The Notion of God and Christian Heritage in Polish Constitutions

Piotr Szymaniec holds the degree of Habilitated Doctor of Law from the University of Wrocław. He is a professor at the Institute of Socio-Legal Studies at the Angelus Silesius University of Applied Sciences in Wałbrzych (Poland).

In the 19th-century, when there was no independent Poland on the map of Europe, Catholicism became an important factor in building a modern Polish nation. It is no wonder, then, that the first constitution of the re-established Poland, of March 17, 1921 (the “March Constitution”), contained several religious elements, even though it was modeled after the Constitutional Laws of the Third French Republic of 1875.

The March Constitution started with the proper invocation of God (invocatio Dei) in the preamble: “In the name of Almighty God! We, the Polish Nation, grateful to Providence for setting us free from a servitude of a century and a half . . . .” During the drafting phase, proposals that only a Pole who is Catholic could be president of the country were introduced and voted on twice[1]. Ultimately, such a provision did not appear, but the president, regardless of his religion, was still required to take the Catholic oath contained in Article 54:

I swear to Almighty God, One in the Holy Trinity, and I vow to Thee, Polish Nation, that while holding the office of President of the Republic I will keep and defend faithfully the laws of the Republic and above all the constitutional law; … that I will devote myself individually to the duties of office and service. So help me God and the Holy Martyrdom of His Son. Amen.

It is quite surprising that the authoritarian Polish Constitution of April 23, 1935 (the “April Constitution”) had very few references to religion. The religious form of the president’s oath was maintained, but there was no preamble or invocatio Dei. The name of God was mentioned, however, in a very special context: Article 2 pointed out that the President of the Republic stood at the head of the State and that “the responsibility before God and history for the destinies of the State rests on him.”

After the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, one of the most discussed and controversial issues in the media was whether to include invocatio Dei in the preamble of the new Polish constitution. The political climate at the time significantly impacted the final shape of the preamble.

This final piece of the constitution came together when the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej), built on the ruins of the communist party, was the largest parliamentary club and co-founded the ruling coalition with the farmers’ party (Polish People’s Party). The Left did not consider it appropriate to include references to God in Poland’s highest legal authority. After many disputes, the former first non-communist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki proposed a formula for compromise, based actually on the text written by Catholic journalist Stefan Wilkanowicz. This formula, which gained the acceptance of major political forces and became an integral part of the constitution, includes the following reference to God and Christian tradition:

…We, the Polish Nation – all citizens of the Republic, Both those who believe in God being the source of truth, justice, good and beauty,

As well as those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources,

Equal in rights and obligations towards the common good—Poland,

Beholden to our ancestors for their labors, their struggle for independence achieved at great sacrifice, for our culture rooted in the Christian heritage of the Nation and in universal human values,

Recalling the best traditions of the First and the Second Republic …

Recognizing our responsibility before God or our own consciences,

Hereby establish this Constitution of the Republic of Poland as the basic law for the State, based on respect for freedom and justice, cooperation between the public powers, social dialogue as well as on the principle of subsidiarity in the strengthening the powers of citizens and their communities. ….[2]

It should be emphasized that the preamble does not include invocatio Dei in the strict sense but rather nominatio Dei, i.e., the name of God is only mentioned. The preamble ascertains the existence of universal values, including truth, justice, good, and beauty, but at the same time divides Polish citizens into two categories: those who believe that these values are derived from God, and those who derive these values from other sources. The phrase that tries to define God (“being the source of truth”) has met slight criticism in Polish literature. Some point out that the notion of God used here is undoubtedly monotheistic and Christian, while others believe that the preamble, by mentioning only some attributes of God, ignores other attributes, like wisdom, mercy, and love[3].

The prevailing view in Polish constitutional theory is that the preamble, as an integral part of the constitution, is not a mere embellishment but, although no norm can be derived solely from the preamble, is of great normative significance, pointing out constitutional values and indicating the direction of interpreting constitutional concepts. Among the notions applied in the preamble of the Polish constitution, the notion of nation is of particular importance. It seems that the wording of the preamble precludes the purely ethnic understanding of the Polish nation, since it is emphasized that all citizens (regardless of their ethnic background) constitute the nation.

So far, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal has paid little attention to the reference to God in the constitution, especially since God is not treated as the only source of constitutional values. In my view, however, the concept of “Christian heritage of the Nation” is the most capacious and susceptible to different interpretations among the notions used in the preamble. We will see if the Constitutional Tribunal will refer to this concept in the future.

[1] Stanisław Krukowski, Geneza konstytucji z 17 marca 1921 r. [The origins of the constitution of March 17, 1921], Warszawa: Ludowa Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza, 1977.

[2] The translation of the constitution is taken from the official website of Polish Parliament and was slightly modified.

[3] Cf. P. Bała, “Invocatio Dei w Konstytucji RP z 2 kwietnia 1997 r. w perspektywie porównawczej i historycznej” [Invocatio Dei in the Constitution of April 2, 1997, in comparative and historical perspective]. In M. Sadowski, P. Szymaniec (eds.), Wrocławskie Studia Erazmiańskie. Studia Erasmiana Wratislaviensia. Vol. V: Religia a prawo i państwo [Religion, the law, and state], Wrocław: University of Wrocław, 2011, s., pp. 322–332.

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