The Guardian view on Poland’s Catholics: losing faith in their church

·3-min read

During the five years in which the Law and Justice (PiS) party has governed in Poland, the lines between politics and religion have become, to put it mildly, blurred. In a sermon last week, for example, the archbishop of Kraków, Marek Jędraszewski, offered episcopal backing for the government’s refusal to sign off on the European Union’s Covid recovery fund.

By linking the fund to a controversial “rule of law” clause, Archbishop Jędraszewski said, Brussels was seeking to impose a “neo-Marxist vision of a new order that rejects God’s kingdom”. The clause, he claimed, was a Trojan horse that would be used to impose abortion on demand, gender “ideology” in schools and other assorted liberal heresies. Bishops and prelates have also lined up alongside the government during its culture wars over Muslim refugees and LGBTQ+ rights. As clerics and ministers operate in authoritarian symbiosis, Poland has at times resembled a theocracy in the heart of the EU.

Ultra-conservatives such as Archbishop Jędraszewski have revelled in this proximity to secular power. But there are intriguing indications that the most influential church in Europe may have overplayed its hand. Increasing numbers of Poles, it seems, are growing tired of being bullied by bishops. A survey earlier this year found that only 35% now take a positive view of the church. Among young people that figure fell to 9%. The number of priests abandoning their vocations is among the highest in Europe.

October’s controversial abortion ruling by Poland’s constitutional court, which, if ratified, would amount to a near-total ban, has generated a huge backlash. The Polish bishops’ conference warned Catholics not to take part in the mass protests that followed the judgment. As some demonstrations targeted churches, PiS’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, called on Poles to “defend the church at any price”. But the strength of feeling is such that old taboos are losing their hold. Protests against the court ruling have taken place in small communities where the local church’s authority has seldom been challenged. In one town near Warsaw, the hands of a statue of Saint John Paul II were daubed with red paint.

Sexual abuse scandals highlighted in the Polish media have also significantly eroded trust. John Paul II’s judgment was criticised in last month’s Vatican report into abuse by the disgraced ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The former pope’s secretary, Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, has been accused of covering up abuse cases in the Polish church. Many Poles believe that the church’s steadfast support for the PiS government has ensured a hands-off approach by the government into allegations of abuse.

Under Mr Kaczyński, PiS has pioneered a politics that weaponises Christianity in the service of an illiberal nationalism that targets minorities and flouts European norms. Viktor Orbán’s Hungary borrows from the same playbook. In Italy, the leader of the rightwing League party, Matteo Salvini, is rarely seen these days without a rosary. Co-opting scripture for short-term political gain may make sense for opportunistic politicians, but for churches, going along with it is a dangerous game. Last month, a group of prominent priests and lay Catholics called on the Polish church to distance itself from PiS and to “abandon anything which, in the eyes of many, including Catholics, smacks of a throne-altar alliance”. Their statement denounced attempts to “exploit the church for the political interests of the ruling party”. If the country’s ecclesiastical hierarchy is wise, it will pay heed. According to one survey this year, a big majority of Poles still consider themselves religious. But they are rapidly losing faith in their bishops.