on 80 in-depth interviews with devout Catholics conducted by my research team in 2020 and 2021. While their experiences and views relating to sexuality and reproduction may vary, these interviewees have all sought a Catholic “outlet” for their desires.
In her mid-forties, Olga is a judge and mother of three in a small town in southern Poland, perceived as the most religious and conservative region in the country. She did not have sex before marriage and truly wanted to follow the Catholic family planning methods she studied during premarital training at her local church. However, the rhythm method was not an option as her menstrual cycle was always irregular. She therefore took the pill, but stopped after feeling internal conflict. Terrified of becoming pregnant she began to avoid having sex, which hurt her husband “as a man”. Olga believes the Church’s stance damaged her relationship with her husband, and she believes the “sexual neurosis” she developed also prompted “auto-aggression” and resulted in an autoimmunological illness. Olga places the blame for her problems firmly on “ultra-Catholicism”.
Zuza, a student in her mid-twenties from the less conservative region of northern Poland, was initially convinced that vaginal intercourse should be confined to marriage and only had oral sex with her boyfriend. Although she changed her mind, the thought of how guilty she might feel prompted her to cry during her sexual initiation. Zuza cannot even imagine how her internal conflict disturbed her boyfriend.
Anna, a PhD student from Warsaw, also struggled with intending to preserve sex for marriage but wanting to have sex with her fiancé. She was also concerned about Catholic directives relating to birth control. Anna was extremely stressed and could no longer cope with her anxiety.
Zofia, a shop assistant in her early fifties from western Poland, felt guilty about using contraception and having slightly kinky sex with her husband. A friend had been ordered from the confessional after admitting use of an IUD, so she was also anxious about confessing.
Paulina, a speech therapist in her late twenties from Warsaw, was committed to the Church, attending holy mass regularly and praying twice a day. She had sex with her boyfriend of five years but this left her feeling terribly conflicted. Paulina tried to rationalize her decision but could not: her relationship did not survive.
Victor, a thirty-year-old homosexual man from the western part of the country, was deeply religious as a child and teenager and involved in various church activities. He realized he was gay at the age of sixteen. Having met another young gay Catholic man, they supported each other in adhering to Church rules on homosexuality – by not having sex. However, he could not entirely suppress his sexual desire and masturbated every day, often more than once. As masturbation is also sinful, he would go to confession every day before going to school. Later in life, although active in a Catholic educational organization, Victor felt there was no space within Catholicism to be in a homosexual relation. So, he had casual sex: “There was a time in my life when I would go to a club on Saturday night, give a blow job to a stranger in a club toilet … Catholicism made me ashamed of my sexuality … and then I would go to a church on Sunday morning”.
At a certain point, our interview partners reconciled their internal conflict.
Some encountered priests who took a more liberal approach. During Holy Mass, Zuza heard one such priest state that as the sixth commandment is not first on the list, the faithful do not need to focus on it quite so much. Anna met a confessor who told her about the primacy of conscience in decisions about sexuality and birth control, in accordance with the Second Vatican Council. But after the decades of John Paul II’s fight against progressive approaches to sexuality and reproduction in the Polish Church, it can be hard to find a liberal priest.
Others with whom we spoke made sense of their situation for themselves. Olga, who felt that sexuality was fundamental to human relationships, understood her problems were rooted in a lack of sex education, combined with messages she received from what she viewed as a sex-obsessed Church. It took her years to learn more about sexuality and family planning, as well as accept there was more than sex in life and marriage. Finally, thanks to this understanding, she and her husband have managed to overcome their problems, combine the rhythm method with condom use, and have a “good sex life”.
Zofia reached the point where she could not take any more anxiety and told herself she should listen to her own conscience. This enabled her to accept she has the right to pleasure, to various forms of sex, and to reliable contraception.
Victor came to understand that homosexuality, Catholicism, and mental health were an unworkable “threesome”. “One can only have two”, he decided, and discarded religion.
In the fall of 2020, reports of the mass protests against further restrictions on abortion access in Poland spread across the world. Demonstrations often took a fiercely anti-Church form. Protestors adopted a blood-red lightning bolt as their logo to signify their anger. How was this possible in a Catholic country? Are these protesters not Catholic?
There were certainly non-Catholics present, but the majority of demonstrators were Catholic, some highly devout. Like a number of our interviewees, for whom personal reconciliation was not enough, they wanted change: in the Church and the country. They believed that everyone should have space for their desires, whether these were accepted by the Church or not.
Paulina does not support feminist calls for abortion on demand, but she joined the protesters because she believes abortion should be more accessible than it is now in Poland, and that the Church should not impose its rules on everyone: “If someone proposed a legal regulation that you can’t have sex if you’re not married, I would also be against that, because somehow it isn’t right for my religion to impose a way of functioning on the whole country.”
Zofia believes abortion should be available on demand. Having managed to accept her desires, she is against the Church regulating sexuality and reproduction. She fights on behalf of young women so they need not go through the inner turmoil she experienced.
Anna decided not only that she should attend the protest, but also that there was no need to mention the fact during confession.
Victor is not involved in the pro-choice movement, but he advises other gay Catholic men to abandon a Church that makes no space for their desires.
These deliberations constitute what could be called grassroots, or grounded, theologies of desire, developing out of devout Catholics grappling with the Church’s strict sexual and reproductive rules, as well as attempts to make these rules obligatory for all Polish citizens. With liberal Catholicism banished from Poland by John Paul II and the Church hierarchy, these theologies are necessarily homemade, formulated by our interviewees themselves. Some, like Zuza, only practice these theologies in their own life, but for many others they are political. These Polish Catholics protest because they want everyone to hear.
Will the Polish Church listen and transform? Will it become less preoccupied with sexual desire? If not, will the faithful listen to the Church or follow their desires and continue to build their own private, and at times political, grassroots theologies?