Western media paints Poland as a hotbed of extreme nationalism. The truth is far more complicated

John Paul II is everywhere in Poland. His face smiles down from photographs. He stands in statue form. I have a little stone engraving of his face – I don’t know where it came from. If somebody came here and knew little of the Church they would think he, not Francis, was Pope.

This is unsurprising. John Paul II was not just Polish: he received the papacy as Poland struggled in the grip of communism. His tenure was a source of immense national pride. Millions of Poles are sincere practising Catholics, but faith blurs into patriotism and politics.

Poland burst into the headlines on November 11, when a march to celebrate the nation’s Independence Day featured chants of “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and an appearance by the Italian fascist Roberto Fiore. Analysts who are by no means favourable to nationalism have concluded that most of the marchers were not extremists, but the undeniable rightwards shift in Poland has attracted attention to its politics and religion.

In October, more than a million Poles gathered around their nation’s borders to hold rosaries and pray. This marked the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, which celebrates the triumph of the Holy League over the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto.

It would be foolish to deny that participants were inspired by their concerns about Islamic fundamentalism. Poles have been unnerved by images of terrorism in their Western neighbours’ cities, and Catholics have been appalled by the killing of Fr Jacques Hamel and the attacks on Notre-Dame Cathedral. Whatever one thinks of this, it would be unfair to believe that the border prayer was a political stunt. It coincided with several other anniversaries, significant for Catholics and Poles, such as the 100th anniversary of the Fatima apparitions. Participants revealed motivations such as thanking God for their children as well seeking protection against terrorists.

As the Law and Justice party (PiS) has come to dominate Polish politics there has been a shift towards social conservatism. Muslim refugees have been denied settlement in Poland; an absolute prohibition on abortion was considered; Sunday shopping looks as if it will be banned. Such rulings divide liberal and conservative Poles (though the latter two issues, it must be said, more starkly than the first).

The Church influences PiS, both because of the party’s dependence on Catholic voters and because of its leaders’ and members’ own beliefs. Beata Szydło, Poland’s outgoing prime minister, has a son who is a priest. PiS, however, is no mere arm of the Church. The campaign to prohibit Sunday trading was led by the trade union Solidarity, famous for its resistance to communism.

Meanwhile, bishops – notably Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, who sits on the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People – have encouraged the government to accept refugees, echoing the Pope’s words when he visited the country. PiS, however, prioritises nationalism in this case, demonstrating its political independence. To the extent that Poland’s rightwards turn is driven from the top, it is a governmental more than clerical phenomenon.

The Polish Church is not monolithic. Like most religious institutions, it has reactionary, conservative and liberal trends. On the more progressive side is the magazine Tygodnik Powszechny. The Polish right, meanwhile, draws inspiration from Radio Maryja, run by the maverick Fr Tadeusz Rydzyk, a controversial figure for his hardline social views. Fr Rydzyk has an awkward alliance with the government and broadcasts to an increasingly aged audience. But he is still far closer to power than he might have anticipated when, in 2011, he declared that “Poles do not lead Poland” in the European Parliament.

The Independence Day parade was organised in part by the National Radical Camp (ONR), a movement formed, in its words, with the aim of “bringing together young Poles who are close to such values as God, Honour, Homeland, Family, Tradition and Friendship”. The first point in their declaration of values is that “salvation in God is the ultimate goal of man”, and the second is that “the nation is the highest earthly value”. Harking back to pre-war nationalists who, inspired by Franco, advocated Catholic authoritarianism, the ONR began as a radical group demonstrating on the anniversaries of anti-Jewish riots, but have developed a broader and more savvy platform from which to promote their Polish Falangism.

Church attendance has declined in Poland over recent years, and birth rates are far lower than one might expect. Anyone seeking a bastion of traditionalism would be bitterly disappointed.

Yet the pews were fuller last year than in 2015, and Poland’s government and millions of its citizens resist progressivism in their politics and in their faith. This trend has social, cultural and political aspects which should not be oversimplified. Poles argue all the time about government and God.

Still, it sets them apart from their Western neighbours. All are drifting – the important question is where.

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland

This article first appeared in the December 15 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here