Poland’s Marriage of Politics and Religion Is Constricting the Church

As an election looms, the country’s progressive Catholics keep the faith despite the growing closeness of many bishops to the ruling party’s conservative nationalism

Poland’s Marriage of Politics and Religion Is Constricting the Church
Candles and banners at the “Not one more” protest held in June at the Women’s Rights Square in Krakow, Poland. (Klaudia Radecka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

When Maciej Biskup, a Dominican friar, agreed to give a sermon during an interfaith service held in late May for victims of discrimination, he sought to preach moderation and mutual tolerance. Instead, he found himself at the center of yet another twist in Poland’s bitter culture war.

Biskup’s address at the service in Warsaw, which marked the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, was hardly revolutionary. As he stood behind an altar covered with a rainbow flag, he spoke of Jesus “being hurt by all intolerance and contempt, every life cut short by harassment, mockery and marginalization.” He did not reference same-sex unions or marriages, nor did he speak of the legal and medical issues about gender transitioning.

Ultimately, his words were of little import. It was the flag atop the altar that fired up social media and conservative news outlets. Within days, Biskup woke up to read an open letter from a Catholic activist comparing the “neo-Marxist” service to Judas’ betrayal of Christ. Twitter posts by a vocal anti-abortion campaigner accused the friar of “serious heresy,” while other internet users branded him a “parasite on the body of the church” and called for his excommunication.

“The right-wing internet exploded,” summed up Uschi Pawlik from Faith and Rainbow, a Polish support network for LGBTQ Christians that organized the service.

Pawlik argued that Biskup’s sermon had not gone “an inch beyond” conventional Catholic teaching, which continues to regard homosexual acts as sinful. “He spoke of Jesus being there for everyone. I even inwardly laughed to myself at times, because his address was so conservative. There was nothing to take issue with,” she said. The service was held at Warsaw’s sole Reformed Evangelical church, whose pastor Pawlik described as a longtime ally, rather than a Catholic one.

Despite everything, the online hate Biskup received was scarcely a surprise for Pawlik, who has coordinated Faith and Rainbow’s Warsaw chapter since 2016. She said the organization’s goal is to connect and support those who want to hold on to both their LGBTQ identities and their Christian faith. Besides running support groups across Poland, Faith and Rainbow sets up meeting spaces at events ranging from pilgrimages to music festivals. In 2016, it spearheaded a public campaign arguing that religion and LGBTQ rights need not stand in opposition. Its main slogan was “Let us offer each other a sign of peace.”

In Poland’s polarized political landscape, that remains a radical call. Over the past several years, prominent church leaders and clerics have thrown their support behind the conservative-nationalist ruling party, Law and Justice, which since 2019 has made anti-LGBTQ rhetoric a central plank of its messaging. Protests over reproductive rights and the handling of sexual abuse by clergy are drawing politics and religion even closer together, leaving progressive Catholics adrift and diminishing the church’s appeal, especially among the young.

A general election is now fast approaching, with the opposition and many Polish nongovernmental organizations casting it as one last chance to reverse the country’s right-wing, illiberal drift. Pawlik spoke of LGBTQ people’s apprehension, and her own, about the ongoing electoral campaign. “Members of the community are sitting tight and wondering which quarter we will get attacked from. That we will get attacked is not in doubt,” she told New Lines.

The Polish opposition has attempted to build a broad coalition ahead of the vote, scheduled for Oct. 15, in a bid to end Law and Justice’s nearly eight-year rule, marked by repeated calls to defend “Christian values,” as well as what the party’s critics describe as attempts to bring the judiciary and law enforcement under its control. The first weeks of the campaign have seen renewed attempts from Law and Justice party officials to cast themselves as guardians of Polish tradition and “national honor.” Senior party figures have sought to stir anti-German sentiment ahead of the election, exploiting older Poles’ World War II trauma while claiming that Berlin wields outsize influence in Europe. The education ministry, meanwhile, tried to double down on reforms that would bar NGOs it suspects of “sexualizing children” — including by preaching acceptance of different sexual orientations and transgender people — from schools and kindergartens.

To justify her fears, Pawlik pointed to Poland’s last major electoral campaign, ahead of the presidential vote in the summer of 2020. The education minister who now warns of children being “sexualized,” Przemyslaw Czarnek, made headlines in June that year by quipping on TV that LGBTQ Poles “could not be equal to normal people.” That same month, President Andrzej Duda, then running for reelection, appeared to suggest that an LGBTQ “ideology” presented a graver threat to Poland than communism — a potent statement in a country still scarred by over four decades of Soviet domination following WWII.

