Catholic Church in Poland approaches political reckoning
With autumn parliamentary elections on the horizon, how will the Catholic Church in Poland adapt if there is a change to the status quo?
The relationship between the Catholic Church in Poland and the governing hard-right Law and Justice party (PiS) has been regularly analysed in recent years.   However, polls show that the PiS’ rule over Poland may well be challenged in autumn this year when the country votes in parliamentary elections. This meeting with the voters comes at a time when the Church is contending with a steep increase in the number of young people turning away from the faith. With this in mind, the Church faces a difficult balancing act between defending its political strategy of recent years and adjusting to a new political reality that seems to be emerging in 2023.
The Catholic Church and Poland’s “democratic erosion”
The Catholic Church has, according to Bridget Griffith from Boston University, played a “deeply influential role in Polish society and politics.” This role remained intact through the communist period and has continued into the 21st century. In fact, while secularisation has spread across Western Europe in recent decades, in 2021 92% of Poles said they were Catholics.
However, since the election of the populist right-wing PiS in 2015, the Church has faced criticism for closely aligning itself with a party alleged to be a threat to democracy. In a November 2022 article, Griffith says that the Church’s support for the “anti-democratic policies” of the PiS means that it is complicit in the “democratic erosion” that Poland has faced.
These policies include the Church’s support for the PiS’ anti-LGBT platform, with the Archbishop of Krakow in 2019 warning of the danger of the “rainbow plague” of gay rights campaigning. The Church was also a major advocate for the near-total ban on abortion introduced in 2020. As well as these specific policies, the Church has refused to criticise the increasing authoritarianism pushed by the PiS.
The Catholic Church has not only faced criticism for its relationship with the PiS, but also for its handling of cases of abuse by the clergy. Over recent years, journalists for the TVN24 news channel, which has clashed repeatedly with the PiS government, revealed numerous cases of abuse relating to the Polish clergy. Yet, in 2023, the stakes were raised when TVN24 published a played a documentary including allegations that John Paul had knowingly covered up accusations of child abuse by clergy members while archbishop of Krakow.
These allegations have triggered division within Poland, with some opposition politicians calling for the removal of John Paul’s name from public spaces. Meanwhile, the PiS government has been accused of manipulating the division to “trigger a culture war.” One commentator even alleged that the PiS aimed to use their defence of John Paul II’s legacy as a way of “mobilising its voters with this religious war.”
Losing the youth
The Catholic Church has enjoyed increased political influence in recent years. However, both scandals and political choices may be a threat to their long-term position in Polish society.
This is the conclusion of a number of articles published in 2023. An article by Dr Maria Skora in the Guardian in April 2023 described how the Catholic Church faces an “existential crisis” due to the rate at which young people have turned away from the faith. She explains that by “overstepping the mark” in their relationship with the PiS and its policies, the Church has alienated a significant portion of young people who oppose the government and its platform.
An article for Balkan Insight added a personal element to this analysis, speaking with Michal Rogalski, a 32-year-old who until recently had been a devout Catholic, in fact writing a PhD on Catholicism. However, Rogalski explains that although he had in the past questioned his faith, it was the combination of the support for the PiS and its hardline policies, as well as scandals such as that of abuses, that ultimately led him to leave the Church.
As remarked by Skora, this change is not only significant for the long-term future of religion in Poland, but also may have major political consequences. She explains that looking forward to elections later this year, it is expected that young people will turn out to vote in large numbers.
The challenge of a new neutrality
With the potential of a change of power for the first time since 2015 on the horizon, the leadership of the Church has aimed to reposition itself as being politically neutral. In a statement released by the Polish Bishops Conference, the bishops called on politicians to “avoid the temptation of demagoguery and populism,” and made special reference to taking account of the needs of young people and women.
While this statement may show an intent to move to a more neutral position ahead of the elections, it is another question whether anyone really believes it. These doubts were deepened when the head of the Bishops Conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, spoke in June about abortion rights. The archbishop claimed that any MP who votes in favour of reversing the abortion ban would be “committing a grave sin and thus cannot receive communion.”
With the main opposition party, Civic Platform, supporting this reversal of the abortion ban, a change to the political status quo in autumn elections looks sure to open a new, more contentious, chapter in Church-state relations in Poland. And even in the case that the PiS holds onto power, the Church is faced with the reality that maintaining its hardline positions risks further alienating young people and women. One thing that is clear is that after years of maintaining a consistent political position, for the first time in recent memory, the Polish Church needs to adapt to changing currents.
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