My remarks about the present condition and role of the Catholic Church in Poland are not based on the formal sociological research, for I am not a sociologist. I would like just to share some observations and concerns which I live through as Christian and priest. My report is mostly based on the personal experience, but in spite of the subjective prospective I seek to objectivize my views as much as possible by taking into account a broader context.
1. Looking Through the Prism of Statistics
First let us ask what the statistics say about the Catholic Church in Poland. In the context of the Western countries of Europe the Catholic Church in my country manifests to be quite strong institution and living community of believers. Over 30 % of the entire population of Poland are “dominicantes” and this means that they participate in Mass every Sunday. One needs to add that in the South of Poland the percentage of “dominicantes” is higher and in some places it reaches 40%. Though the number of dominicantes and comunicantes keeps being exceptionally high, there is a remarkable tendency of downfall. In the recent year 2017 the fall reached 3, 2 % and it should be already alarming.
I am inclined to think that it has been caused by the close ties of the clergy with the political party which is governing since 2015. I have met personally the people who ceased to take part in the Church service or are about to do so, because they blame their bishop or their pastor for being active supporters of the party destroying the foundations of democracy. I know a large number of the lay Catholics who do not abandon their Church and yet they express the deep disappointment with the silence of the hierarchical Church in face of the present political crisis in Poland. Some of them experience a true conflict of conscience.
Beside the political tensions which have the impact on the downfall of the number of the Church goers there is also an impact of the progress of secularism. It is to be observed especially among the youngsters. After the breakdown of Communism in 1989 the new Government under the pressure of bishops introduced the class of religion or catechesis into the state school system. The class of religion is not obligatory and students may choose
alternatively religion or ethics. In the big cities sometimes less than 50% of the students decide to take a class of religion. By unification of religion instruction with the other subjects studied at school the sense of mystery and religious identity itself have been mostly lost. Learning religion became like learning physics or biology. Due to the failure of catechesis in the school system the number of teenagers not frequenting any more the Church is increasing.
Likewise the number of vocations is diminished rapidly in the recent twenty years. For instance in archdiocese of Lublin to which I myself belong there were 208 seminarians in 1998 and there are 54 seminarians now in 2018. This is also the case of the other theological seminars, they become smaller and smaller every year if the number of vocations is concerned.
Notwithstanding the less number of the Sunday Mass participants and fall of vocations the presence of the Catholic Church is visible and important factor in the life of contemporary Poles. The pastoral activity of a parish is focused on the sacraments. I quote again the statistics. According to the CBOS sounding 67% of Catholics went to confession and 55% participated in the spiritual retreat during Lent in 2018. According to the same sounding 90% brought the food to be blessed before Easter. It shows the combination of the deep spirituality with some forms of the traditional devotion. Almost 100% of the baptized children receive their First Communion when they are 9 years old, but few years after when they receive the sacrament of confirmation their number is less and unfortunately for many of them this is the last moment of their presence in the Church, as if Confirmation were to mean farewell.
After 1989 the Catholic Church in Poland enlarged the activities on the field of education, culture and charity. When the last one is concerned the commitment of volunteers was almost unknown before 1989 while now it attracts more and more. Also the collection of money for the sake of the victims of natural disasters and for the social needs is growing, perhaps partially due to the economic growth of society, partially due to conscious promoting of the culture of sharing goods.
The Catholic Church in Poland seems to have many various energies. In the light of the statistics it manifests quite impressive presence nonetheless the slight fall of the number of its members. But the statistics cannot present more than only the general sociological tendencies and they even do not pretend to give the adequate account of the reality. At this point we have to turn our analysis to the ideas which constitute more dynamic and at the same time problematic image of the Catholicism in Poland in 2018.
2. The Church Suspended Between John Paul II and Francis
The fundamental present condition of the Catholic Church in Poland one may characterize as the mental suspension between John Paul II and Francis. The open and explicit contestation of Pope Francis is not so much visible; however, few weeks ago the public opinion was shocked by the scandalous statement of a priest from Cracow, the former rector of the Theological Seminary. He announced that he prayed for the conversion of the heretical Pontiff, but if that were impossible he would pray for his departure. In the broad and uncritical opinion Francis is contrasted with Saint John Paul II. Thus his breakdown with the hieratic style and open minded way of addressing the contemporary moral problems is not accepted, I dare to say, by the majority of Polish clergy. Even his poverty is ridiculed. Usually the critique of the present Bishop of Rome regards Amoris Laetitia, the issue of refugees and the pope’s vision of ecology. Let me comment on each of those questions.
During the synod of bishops in 2015 the Polish bishops participating in it feared a deviation from the teaching of John Paul II concerning marriage and family (Familiaris consortio) and morality in itself (Veritatis splendor). Someone even was warning before the betrayal of John Paul II. Such a warning was gladly welcomed in the different circles of the Catholic opinion in Poland, only Więź and Tygodnik Powszechny examined critically this horrible vision. Unfortunately, instead of discussing the serious pastoral challenges with regard to married and especially remarried couples, the Polish Catholics, inspired by bishops, started to defend John Paul II against Francis.