Though a committed Christian herself, Pawlik was quick to argue that the Catholic Church has been adding fuel to the fire. As the 2020 electoral campaign went on, Polish media began paying attention to rhetoric coming from church leaders, including Krakow’s firebrand archbishop Marek Jedraszewski, whose sermons blasted LGBTQ activism as “the rainbow plague.” An auxiliary bishop in northern Poland described calls for LGBTQ rights as “sick,” while another spoke of Pride parades as “steeped in murderous [communist] ideology.” In 2021, Tadeusz Rydzyk, a Redemptorist monk who controls an influential ultraconservative radio and TV station, used a Bible verse to suggest that anyone organizing school talks on sexual and gender diversity should “have a large millstone hung around their neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Public anger also flared up in late 2020 after Poland’s top court ruled against abortion due to fetal defects, which at the time accounted for over 90% of legal terminations in the country. The government implemented a ban early the next year, citing Catholic teaching and receiving public plaudits from senior church officials. Some protest signs at the mass demonstrations that continue to rock Poland following the court ruling show pregnant female bodies nailed to crosses.

In October 2021, Poles took to the streets over the first death publicly linked to the toughened rules. A woman named only as Izabela, 30 years old and 22 weeks pregnant, went into septic shock after doctors in southern Poland refused a possibly life-saving abortion.

“Not one woman more,” the protesters chanted. Yet more deaths have followed, including that of 37-year-old Agnieszka in January 2022 and 33-year-old Dorota last May. To clarify, abortion due to a risk to the mother’s life remains technically legal, but because the onus is on doctors if they are deemed to have violated the restrictive abortion laws, they are better protected from prosecution if they wait for the fetus’s heart to stop beating before intervening.

The perceived alliance between the church and Law and Justice has coincided with shocking clerical abuse revelations, leading many Poles — especially young ones — to vote with their feet. A 2018 Pew Research Center study pointed to record rates of secularization, with Poland seeing the largest gap between the levels of religious devotion professed by under- and over-40s out of over 100 participating countries. A 2021 study by leading Polish pollster CBOS suggested that the number of churchgoers ages 18 to 25 had fallen by half in the previous six years. It also noted decreases across all other age groups.

For Pawlik, more worrying than extreme statements from rogue clerics is an apparent unwillingness by official church bodies to push back on their claims. She cited a pastoral letter issued by the Polish Bishops’ Conference, the highest official church body, days after the city of Warsaw in 2019 adopted a so-called “LGBT+ Declaration” outlining plans to curb hate crime and support vulnerable youth. The letter claimed that the policies threatened to “deprave and demoralize children” and asserted that the declaration could pave the way for schools to promote masturbation.

Another Warsaw-based Catholic campaigner, Marta Titaniec, similarly said that she was disappointed by the bishops’ failure to show compassion and moral leadership amid social strife. During the 2015 migrant crisis, the Law and Justice government sought to cast the influx into Europe of largely Muslim Middle Easterners and Afghans as a terror threat. More recently, it has played on similar fears as would-be asylum seekers, many coming from majority-Muslim countries, have gathered at Poland’s eastern border with Belarus. Both Warsaw and EU bodies have accused the latter’s pro-Kremlin authorities of luring migrants, from Iraqi Kurds and Iranians to those from Eritrea and Cameroon, with false promises of an easy journey west. Many have perished in the borderland’s dense forests, trapped between Polish pushbacks and mistreatment by Belarusian border guards.

Titaniec, who coordinates humanitarian projects at the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia association in Warsaw, called for “humanitarian corridors” for migrants back in 2015 and has also volunteered at the Belarusian border. She described the voice of the Polish church during both crises as very weak.

“I don’t know if [the church’s silence] has been due to any sympathy for the ruling party or the broader context of Belarus and Russia’s attempts to destabilize Europe,” Titaniec said. “That context is there, but what does that change in a situation where people need help?”

Despite her disappointment, she didn’t think twice when asked in late 2019 to lead a church-sponsored foundation supporting victims of clerical abuse. A sense of urgency was in the air: Barely a few months before, a pioneering documentary lifted the lid on the scale of the issue, leaving both devout and secular Poles scrambling for answers.

“Tell No One,” by the filmmaker brothers Tomasz and Marek Sekielski, focuses on nine Catholic priests accused of decades of abuse. Audiences were shocked by the graphic details. One woman spoke of being raped by a priest at the age of 7; another man said he had been locked up on parish premises and repeatedly molested.

The film also shows how church authorities repeatedly fail to punish perpetrators. One of the priests is seen leading children’s retreats, despite a criminal conviction against him. Others are moved between parishes whenever complaints surface.

“We realized that this is not just a Western issue; we’re also in crisis,” Titaniec said, referring to child and other sexual abuse within the church.

The St. Joseph Foundation, which she now heads, is financed from annual contributions by Polish clergy. The bishops’ conference in the fall of 2019 voted against voluntarily compensating survivors, rattling many campaigners. Titaniec didn’t want to speculate on church leaders’ motives, saying they had nevertheless recognized that “some form of help is necessary.”

