Opinion & Features

The battle for Poland’s soul

Pope Francis with recently elected Polish president Andrzej Duda

When Poland’s Catholic bishops recently threatened to withdraw from a European Church commission in protest at an article on its website, it highlighted the controversy surrounding the country’s new centre-right government.

The brief article in Europe-Infos, newsletter of the Brussels-based Commission of European Union Bishops’ Conferences (Comece), accused the government of restricting freedom and undermining democracy, and questioned why the Polish bishops had failed to speak out. The post was withdrawn from Comece’s website after an open letter from the Polish bishops’ conference secretary-general, Bishop Artur Mizinski. But Comece has since compounded the dispute by accusing the Polish bishops of failing to appreciate dialogue and free speech.

Some Poles fear that the commission, which purports to represent around 1,000 EU bishops, has let itself be dragged into a conflict characterised by propaganda and disinformation as much as by a search for truth.

Małgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, a Catholic senior presenter with Polish Radio, said: “Every democratically elected government makes mistakes, and I’m sure this one will too – but these problems should be settled internally, not with external interference. When we see how EU officials meddle in our affairs, we can understand how so many British voters now want to quit. Given the bitterness that’s always existed between Poland’s rival parties, it’s dangerous when they start involving forces from outside.”

When the Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by Jarosław Kaczyński, was elected to government last October, its policies included higher welfare spending and tax breaks for the less well-off. It was shown in surveys to have attracted support from areas less touched by economic successes. Heavily defeating the business-linked Civic Platform (PO), which had enjoyed eight years in power, PiS gained 234 seats in Poland’s 460-seat lower house: a majority which makes it the first party able to govern alone since the collapse of communist rule in 1989.

Coming five months after the victory of a PiS candidate, Andrzej Duda, in Poland’s presidential election, the vote convinced PiS that it had a mandate for sweeping reforms – designed, government backers say, to break the PO’s stranglehold over the economy, administration, justice and the media.

The result was immediate conflict, and opposition accusations that Kaczyński was seeking absolute power. In January, President Duda approved a law enabling the government to choose new judges for Poland’s 15-member constitutional court, which PiS supporters said had been packed with PO appointees. Duda signed another law allowing the government to appoint directors of public television and radio, after claims that they too had done the PO’s bidding.

PiS’s opponents objected vigorously and took their case to the EU’s governing commission, which announced an investigation into a possible “systemic threat” to fundamental EU values.

After a separate inquiry, the Council of Europe’s rights-monitoring Venice Commission ruled that the proposed changes endangered democracy and human rights, and called on the government, led by prime minister Beata Szydło, to “find a solution on the basis of the rule of law”.

Government supporters say the European institutions are being deliberately misled by the PO, whose former leader, ex-premier Donald Tusk, is now president of the European Council.

PiS supporters claim that the opposition-dominated media have used scare tactics to stir up public opinion – few Poles, they argue, were bothered about the makeup of the constitutional court until now.

Critics allege that the previous PO government, which spanned the critical years of Poland’s EU integration, used the country’s clan-like political system to create a web of powerful interests – a shadowy układ, or “structure”, which is now determined to sabotage the PiS government rather than risk losing out. They also accuse the party of turning a blind eye to corruption and nepotism, and helping the well-off and well-connected prosper at the expense of the excluded and marginalised.

Poland’s GDP has risen sharply over the 26 years since communist rule, making it the EU’s sixth largest economy and the only member country sustaining growth during the last recession. But EU and UN reports have also highlighted widespread poverty, while some three million mostly young Poles have left the country since its EU accession in 2004.

Despite its Catholic traditions, Poland devotes fewer resources than any other EU state to family support and suffers the highest levels of child deprivation, as well as cripplingly low levels of social engagement and personal trust – damning facts which some accuse the PO of doing its best to hush up.

Opponents of the new government dismiss this as populist conspiracy talk and insist PiS has gone too far too fast. Poland’s winner-takes-all electoral system places some 20,000 posts nationwide at the effective disposal of each new government. But it’s crucially important how these are handed out, and how power is shared and exercised.

Timothy Garton Ash, the Oxford-based political commentator, recently wrote in The Guardian that “Poland, the pivotal power in post-communist central Europe, is in danger of being reduced by its recently elected ruling party to an illiberal democracy.”

He continued: “The voices of all allied democracies, in Europe and across the Atlantic, must be raised to express their concern about a turn [of events] with grave implications for the whole democratic West.”

Where does Poland’s influential Catholic Church stand in this dispute? Although its bishops are widely said to support the new government, many Catholics insist there’s no real evidence for this.

In the past, PiS has been sympathetic to the Church’s position on abortion, same-sex relationships and other issues; and in December, the Szydło government, in one of its first moves, scrapped state funding of in vitro fertilisation, contentiously approved by the outgoing PO president, Bronisław Komorowski.

Some bishops will also favour the new government’s promise to allay poverty and exclusion, which was identified by the bishops’ conference president, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, last summer as highlighting “the weakness of neo-liberal solutions”.

Yet Church leaders have been careful not to take sides in the current dispute. When Duda was elected last May, the conference presidium told him most citizens attached “great hopes” to his presidency, while Archbishop Wojciech Polak, Primate of the Polish Church, enthused that Duda’s election showed “the need for a new beginning”.

But when the parliamentary ballot took place in October, the bishops insisted that the Church was not linked to “any party, or political, economic or social system”, and merely counted on Poles “to vote according to conscience, with sensitivity to the general good”.

One Church leader, Bishop Wiesław Mering of Włocławek, took up the cudgels in January, when Martin Schulz, the German president of the European Parliament, told newspapers he feared Poland was facing “a coup d’etat”.

Bishop Mering told Schulz in an open letter: “I assure you the election of a president and government aren’t proof of a lack of democracy – the elections show most ordinary citizens want changes. The problem is that those who held power till now are losing out from this decision. They don’t want to submit to the voters’ verdict and are now using the European Parliament to advance their interests.”

But Polish Radio presenter Glabisz-Pniewska thinks the bishops’ conference as a whole has made a conscious decision not to involve itself. Even when Lech Wałęsa, the fabled Solidarity leader and former president, was accused in February of being a secret police informant during communist times, only a handful of churchmen came to
his defence.

This may also account for the angry reaction to Comece’s recent intervention on the part of the Polish bishops’ conference, whose threat to pull out of the Brussels-based commission was reported by the French Catholic La Croix newspaper.

The offending Europe-Infos article, written by Henryk Woźniakowski, a Polish Catholic linked to the PO, accused the PiS government of extending police surveillance and “restricting the mechanism of checks and balances”, and urged the rest of Europe “to be alarmed”. Such claims were dismissed as a “subjective opinion” by Bishop Mizinski, who accused Comece of “interfering in Poland’s internal affairs” and prevailed on it to withdraw the article.

But Comece’s British secretary-general, Fr Patrick Kelly, has accused the Polish bishops of “heavy-handed censorship”, while Europe-Infos’s Jesuit editor, Fr Martin Maier, has charged them with using “the argument of authority” rather than the “authority of the arguments”.

Critics claim that Comece’s mostly lay staffers have sought to align Europe’s Catholic bishops with the anti-PiS lobby, and look to Fr Kelly’s newly appointed French successor, Fr Olivier Poquillon, to intervene to restore balance.

In Poland itself the feuding shows no sign of abating, as the controversial new government presses ahead with plans to lower the retirement age, protect rent-payers and raise child subsidies, as well as curbing huge pay-offs to state company bosses and opening government contracts to competitive bidding. Last month, as thousands of opposition backers again took to the streets of Warsaw and other towns, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński vowed that Poles would “solve their disputes by themselves”.

“After its years of power,” Glabisz-Pniewska said, “the Civic Platform seems to have taken its permanent rule for granted and failed to anticipate that Poland’s interests may be defined differently by a newly elected government. I’d urge people abroad to make sure they’re properly informed before they rush to judgment. It’s interference from outside which is the real threat to democracy here.”

Jonathan Luxmoore covers Church news from Warsaw and Oxford. His ground-breaking two-volume study of communist era martyrs, The God of the Gulag, has just been published by Gracewing.