Poland’s bishops recently commemorated the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War with their German counterparts. Their shared message was a chance to evoke the heroic legacy of the Polish Church’s past struggles for democracy and human rights.
Today, some Poles fear that legacy is being tarnished, as new scandals and controversies threaten the Church’s authority. Yet others insist the Church will weather the latest storms and may well emerge, in a distinctively Polish paradox, stronger and more self-assured than ever.
In the three decades since communist rule ended, the Polish Church has faced numerous assaults on its public role, on issues from abortion and school religion to accusations of financial misconduct and secret-police infiltration.
Charges had long been levelled that it had also failed to act against sexual abuse by its priests, concealing and ignoring flagrant criminality. These exploded into the open a year ago when a graphic anti-clerical drama, Kler (“Clergy”), broke cinema box-office records.
The bishops responded by apologising to “God, the victims, their families and the Church community” for the abuse and promising to combat the “moral and spiritual corruption” which had caused it.
But in February, as a long-awaited child protection summit opened in the Vatican, a Polish victims support group, Nie Lękajcie Się (“Do Not Be Afraid”), presented a report to the Pope accusing 24 serving and retired Church leaders of “concealing clerical crimes”.
Although the report’s claims were disputed, it fuelled pressure for the Church to act; and at a March plenary, attended by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Polish bishops’ conference published its own report, conceding that there had been “a certain ignorance” of canonical rules against abuse, as well as “differences of reliability” between Polish dioceses and religious orders in responding to it.
Even then, Poland’s secular media accused the conference of selectiveness. And in May, a major blow was struck by a YouTube documentary, Tylko nie mów nikomu (“Just Don’t Tell Anyone”), portraying the evasive behaviour of perpetrators when confronted by victims and linking the problem with secretive Church structures. This time, the Church’s reaction was more conciliatory. In a pastoral message, the bishops thanked the film’s makers for highlighting the plight of abuse victims and promised to appoint experts to foster greater awareness in Catholic communities.
“By presenting the perspective of those harmed, this film has alerted us to the magnitude of their suffering,” the message concluded. “There are no words to express our shame. We thank everyone who had the courage to talk.”
Not even this could satisfy the Church’s harshest critics, with some Catholics vowing to boycott Masses attended by implicated Church leaders. A prominent priest, Mgr Andrzej Szostek, former rector of Lublin’s Catholic University, called on the whole hierarchy to resign. In two surveys by the Warsaw-based Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), the Polish Church’s public approval rating plummeted to a 24-year low.
Alarmingly, the abuse controversy sparked a spate of violent attacks on clergy and places of worship; and it was over this that Polish Church leaders launched a fight-back in June on Corpus Christi, which also marked 40 years since the first homecoming pilgrimage of St John Paul II, the country’s supreme national symbol.
By then, gay and lesbian groups, long complaining of discrimination, had begun a series of equality marches, demanding legal changes to allow same-sex marriage and adoption, as well as LGBT awareness classes at Polish schools.
During some rallies, in Częstochowa, Gdańsk, Kraków and other cities, protesters waving the distinctive LGBT rainbow banner had incensed Poland’s bishops by parodying images of the Virgin Mary and other Christian symbols.
In July, Archbishop Tadeusz Wojda of Białystok was accused by media commentators of inciting violence: an equality march in his city was disrupted by aggressive counter-protesters after he had branded it a “discriminatory act against Catholics”. He also accused LGBT campaigners of “profaning sacred symbols and uttering blasphemies against God”. (Some marchers, for example, had carried the revered image of Our Lady of Częstochowa with an added rainbow halo.)
On August 1, in a televised homily commemorating Poland’s 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, Archbishop Marek Jędraszewski of Kraków also denounced LGBT campaigners.
“The red pestilence no longer marches across our land, but a new, neo-Marxist one has appeared, which seeks to conquer spirits, hearts and minds – not red, but rainbow,” Archbishop Jędraszewski told his massed congregation.
“The greatest tolerance becomes the height of intolerance when violence, humiliation and sneers against sacred symbols issue from mouths proclaiming fairness … We are called to stand against this and defend authentic freedom,” he said.
Fierce reactions ensued, both for and against Jędraszewski, prompting a reminder from the Polish bishops’ conference president, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, that gays and lesbians should been seen as “brothers and sisters”.
But attacks on the Church indicated a “totalitarianism of outlook”, Gądecki added in a mid-August statement. He urged Polish parliamentarians not to support proposed laws on same-sex marriage and child adoption, and called on local officials not to be swayed by “an ideology which denies natural sexual differences”, “aims at a revolution in social norms and inter-personal relations”, and “brandishes a flag of freedom while inflicting spiritual and material devastation”.
With a crucial parliamentary ballot looming this autumn, the Church’s confrontation with LGBT groups carries political implications.
Despite a barrage of attacks at home and abroad on its controversial reform programme, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) prevailed in May’s European Parliament elections, and is set to win again on October 13, though without the absolute majority it gained four years ago.
PiS’s support is strongest in Poland’s traditional Catholic heartlands, and critics have accused it of using the LGBT controversy to instil panic by suggesting the country’s Christian culture and identity are under assault by externally backed ideological movements.
While keeping a careful distance from PiS, Poland’s bishops have a keen grasp of public opinion. Though their vociferous liberal critics may dominate the media, they know they can count on support from Poland’s silent majority, which has no great love for the Church’s leaders but will nevertheless defend the Catholic faith when it appears under attack.
The bishops can seek to persuade Catholics the sexual abuse problem is marginal – affecting 0.8 per cent of clergy, according by Poland’s Catholic Information Agency in March – and that they are now doing more to tackle it than teachers, doctors and other groups.
Meanwhile, though most Poles accept gay and lesbian rights in principle, opinion data suggest there’s little popular backing for LGBT demands. And with most Polish bishops echoing Archbishop Gądecki’s defence of traditional values, there are signs the Church’s fight-back is working.
By late June, CBOS had recorded a five per cent recovery in the Church’s approval rating. And while dissatisfaction remained high, another four per cent approval increase was registered in early September.
Several dozen city councils have issued regulations curbing LGBT campaigns, while some have called off plans for the school LGBT awareness classes in the face of Church appeals.
With Catholics making up 85.8 per cent of the population of 38 million, according to a 2018 statistical yearbook, the Polish Church still provides a large proportion of all vocations in Europe, and is needed as a well-organised, articulate voice in international moral and religious discourses.
Its harshest opponents will go on fighting against it whatever it does to assuage criticisms, while its most committed supporters will continue defending it, despite the damage inflicted by a corrupt minority.
That at least is nothing new. Having survived Nazi and Soviet invasions in 1939, and eight subsequent decades of war, communist repression and turbulent democracy, the Polish Church looks set to recover from the latest wave of adverse publicity.
Jonathan Luxmoore covers Church news from Warsaw and Oxford