The foundation now operates a helpline for survivors of child abuse and those who were targeted as vulnerable adults. Titaniec said it offers psychological and medical help, as well as support with education and training. “Some people come to us to access counseling while at the same time pressing civil claims for compensation. That’s their right; I don’t see a conflict here,” she commented.

She described the case of a woman whom the foundation is supporting through college. “As part of the abuse she endured, she was pressured to train as a religion teacher. She now says she doesn’t want to teach anymore; she wants to fully close that chapter. So we’re paying her university fees,” Titaniec said.

The issue of clerical abuse flared up again this past March, after the publication in Poland of a book by the Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek that accused Pope John Paul II of helping cover up abuse while serving as archbishop of Krakow in the 1960s and ’70s. The Law and Justice government wasted no time in pushing through a parliamentary resolution that condemned the book and proclaimed a need to defend “the great Polish pope.”

For weeks, Warsaw saw rival demonstrations converge on the churches that dot its historic heart. Some protesters carried banners calling for “justice for survivors”; children’s shoes were left outside church gates as a symbol of the victims’ trauma. Others, including conservative and nationalist activists, accused Overbeek of manipulating evidence and being part of a smear campaign against Polish Catholics.

Titaniec wouldn’t comment on the extent of the pope’s personal responsibility but said that she regretted the “politicization” of the debate about Overbeek’s book. She argued that both sides were losing sight of survivors’ suffering. “I’d like to see more consideration for their perspective, for example with regard to opening archives,” she said. She described a phone call from one woman who she said had “begged” the foundation to prevent her case file from being made public, saying that she wanted to avoid media attention. “Some people are still terrified,” Titaniec said, citing social stigma. “Access to church archives is necessary, and the law should allow for investigating historical cases — but let’s respect survivors’ sensibilities.”

Ignacy Dudkiewicz, editor-in-chief of the Warsaw-based Kontakt magazine, which describes itself as “Catholic-leftist,” said that it often falls to laypeople like Titaniec and the Kontakt team to take the lead on pressing social issues. He argued that Polish Catholics need to “move away from mental dependence on the bishops.”

“We keep waiting for them to speak out. There’s just no time,” he said.

“Mental independence” is a theme Dudkiewicz returns to often. He explained that, in a Polish context, a good dose of it was needed to imagine a fruitful fusion of Christian and leftist ideas to begin with. In a country where families and communities are bitterly divided by politics, the fault lines tend to be clearly drawn, with anyone talking about faith expected to voice conservative and nationalist views. “In Poland, a Catholic leftist is an exotic beast,” Dudkiewicz said, laughing.

He spoke with admiration of what he called “a lively debate within Christianity and Catholicism” elsewhere in the world, including Latin America, the U.S. and Germany. He argued that Kontakt’s other priority is introducing Polish audiences to this wealth of thought, publishing thinkers from countries as diverse as Ireland, Brazil and the Philippines.

Both Dudkiewicz and Pawlik, the Christian LGBTQ activist, described the atmosphere within the Polish church as hostile to intellectual debate. “The Polish church is very traditional, based on a not very refined theology, and sets itself in opposition to the modern world and science. That’s why discriminatory attitudes are so deeply rooted,” Pawlik said.

Dudkiewicz argued that Polish Catholics needed to look past bishops’ statements and the often politicized sermons of parish priests. However, he acknowledged the difficulty of doing so in a society “where the priest and the bishop were always fundamental for the functioning of the church,” especially during communist times when religion was persecuted.

Stanislaw Obirek, a theologian and former Jesuit priest who now teaches cultural anthropology at the University of Warsaw, concurred that the Polish church’s attachment to strict hierarchies and the leading role of the clergy — including a deep devotion to the figure of John Paul II — has stymied reform.

Obirek cited the hardships the church faced under communism as engendering a “fortress mentality,” even among clerics who were once intellectually curious. Historians of the Polish church usually highlight the role of Karol Wojtyla, the later John Paul II and Stefan Wyszynski, the cardinal who, for nearly four decades, was Polish Catholicism’s ceremonial leader, in ensuring its survival as an independent institution amid pressure from the Polish Communist Party and its apparatus of repression.

“In his teachings, Wyszynski drew primarily on folk religiosity, while Wojtyla was a philosopher who had close contact with intellectuals. Despite that, both leaders believed that Catholicism possesses a truth that others should learn from,” Obirek said.

In a book explaining his decision to leave the Jesuit order (“A Narrow Path. Why I Left the Church”), published in Poland in 2020, Obirek accused John Paul II of promoting deeply conservative, often Polish clerics to senior posts within the Vatican, despite their lack of academic credentials and experience. He also spoke of John Paul’s “extreme” unwillingness to engage with the liberation theology then sweeping Latin America, dismissing it as a “Marxist infiltration” of the church and sidelining the Jesuits — for centuries seen by popes as valuable experts on doctrine — for fear that they were excessively influenced by it.

