The place of the cross in public space in a democratic secular state

Fr Jozef Krukowski

In his interview for ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ Bronislaw Komorowski, President of the Republic of Poland, informed about his intention to remove the cross from the square in front of the Presidential Palace. The cross had been placed there to commemorate the tragic death of President Lech Kaczynski and 95 eminent Poles who accompanied him on his flight on 10 April 2010 to pay tribute to the Polish soldiers murdered in Katyn by the Soviet Union. At the same time President Komorowski said that the removal of the cross meant respecting the constitutional principle of the secular nature of the state.

The cause of the conflict outside the Presidential Palace

The consequence of the statement of President Komorowski was that the advocates of erecting a monument to the victims decided to remain at this cross so that the cross would not be removed. Whereas the opponents of the construction of the monument chose various forms of verbal fight in the media and in the streets of Warsaw (pickets, rallies, derision). Consequently, there was an intentional coincidence: erecting the monument in front of the Presidential Palace to commemorate the victims of the crash at Smolensk and the defence of the cross until a solid guarantee would be given. No matter when the political aspect of the conflict ends one should pay attention to the arguments that the opponents of the presence of the cross in public space use and one should evaluate these arguments in the light of the constitutional principles of the relations between the State and the Church.
The problem arises: Is the principle of the secular nature of the state and absence of the cross in public space in the constitution? Answering the problem one must state that ‘the secular nature of the state’ and ‘public space’, in which according to some politicians there is no room for the cross as a symbol of Christian faith and a constant element of Polish culture, are ideological conceptions. Although the opponents of the presence of the cross refer to the Constitution of the Republic of Poland, it actually contains no term ‘secular nature of the state’ because this term is ambiguous. In order to avoid ambiguity article 25 of the Polish Constitution, defining the relationship between the State and the Church and other religious organisations contains four principles.

Principles defining the attitude of the State towards the Church

The first one is that ‘Churches and other religious organizations shall have equal rights.’ It is an essential element of the secular nature of the state. Therefore, in Poland there is no state Church and the Polish state is not a confessional state. The Catholic Church and all religious organisations having legal registrations have equal rights. The guarantees of freedom, which the contemporary Polish state gives to the Catholic Church in its ordinary legislation and in the concordat have been extended legislatively to other religions.
The second principle says, ‘Public authorities in the Republic of Poland shall be impartial in matters of personal conviction, whether religious or philosophical, or in relation to outlooks on life, and shall ensure their freedom of expression within public life.’ This principle embraces two parts, which should not be semantically separated as some politicians and secular journalists do. They claim that the constitution forbids placing the cross in public life because the Polish state is impartial, i.e. neutral, in matters of outlooks on life. However, such reasoning is a proof of wrong interpretation of the constitution or manipulation, i.e. deliberate misleading the public opinion. Article 25, par. 2 obliges the organs of public authority to ensure everyone freedom of expression of religious convictions, outlooks on life and philosophical convictions in public space. The organs of public authority, i.e. state and local authorities, are obliged to ensure safety and protection against the aggression of the opponents of the cross. Therefore, the refusal to meet the demand to erect a monument with the sign of the cross to honour the victims of the crash at Smolensk has no grounds in the constitution and it results from the lack of political will. What is needed is social dialogue and an agreement between the Polish President and the advocates of the monument in the square close to the Presidential Palace. The tablet with the words commemorating those who gathered at this place to express their pain after the crash, placed on the wall of this palace, does not meet the demand. On the other hand, the accusation of some politician, a member of the Democratic Left Alliance, that the tablet infringed the ideological neutrality of the state because it has the sign of the cross, is absurd.
The third principle of the constitution says that the State and other religious organisations are autonomous and independent, each in its own sphere, as well as they co-operate for the individual and the common good. It means that the legislator rejects the hostile separation between the Church and the State, which was written in the constitution of the Polish People’s Republic, and it accepts the principle of friendly separation, also called co-ordinated separation. It also means the rejection of the policy of supremacy of the state over the Church and acceptance of the principle of respecting their competences by the state and Church authorities and co-operation for the common good of the same people who are both citizens and believers of the Church.
The fourth principle concerns the method of determining the relations between the state and religious organisations through partner agreements. On the level of the relation between the State and the Catholic Church the agreement is an international treaty, called concordat, and between the State and other religious organisations – in the form of statues adopted pursuant to the agreements negotiated.
In the light of the above-mentioned constitutional principles one must state that Poland is a democratic secular state in which every man, no matter of his political membership or sympathy towards some political formation, has the right to express his religious convictions in public life individually or with other people. It is not a right granted by the state but it results from the dignity of every human person. The constitution gives no grounds to forbid placing the cross in public space, even if it were the square in front of the Presidential Palace. But the political will of both parties is needed to fulfil this right.

Fictitious objections

Still, we should answer the objections raised by some journalists that the conflict concerning the cross outside the Presidential Palace revealed a crisis in the Catholic Church in Poland and threatened the unity of the Church, and that the bishops failed to cope with it because the faithful did not obey the decision of the Presidential Chancellery together with the scouts and the Metropolitan Curia concerning the transfer of the cross to St Anne’s Church. Since the believers standing at the cross appealed to the clergymen and scouts not to transfer the cross to St Anne’s. One should notice that the objections are fictitious, based on the false premises as for the conception of unity of the Church in matters concerning the presence of the Church in the contemporary world. The Second Vatican Council acknowledged the autonomy of Catholic laity to active participation in social life of the political community and obliged the bishops to respect it. The thing is that the laity as fellow citizens can participate in public space when inspired by their Christian outlook. The Council also recommended that ‘there be a correct notion of the relationship between the political community and the Church, and a clear distinction between the tasks which Christians undertake, individually or as a group, on their own responsibility as citizens guided by the dictates of a Christian conscience, and the activities which, in union with their pastors, they carry out in the name of the Church’ (Constitution ‘Gaudium et spes, No. 76). Therefore, one should necessarily differentiate between the activities that the bishops undertake in the name of the Church and the activities of Christians as citizens, undertaking on their own responsibility, guided by their Christian consciences.

It is all about the good will of the authorities

One can see two parts in the appeal issued by the Board of the Polish Bishops’ Conference and Archbishop of Warsaw on 12 August 2010, concerning the atmosphere around the cross outside the Presidential Palace. In the first part, on behalf of the Church the bishops appealed to all those involved in the conflict to take ‘serious dialogue and responsible decision to solve the increasing political and social conflict around the cross in front of the Presidential Palace.’ The second part is an appeal to those who are praying at the cross to allow ‘the transfer of the cross in a worthy place prepared in the Katyn chapel in St Anne’s Church’ after ‘the decision of the authorities to honour the victims of the crash at Smolensk’, and the bishops ask them not to give ‘the groups hostile to religion any pretext to reveal intolerance, humiliation of the cross, derision of faith and disregard for people.’ Undoubtedly, the indispensible condition to realise these right claims of the representatives of the Polish Bishops’ Conference is the good will shown by those who represent the organs of the state authorities. If there is no possibility to erect a monument in the square in front of the Presidential Palace, a monument should be built somewhere else in the centre of our capital, for example in the huge Jozef Pilsudski Square, in order to finish this disgraceful whirligig of absurdities and social tension inspired by the unfortunate statement of President Komorowski for ‘Gazeta Wyborcza.’

"Niedziela" 35/2010

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: