Poland tries to hold foot­ing as Catholic Church shifts

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY KAROL BULSKI AND AUSTIN DAVIS

WAR­SAW | Dur­ing the long pe­riod of com­mu­nist rule in Poland, the Catholic Church was seen as an in­sti­tu­tion em­body­ing the re­siliency of the na­tion’s iden­tity, a prag­matic coun­ter­force to a re­pres­sive, of­fi­cially athe­is­tic regime.

But as the Catholic Church of Pope Francis has em­braced a lib­eral ver­sion of the faith stress­ing moder­nity and plu­ral­ism, the Pol­ish Catholic Church has pulled an about-face, po­si­tion­ing it­self as an an­chor for tra­di­tional val­ues — and an ally of the gov­ern­ment here — in the face of lib­eral de­mands for change.

In one of the West’s most heav­ily Catholic coun­tries, the Pol­ish church has em­braced and de­fended the so­cially con­ser­va­tive poli­cies of the na­tion’s na­tion­al­ist gov­ern­ment, di­vid­ing an over­whelm­ingly Catholic body politic striv­ing to re­vive links to Western Europe and lib­eral po­lit­i­cal cur­rent while try­ing to pro­tect Poland’s unique­ness and his­tor­i­cal legacy.

The balancing act, how­ever, has led many Poles to ques­tion their faith.

“While Pope Francis meets so­ci­ety’s ex­pec­ta­tions, lead­ing the church into the fu­ture, I have the im­pres­sion that the ideas of the church in Poland are lead­ing it into the past,” said Bozena Kampa, a 31-yearold lawyer in Krakow who iden­ti­fies as Catholic but doesn’t sup­port the church. “Peo­ple will be­come more aloof un­less the church deeply re­forms.”

Over 90 per­cent of Poland’s 38 mil­lion cit­i­zens iden­tify as Catholics, and 64 per­cent of Poles say that be­ing Catholic is in­te­gral to what it means to be Pol­ish, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 Pew Re­search study.

The strength and author­ity of the Catholic Church in Poland dates back to the 18th cen­tury, when the na­tion was di­vided among Europe’s con­quer­ing pow­ers. The Catholic faith served as a bind­ing agent for the Pol­ish di­as­pora through­out the re­gion.

The church also took on a cen­tral role dur­ing the na­tion’s tur­bu­lent Cold War com­mu­nist era, or­ga­niz­ing re­sis­tance move­ments and pro­tect­ing dis­si­dents against a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that the church saw as “un-Pol­ish.”

“To be a good Pole means to be a good Catholic,” said Detlef Pol­lack, a pro­fes­sor of re­li­gious so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Muen­ster in Ger­many. “Poland was di­vided, and the church stood for na­tional au­ton­omy. This can’t be for­got­ten: The church was and is still seen as the pro­tec­tor of na­tional iden­tity.”

Poland’s tra­di­tional Catholi­cism meshed well with the Vat­i­can un­der the pa­pacy of John Paul II, the first Pol­ish pope who was seen as a global hero for his wily re­sis­tance to com­mu­nism but con­sid­ered a tra­di­tion­al­ist within the church. Pope Bene­dict XVI was also seen as a cham­pion of con­ser­va­tive Catholic val­ues.

But when Poland moved to em­brace Western val­ues af­ter the fall of the Iron Cur­tain, the Catholic Church strug­gled with the shift­ing po­lit­i­cal land­scape. Many Poles, though, wel­comed more lib­eral so­cial norms and mem­ber­ship in the Euro­pean Union, es­pe­cially in ur­ban en­claves such as War­saw and Krakow.

Fear­ing ir­rel­e­vancy, the Catholic Church en­trenched it­self in its tra­di­tional stances on sex­u­al­ity, mi­gra­tion and abor­tion, and used its cul­tural might and his­tor­i­cal as­so­ci­a­tion with Pol­ish iden­tity as a lever to in­flu­ence pol­icy.

“They were given the free­dom they’d fought for against com­mu­nist op­pres­sors, but that was a fight against a spe­cific evil,” said Andreas Puttmann, a Ger­man po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, au­thor and Catholic com­men­ta­tor. “It didn’t mean they wanted to cre­ate free­doms for other mi­nori­ties who didn’t share their own moral views.”

The Pol­ish church is not mono­lithic. Di­vi­sions sur­faced in Jan­uary when the Rev. Lud­wik Wis­niewski, an 81-year-old Do­mini­can priest, pub­lished a sharp at­tack on the gov­ern­ment and the Pol­ish Catholic hi­er­ar­chy for driv­ing away the faith­ful with di­vi­sive poli­cies and hos­til­ity to­ward im­mi­grants.

“Be­fore our eyes, Chris­tian­ity is dy­ing in Poland,” Fa­ther Wis­niewski wrote, “while our bish­ops are sadly silent.”

Refugee cri­sis

The phe­nom­e­non has only in­ten­si­fied with the po­lit­i­cal suc­cess of Poland’s rul­ing Law and Jus­tice party, whose so­cially con­ser­va­tive and na­tion­al­ist stances have in­creas­ingly mir­rored those of the Catholic Church in an at­tempt to present it­self as the party of Pol­ish iden­tity.

The 2015 refugee cri­sis that brought mil­lions of asy­lum seek­ers to Europe only ex­ac­er­bated the de­vel­op­ment. Re­sent­ment against what were seen as EU dic­tates from Brus­sels were ex­pressed in coun­tries across East­ern Europe, but the po­lit­i­cal force of the Catholic Church gave Poland’s re­sis­tance a dif­fer­ent fla­vor.

Though Poland has set­tled few refugees com­pared with Ger­many and other Euro­pean na­tions, the Catholic Church and Law and Jus­tice party of­fi­cials have stoked fears of in­creas­ing Is­lamic in­flu­ence in the na­tion.

Mi­grants to Europe have brought dis­eases such as cholera and dysen­tery, as well as “all sorts of par­a­sites and pro­to­zoa, which … while not dan­ger­ous in the or­gan­isms of these peo­ple, could be dan­ger­ous here,” Jaroslaw Kaczyn­ski, a for­mer Pol­ish prime min­is­ter and the cur­rent leader of the Law and Jus­tice party, said at a po­lit­i­cal rally in 2015.

Catholic cler­gy­men in Poland deny that the church seeks a di­rect in­flu­ence on po­lit­i­cal mat­ters but ap­plaud the rul­ing party’s stances on fam­ily poli­cies. Law and Jus­tice is work­ing to­ward ef­fec­tively out­law­ing abor­tion in Poland with leg­is­la­tion that strikes cur­rent al­lowances in the case of fe­tal de­for­mi­ties, which con­sti­tute 95 per­cent of ter­mi­nated preg­nan­cies in the coun­try.

“Law and Jus­tice de­clares re­spect and faith­ful­ness to Catholic so­cial science,” said the Rev. Grze­gorz Kurp, a spokesman for the War­saw So­ci­ety of the Catholic Apos­to­late. “We can’t deny their achieve­ments on mat­ters such as fam­ily poli­cies.”

But as the gov­ern­ment and the church in Poland move in­creas­ingly to the right, the Catholic Church at large is em­brac­ing lib­eral re­forms dur­ing the ten­ure of Pope Francis. The Ar­gen­tine pope’s calls for cul­tural plu­ral­ism, moral tol­er­ance and a will­ing­ness to chal­lenge tra­di­tional Catholic doc­trine and prac­tice of­ten stand at log­ger­heads with the Pol­ish clergy.

It has cre­ated a fis­sure within Pol­ish so­ci­ety and re­sulted in a de­creased ap­proval of the Pol­ish church, said Mr. Puttmann. Only 54 per­cent of Poles view the church pos­i­tively, ac­cord­ing to a Pol­ish Cen­ter for Pub­lic Re­search poll.

Even so, in an era of creep­ing na­tion­al­ism across Europe, many Poles still ad­here to faith-based po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Law and Jus­tice is still polling at 39 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to sur­veys, and Catholic Poles turned out in record num­bers late last year to pray for the na­tion’s sur­vival at its bor­ders, an event that many viewed as a state­ment against im­mi­gra­tion.

“When it comes to elec­tions, I am more likely to vote for par­ties sup­port­ing val­ues preached by the church,” said Marcin Kielak, 33, of War­saw, who works in mar­ket­ing. “Hu­mans, in ac­cor­dance with their con­science, must be aware of their re­spon­si­bil­ity and the con­se­quences of their deeds.”

Still, Mr. Puttmann ar­gues that the Catholic Church’s in­flu­ence in Poland is wan­ing, not least be­cause of its close as­so­ci­a­tion with the Law and Jus­tice party.

“The fu­ture per­spec­tive for the church is one that is ever-shrink­ing,” he said, adding that the church’s po­si­tion may be­come pre­car­i­ous if and when the rul­ing party is voted out of of­fice.

“If the Catholic Church con­tin­ues to stand there as a com­pan­ion of this party, then they will get handed a [bill] for their ac­tions.”

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