The row shaking the Polish Church

Fr Ludwik Wiśniewski: ‘Before our eyes, Christianity is dying in Poland’ (Adam Walanus)

When an eminent Polish Dominican wrote a scathing attack on his country’s government and Church late last month, it brought to a head long-simmering frustrations.

The occasion for Fr Ludwik Wiśniewski’s onslaught, in the weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, was the publication of new data confirming a decline in Mass attendance in this staunchly Catholic country. But it gained a political edge by coinciding with criticisms of the Church’s ties with Poland’s centre-right government, which faces European Union sanctions over a controversial reform programme.

The critique by the 81-year-old priest, dramatically titled Oskarzam (I accuse), was significant because it appeared in a respected Catholic publication and was written by a much-decorated veteran of the Church’s communist-era struggle for human rights.

Last May the Dominican wrote an open letter urging Poland’s bishops to respond more effectively to current challenges. But in Tygodnik Powszechny he said that the situation had since worsened following the release of data showing that Mass attendance is at its lowest level in modern times.

Fr Wiśniewski singled out right-wing parliamentarians who claimed to be devout Catholics while inciting fear of refugees and migrants, as well as Poland’s controversial Redemptorist-run Radio Maryja, which had “for years pumped out hatred and division”.

He also attacked Jarosław Kaczyński, who leads the governing Law and Justice party (PiS), for “promoting enmity and resentment in religious packaging”, and unnamed priests who spent their time “tolerating and praising nationalism”.

It was time, the Dominican declared, for the bishops to “enter the public arena”, as “the only force retaining any authority”.

“Before our eyes, Christianity is dying in Poland – while our bishops are sadly silent,” Fr Wiśniewski wrote. “You can now spit on people, deride and trample on them, groundlessly accusing them of wickedness, even crimes – while invoking the Gospel, decking yourself out as a defender of Christian values and making pilgrimages to Jasna Góra [Poland’s most famous Marian shrine].”

Fr Wiśniewski was right to be concerned about Mass attendance. Figures from the Church’s statistics office show this has dropped 3.1 per cent in just a year, with 36.7 per cent of Poles now going regularly to Mass in the country’s 10,000 parishes, compared with more than 50 per cent two decades ago. Admissions to Poland’s 83 seminaries are falling as well, along with vocations to its 104 female Religious congregations, raising fears of a possible clergy shortage.

But what made Fr Wiśniewski’s article especially controversial was his attempt to pin the blame on Poland’s Catholic bishops, who have been accused of lacking sympathy for refugees and being too close to Kaczyński’s government.

Fr Wiśniewski’s criticism of Church leaders’ “passivity” was rejected as “groundless and hurtful” by Fr Pawel Rytel-Adrianik, the bishops’ spokesman. The bishops had urged “all possible help” for migrants and refugees during special Masses in mid January, he recalled, as well as setting out 20 “action points” at a specially convened press conference. Also last month, on the Church’s annual Day of Judaism, bishops’ conference president Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki issued a document on the “dangers of nationalism and beauties of patriotism”, listing criteria for distinguishing between the two.

In December, the bishops’ conference launched a glossy Twitter feed to counter criticisms of the Church, while its Catholic Information Agency (KAI) ran an inventory of previous appeals for unity and harmony by Archbishop Gądecki and others.

Though this isn’t likely to appease the Church’s opponents, Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, a senior Catholic presenter with Polish Radio, notes some positive signs in the latest statistics. While the latest data confirmed falling Mass attendance, they also showed higher numbers receiving sacraments, including a 10 per cent increase in First Communions. Participation rates vary widely around Poland’s 44 Catholic dioceses, with 67 per cent attending church in southeastern Tarnów, compared with less than a quarter in more secularised western dioceses.

As in the rest of Europe, fewer people appear to be participating now out of tradition or social obligation, and more for genuinely religious reasons. But at 36.7 per cent, church attendance would be the envy of Catholics in most other countries.

Fr Wojciech Sadlon, the Church statistics office director, says Polish Catholicism is witnessing a transition from quantity to quality, as falling numbers combine with deeper commitment.

“These figures shouldn’t fuel a sense of guilt that things were better before,” Fr Sadlon told the KAI agency. “The Church remains itself, whatever its size and strength.

“Of course, it doesn’t always fulfil its apostolic mission perfectly, and often lacks evangelical witness both from priests, Religious and lay faithful. But its responsibility lies in being able to spot its weaknesses and make improvements.”

Those “improvements” will certainly include seeing problems and challenges in a calm, rational context, easing the grip of polarising emotions, and moving away from rhetorical simplifications and stereotypes,

Jonathan Luxmoore covers Church news from Warsaw and Oxford

This article first appeared in the February 2 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here