In the 19th century, the Roman Catholic faithful were taught that they should respect secular authority despite the fact that most Poles were under the control of non-Catholic rulers. Elsewhere the Church was able to justify rebellion, but only against revolutionary governments that had undermined the Catholic understanding of legitimacy. The 19th-century Polish national movement, however, was challenging hereditary monarchies with rhetoric about “the people” and “the nation,” and in these cases the Church authorities stood firmly with the tsars and kaisers. When the state directly challenged Church institutions or clerical authority, the response was decisive and uncompromising, but such moments did little to erode the general commitment to obedience and political docility. Around the turn of the century, however, a much more combative form of Catholic political engagement took shape in Poland. It was difficult for Catholics to accept the indeterminacy inherent in liberal democracy, and impossible to agree that religion was a purely private matter. Nonetheless, Catholics were increasingly prone to embrace the practices and some of the principles of democracy, even as they rejected secular liberalism more broadly. If one began with the presumption that Poland was essentially and necessarily Catholic, it followed that any deviation from the Church’s teachings was both sinful and antidemocratic.
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