Pope Francis' liberal stance not shared by Polish Catholic Church

Pope FrancisWARSAW – During communist rule in Poland, the Catholic Church was seen as an institution embodying the resiliency of the nation's identity under a repressive regime.

But today, as the Catholic Church of Pope Francis moves toward modernity and pluralism, the Polish Catholic Church has pulled an about-face.

Becoming increasingly hardline in its stances, the Polish Catholic Church has doubled down on the socially conservative policies of the nation's rightwing government, dividing an overwhelmingly Catholic body politic striving to live in the present while trying to preserve its national identity and historical legacy.

As a result, many Poles are beginning to lose the 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 Bożena Kampa, 31, a 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 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 between the Polish diaspora scattered throughout the region.

The church also took on a central role during the nation's turbulent post-war communist era, organizing resistance movements and protecting dissidents against an areligious political system it 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 Münster in Germany. "Poland was divided (in the 18th century) 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."

But when Poland moved to embrace Western values after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Catholic Church failed to modernize, even though many Poles welcomed more liberal social norms and economic upturn, especially in urban enclaves such as Warsaw and Krakow.

Fearing irrelevancy, the Catholic church entrenched itself in its hardline values on sexuality, migration and reproductive rights, and used its cultural might and historical association with Polish identity 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 Püttmann, 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."

It's a phenomenon that's only intensified with the rise 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.

And 2015's refugee crisis in Europe, which brought millions of migrants to the continent seeking asylum, only exacerbated the development.

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

Migrants to Europe have brought diseases like 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," Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland's former prime minister and the current leader of the Law and Justice party said at a political rally in 2015.

Catholic clergymen in Poland deny the church's direct influence on political matters but applaud Law and Justice's achievements on family policies. Law and Justice is currently working toward effectively outlawing abortion in Poland with a law that strikes current allowances for the procedure 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 Father 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, whose calls for cultural pluralism and moral tolerance often stand at loggerheads with the Polish clergy.

It's created a fissure within Polish society between liberal modernity and the nation's traditional Catholic identity, and resulted in a decreased approval of the Polish church, said Püttmann: Only 54 percent of Poles view the church positively, according to a recent 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 recent surveys, and Catholic Poles turned out in record numbers late last year to pray for the nation's survival at its borders, an event 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, Püttmann believes the Catholic church's influence in Poland is waning, not least because it's refused to modernize in favor of supporting political parties like Law and Justice.

"The future perspective for the church is one that is ever-shrinking," he said, adding that Law and Justice will sooner or later be voted out of office for ignoring the liberalization of society. "And if the Catholic Church continues to stand there as a companion of this party, then they will get handed a (bill) for their actions."

A version of this story can be found in The Washington Times
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