Recently, the lower chamber of Polish parliament (the Sejm) passed a bill to gradually ban shopping on Sundays. At the beginning, two Sundays of each month will be “free of trade.” The ultimate goal is a total ban on Sunday shopping by 2020. Many Catholics in Poland and abroad are excited to hear this news, but I am not.
Among European and culturally Western countries, Poland is an exception in terms of its religiosity. A huge majority of Poles declare themselves Catholics, and many of them attend Sunday Mass more or less regularly.
The omnipresent religious symbols, the full churches, the semi-compulsory Catholic religion classes in public schools, and the many vocations to the priesthood or religious life all give an impression that Polish society is Catholic in every facet of its life.
There is some truth to that. But in some respects, the Polish people are less Catholic than they (and others) believe.
Many young Polish couples cohabitate without marrying, and it doesn’t scandalize anybody—not even their own Catholic parents. Their attitude about keeping the Lord’s day is similar. Malls and supermarkets are overrun with shoppers every Sunday. It’s like Sunday shopping has become a favorite hobby and sport for many Polish families.
Sunday shopping seems like an affordable alternative to many other activities, especially during the long cold and rainy season from October to March. In the malls it is always day and always summer.
It is easy to see that there is something broken in Polish Christianity that needs to be fixed. But how?
It is widely known that Polish Church played an incredibly important role in preserving conservative values and virtues during the long and dark years of Soviet Communism imposed on the country by the USSR.
Many priests, including bishops and cardinals, suffered persecution, imprisonment and torture for their unshakable posture toward the regime and for standing with the people. One of the last martyrs of Communism in Central Europe, Blessed Fr. Jerzy Popiełuszko, was killed for his patriotic preaching as the chaplain of the Solidarity Labor Union.
The Church was a leader marching the people of Poland toward liberty. But where do things stand now?
Most of the people would agree that Sunday should be a special day to be set aside for family life. Many sales assistants complain that they have to work on this special day. But generally one does not observe any intensified campaign inside the Church against visiting shops and malls before or after the Mass.
On the contrary, it is a common practice for priests to bless these malls on their opening day, which is for many a signal that, at least unofficially, Catholics agree with the managers’ policy of remaining open on Sundays.
The Polish Conference of Bishops enthusiastically endorse the law to ban Sunday commerce. But this is somewhat disappointing in light of the fact that the Church was not able (or willing) to mobilize a majority of Poles to stop the practice.
The law itself is likely to create disruption in the market. It disallows most stores to be open on Sunday but gas stations will operate as usual. Big supermarket chains announced already that they would start selling gasoline in order to avoid being closed on Sundays. So, as is too often the case with misguided regulations, medium businesses which can’t afford this kind of investment will lose.
My father, who worked in an aircraft factory under Communism, used to tell me the story of how his bosses made him work on Sunday in order not to let him go to Church when he refused to join the Communist party in the 1970’s.
He lost promotions, lucrative contracts abroad, and even peace of mind at home. But he found a way to protest the injustice. He came up with the idea of work-to-rule: On Sundays, when the bosses were absent, he worked as little as he could.
In today’s democratic Poland, where it’s legal to form labor unions and to strike, it is hard to find anybody protesting for a work-free Sunday.
The role of the Church would be to catalyze the process of fighting for one’s freedom. To mobilize and encourage the people to stand for their rights. But this isn’t happening. Instead, the Catholic hierarchy seems to have found a shortcut: instead of working on the difficult process of forming people’s consciences, the bishops wrote a statement supporting the government’s new law.
But unpopular laws are likely to be changed if another political option wins. Citizens to whom nobody explained the real value of the legislative changes may gather on the squares and protest. In October 2016, many Poles joined a massive demonstration against a legislative initiative to limit eugenic abortion. Most of them were manipulated by the pro-abortion media or simply did not understand the proposed legislation.
If the bill had been anticipated with an informative campaign, many of the protesters might have stayed home. Speaking to the government, should we really believe in the religious motivation of a government that does not support banning the targeted abortion of children with Down syndrome?
I am sure both the Church and political elites can afford a better solution which would respect both Catholic social teaching and the freedom of the Polish people.