Shortly after Amoris laetitia was published the Conference of Polish Bishops stated no change in the hitherto obliging rules with respect to the pastoral care for the persons in the irregular situations. At the same time the bishops declared to prepare new regulations in the light of Amoris laetitia. It may mean that the present regulations are transitory, though no altered with respect to the previous ones. As a matter of fact the results of works of the Episcopal commission are not published yet and it seems that there is no agreement among bishops. Such a kind of delay may also mean a lack of courage to open more broadly the gate of mercy in the singular cases without rejecting the doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage at all. Perhaps the doctrinal rigidity hinders the spirit of accompaniment, discernment and integration.
When the attitude toward refugees is concerned the teaching of Pope Francis is practically contradicted by the politicians of PiS (Law and Justice) who on different occasions emphasize their Catholic outlook or even claim to be eager to lead re-Christianization of secularized Europe. They distinguish the level of the moral appeal to which Church is entitled and the level of the political decision. Such a distinction is correct in itself, for it is based on the separation and autonomy of Church and State. But if we think that at stake is the urgent humanitarian help for the victims of wars and solidarity among the states belonging to European Community, the position of Polish government should, at least, wonder. In fact, it is determined by the policy of spreading fear before foreigners and manipulating the nationalistic sentiments. The Poles are threatened by “Christian politicians” to become the targets of Islamic terrorism. Moreover, before elections in 2015 the leader of PiS Jarosław Kaczyński depicted the refugees as the persons who transfer from abroad insects and diseases. His speech had an immense impact on massive imagination. The bishops constantly pleaded to accept the refugees for the ethical motives but their call remained without any answer on the side of the political authorities, even the proposal of the “corridors of charity” which had been launched by bishops as the minimal solution, was neglected. Until today none of Syrians refugees could enter legally the territory of Republic of Poland. In a sense this is the most serious sign of the crisis of Christianity in Poland. In spite of many attempts the Church actually failed to promote the culture of solidarity in front of the strong nationalistic tendencies in politics.
The encyclical “Laudato si” was criticized in the rightist media for its allegedly leftist provenience and by some reviewers was interpreted to be even “anti-Polish”, due to the fact that Polish energy policy is prevalently based on the carbon exploration. I am reminding this insignificant opinion because it shows how narrow are the criteria, based on the nationalistic interests, which were applied for interpretation of the Church teaching. What is really sad is a fact that such an important contribution of Francis in the current debate about ecology passed almost unnoticed in Poland, as if the issue of the global change of climate was too abstract and too sophisticated. The disease of the Polish soul seems to be a kind of narcissism which consists in exaggerated self-reference which may be easily abused for the political ends whereby the prophetic message of Church is contradicted.
This is a paradox, perhaps not only observed in Poland, that sensitivity to the message of Francis is greater in secular and even leftist media than in the ecclesiastical circles. But in Poland the roots of that are in a certain fragility of Polish Catholic Culture in which the universal elements are in the struggle with the national ones. Probably the majority of us does not seek salvation and supernatural grace in Christianity, but treat Catholicism as reducible to the mere factor of the national identity. The synthesis of the universal Christian and nationally particular elements in Polish culture was accomplished in the teaching of Saint John Paul II, but it has been received too superficially and now emerges the eclipse of it in the shape of deeper and deeper national Catholicism.
No doubt, what is needed at the present moment of crisis is very serious intellectual and pastoral commitment in order to point out continuity and creative development between teaching of Saint John Paul II and Francis. Otherwise Polish Church may run a risk to lose the legacy of the great Pontificate of Karol Wojtyła and to interrupt the authentic communion with the ministry of the actual Successor of Saint Peter.
3. Church in the Trap of Politics
That the Polish Catholics are politically divided is nothing strange and they should not be blamed for that, because the political divisions and controversies pertain to the principles of democracy. But in Poland the future of democracy itself is at stake. Some civil liberties are already restricted, separation of judicial power is violated and the whole political system is on the way to dictatorship. In the beginning of the political crisis in 2015 and 2016 the bishops did not take any stance in front of it and their silence was interpreted by the political opposition and likewise by the ruling coalition to be a sign of a tacit support for the political reforms which violate the Constitution of Republic of Poland. I think that then the bishops did not realize how destructive for the rule of law was a project of the political reforms and because they thought that it would be a case of the typically political competition among different parties, they did not intervene directly in this affair. But in 2017 the situation changed when the President of Poland Andrzej Duda said his veto to the bills aiming at the reform of the judiciary system. Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki congratulated the turn of the President of Republic of Poland with a letter in which he outlined the principle of separation of powers in conformity with the Catholic Social Doctrine. His voice breaking the silence of the Catholic Church with regard to the crisis of democracy was followed by sermons delivered by Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz and Archbishop Wojciech Polak, who is a holder of the office of Primate of Poland. The rest of the bishops, however, are keeping the original silence and alleged neutrality.