“It’s obvious that leaders [like Wyszynski and John Paul II] were not interested in pluralism within the church, or internal criticism. The same approach led them to see lay people as fully subordinate to the clergy,” Obirek wrote via email.

Since Poland embraced democracy in 1989, successive governments have publicly deferred to the church and offered it ample state subsidies, partly in recognition of past persecution and the support it lent to anti-communist groups. Yet Obirek argued that what he called church leaders’ “fortress mentality” is here to stay.

Despite that, some Polish Catholic circles have long been eager to embrace a more intellectual vision of the faith. Since communist times, religious and questioning thinkers have debated philosophical, political and social issues in the pages of Tygodnik Powszechny, a weekly magazine based in Krakow for which Obirek himself is a columnist.

For decades, Tygodnik operated out of a historic town house owned by the Krakow archdiocese. The building was heavy with historical significance, having hosted prominent contributors such as the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz and the future John Paul II himself. That history ended in January 2021 with a surprise letter from the office of Marek Jedraszewski — the Krakow archbishop whose sermons have painted LGBTQ people as “the rainbow plague” — that terminated the magazine’s lease. An eleventh-hour fundraiser eventually secured a new home for it in southwestern Krakow.

Although no official reason was given, and the archbishop’s office would offer no comment, Tygodnik staffers and other Polish media speculated that he opposed the magazine’s editorial line. The eviction “was handled in accordance with the law, but we were given the shortest notice period possible,” said Piotr Sikora, a philosopher and theologian who co-edits Tygodnik’s “Faith” section.

Long before its forced move across Krakow, the magazine proclaimed its ambition to be “a space of respite and wonder” for its readers, cutting across partisan lines to showcase nuanced arguments on social, cultural and religious matters. Regular contributors have included feminist theologians and Poland’s first-ever woman rabbi, as well as the relatively liberal bishop of the central Lodz region.

“Catholic orthodoxy is broader and richer than is colloquially understood,” Sikora said. He added that debates similar to those playing out on Tygodnik’s pages are likely conducted among church leaders, behind closed doors. “There are only a handful of bishops in Poland who clearly come out in support of one political option, but they are vocal, while others tend to speak in riddles,” he commented. “They have decided not to criticize each other publicly. So when [Krakow archbishop] Marek Jedraszewski says something clearly political, the others will issue a broad, somewhat vague letter trying to distance themselves.”

Everyone from Obirek to Titaniec agreed that Poland is likely to see an accelerating retreat from religion. Dudkiewicz, the left-wing magazine editor, joked that he hoped not to be left in the church on his own, “with just extreme nationalists for company.”

Both he and Obirek drew parallels between contemporary Poland and Ireland at the turn of the millennium: There, too, a once deeply powerful Catholic church resisted calls for reform brought on by rising prosperity and revelations of clerical abuse. Both predicted that, as in Ireland, waning crowds of churchgoers would lead bishops to harden their stance on social issues, likely swelling the ranks of those abandoning the faith.

“I don’t see secularization as negative or dangerous to social cohesion,” Obirek commented. He added that, given the church’s perceived closeness to the ruling right and Poland’s partisan divides, he didn’t expect Christian ideas to be a moderating force in public debate, especially as campaigning ramps up ahead of the election on Oct. 15.

“I think the current alliance between religion and politics will result in a rapid de-Christianization,” he said, predicting that the upcoming vote would bring both political change and Catholicism’s marginalization in the public sphere. “In my opinion, Christianity has exhausted its cultural potential in Poland,” Obirek commented, adding that most of his young students at the University of Warsaw found the apparent closeness between the church and Poland’s conservative rulers “deeply off-putting.”

Dudkiewicz and Pawlik disagreed. Though neither cast secularization as a social ill, both spoke of Christian tradition as a source of compelling narratives about each person’s inherent worth, allowing for a kinder approach toward vulnerable and marginalized groups. “That is perhaps the greatest advantage a Catholic left might have over a secular one,” Dudkiewicz argued. “Christianity gives a certain spiritual depth to the slogans of the French Revolution — liberty, equality, fraternity,” he added, laughing.

When asked how they, as Catholics, should personally respond to the challenges of secularization, Dudkiewicz, Pawlik and Titaniec all gave the same response: by making sure their lives and work set an example of Christian compassion and love.

“If people fleeing wars or hunger are dying at the Polish border, then our task as Christians is to go to the border. If the Polish church has for so many years failed to create a helpline for victims of clerical abuse, then that is our task — to put the Gospel into practice,” Dudkiewicz argued.

“We’re not building a new church,” Titaniec concurred. “My dream is to see the church become as Jesus said it should be.”

Both said they were guided by the same quote, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”

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