When a Polish bishop recently denied being in dispute with Pope Francis, it was only the latest sign of controversy over the Pontiff’s reformist line. In November, Bishop Józef Wróbel, an auxiliary in Lublin, said there had been concerns about claims in an Italian newspaper that he was in league with four cardinals who had called for a clarification of the Pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. He wished to make clear that he “respected St Peter’s successor” and had no wish to contest his judgments.
Some leaders of Poland’s predominant Church have had problems with Pope Francis’s conciliatory style, however; and these appear to have intensified since his visit for World Youth Day last summer.
“The tensions are deepening, since they can’t be articulated publicly,” explains Małgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, a senior Catholic radio presenter. “The Pope has his supporters here – and officially everything is in order. But his direct, open way of speaking and acting faces opposition.”
Signs of unease have been visible since Francis’s election, in a Church wedded to the firm line of his revered Polish predecessor, whose teachings are still evoked more readily today, almost a dozen years after his death.
Poland’s clergy have traditionally seen their task as holding the line against secularisation – a function made easier by the election in 2015 of a president and government committed to defending the Catholic faith. Not surprisingly, the country’s media have reported reservations about the Pope’s attitudes. When, in 2013, Francis’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium invited Catholics to be “bold and creative” in rethinking evangelisation, the document’s reception in Poland was lukewarm and few bishops quoted from it. And when Amoris Laetitia conceded the need for “continued open discussion” of “doctrinal, moral, spiritual and pastoral questions” last March, the reaction was similarly frosty.
The Polish Church’s uncompromising stance was showcased at the second family synod in October 2015. Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, condemned “feelings of false compassion” towards “mistaken modes of thought”, and rejected any rethink on marriage, divorce and homosexuality.
Gądecki and others dismiss talk of popular support for liberal changes in Poland. But surveys suggest that many local Catholics now routinely question Church teachings on such issues as clerical celibacy and extra-marital relationships.
This could explain the nervousness last July when Polish Catholics had their first chance to see and hear Francis on home territory. The Pope met Poland’s 117-member bishops’ conference under Gądecki’s presidency soon after arriving in Kraków. He was said to have asked for the meeting to be closed, so participants could “speak out without fear”.
Commenting later, Gądecki admitted there had been intense media interest in the talks, amid claims of disagreement over a variety of topics. “But the Holy Father acts on the principle that general issues are difficult to settle in every individual case,” the archbishop assured journalists. “This is why he speaks about decentralisation, so the bishops’ conference of a particular country can formulate its own perspective.”
While liberal Catholics have since used the Pope’s statements to press for change in Poland, their conservative rivals have questioned Francis’s grasp of current issues and how far he represents Catholic tradition.
In September, prominent Catholics, including the editors of the Znak and Tygodnik Powszechny periodicals, declared their support for a billboard campaign to bring the Church closer to LGBT citizens, who had complained of discrimination in Poland. They insisted that the campaign, “Let us exchange a sign of peace”, was merely intended to recall the Church’s official teaching, that Christian values “include the necessity of respect, openness and willing dialogue with all people, including homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals”. They said that Francis had set a “good example”, when social and cultural attitudes were changing, of how the Church must reflect more carefully on complex subjects such as homosexuality, offering pastoral support to those affected rather than just condemning their sins.
But the campaign was denounced by the Polish bishops, with Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, who had served for decades as St John Paul II’s personal secretary, accusing its Catholic backers of selectively quoting the Pope and promoting same-sex unions.
Differences over Francis’s reforms could explain why, when a national Rome pilgrimage was staged in October, little effort was made to publicise it and only 7,000 Catholics took part, including fewer than half of Poland’s bishops. The Pope declined to meet the Poles privately, urging them instead during a general audience to seek a dialogue to bring “acceptance and respect” and ensure that “no one became isolated, closed in his own small world”.
Andrzej Duda, Poland’s Catholic president, stayed away from the pilgrimage, but took pride of place with government officials three weeks later when, in a triumphal reassertion of the Polish Church’s power and authority, a ceremony in Kraków proclaimed Jesus Christ “King and Lord of Poland”.
Whatever his preferences, Pope Francis cannot afford to alienate Poland’s bishops. Although seminary admissions have dropped sharply, halving the number of priests in training, the country still provides at least a quarter of all vocations in Europe and supplies clergy for dioceses across the globe.
While participation is falling, in a survey last May 94 per cent of Poland’s 38.5 million inhabitants described themselves as Catholic, while average Sunday Mass attendance, according to Church statistics, still stands at a remarkable 39 per cent.
So for now, the stand-off looks likely to continue.
Jonathan Luxmoore’s two-volume study of communist-era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, is published by Gracewing