The early intervention of the bishops in the Polish political crisis was expected on the basis of memory concerning the role which Church played in the transition from Communist totalitarianism into democracy under the leadership of Solidarność movement in eighties of XX Century. After 2015 it could not be possible anymore since some not little number of bishops and priests actively, though not formally, supported the party which became a winner in elections. Significant bishops in the Polish Episcopate officially congratulated the winners what was an unpreceded event.
At this point I have to mention also the activity of “Radio Maryja” in Toruń which gathers a great audience among Polish Catholics. It used to present itself as “the Catholic voice at your home”. They broadcast the program which is a mixture of nationalism, antiliberalism and Catholic doctrinal conservatism. Obviously such a position is not harmful for the unity of Church as long as it does not exclude the other positions. In fact the huge media concern established by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk (newspaper, radio, television and school of public communication) imposes its own views and opinions without confronting them with anybody else. Instead of the social and cultural dialogue they cultivate the ideological monologue. This attitude is referred also to the politics whereby the media center in Toruń became the propaganda channel of the ruling party. Any other opinions are not admitted; even the news service is selective. A great number of clergy sees in it the fortress against modernity and secularism which is supposed to be defending Polish alleged national identity. As a result of 25 years of Radio Maryja’s activity on the one hand the Catholic presence in the pluralistic society is marginalized and limited to its own group, and on the other hand it exercises the direct influence on politics so much so that some politicians owe their election to the support of media concern and they pay back in granting some economic advantages. At any rate the direct connection between politics and Church occurs on the ideological platform offered by media center in Toruń in which also some bishops are directly involved. This connection explains up to certain extend the silence of bishops in front of the political crisis concerning the principles of democracy and rule of law.
In fact, activity of Radio Maryja raises the deep divisions within the Catholic World in Poland. These divisions and even mutual hatred are deepened by means of the political attacks on the defenders of democracy who are blamed to be the national betrayers. It coincides with the policy of the ruling party which distinguishes true heroic Poles and false Poles being in the service of the foreign non-patriotic ideas. It coincides also with the divisions caused by the opposed interpretation of the crash of the aircraft near Smolensk in 2010 where President
Lech Kaczyński and other 95 passengers died. There are many priests who believe in the collusion of the former Polish Prime Minister Tusk and Russian leader Putin in eliminating President Kaczyński and they do not hesitate to talk about it in their parishes. In the crucial measure the inability of the Church to promote re-establishing of the national unity and above all the unity of Catholics is due to be trapped in the political game. It belittles the social credibility of Catholic Church and there are reasons to think, that in the case of the defeat of the presently ruling party on the way of the democratic elections, the main looser may manifest to be Catholic Church and its own religious and cultural mission.
4. Facing European Union
Generally Poles show a lot of enthusiasm for being integrated in European Union. In 2003, on the eve of the national referendum regarding access of Poland to EU, the bishops and clergy seemed to be more resistant to that turning choice than an average citizen of Poland. Bishops were persuaded to say their “yes” only by John Paul II. In his famous speech he made a synthesis of history of Poland in a short sentence which sounded like a slogan: “Od Unii Lubelskiej do Unii Europejskiej” – “From the Union of Lublin to the European Union”. Namely he reminded the fruitful historical experience of the real union of Poland and Lithuania in 1569. This union of two states was preserved for almost three centuries until 1795 and it gave a raise to multinational and multi-religious culture. The memory of it constitutes an essential element of Polish cultural identity. Recalling the Union of Lublin,
which may be called also Jagiellonian union, John Paul II, united the past and the future. Though he was bitterly disappointed with rejection of Invocatio Dei from the draft of Constitution of EU, he always welcomed the project of integrating states and nations in the broader political, economic and above all cultural union. He was dreaming about Europe which respires with two lungs and which creates manifold space for the human solidarity. I am deeply convinced that without wise prophetic vision of John Paul II Poland probably would not have joined EU in 2004. His contribution to collapse of communism and creation of a new political order in Europe reckon to his legacy which may be easily lost by a growth of nationalism.
Nobody openly speaks about the eventuality of “Polexit” which might resemble “Brexit”, at the present moment there are nothing but gossips of a few marginal politicians and journalists. We may, however, imagine the situation in which nationalistic policy in Poland arrives to the point of leaving European Union. Is the Catholic Church prepared to defend Polish integration with EU?
Also on this field the opinions and sympathies of bishops are divided. In fact the Catholic Church in Poland lacks a sufficient clarity in which way sovereignty of a national state and membership in union are reconciled and mutually conditioned. At times we hear bishops speaking about EU as a foreign force, as if it were the external political entity to which Poland does not belong or belongs in a compulsory way. Such opinions are loudly spoken out while the tensions between the present Polish government and European Commission are manifested. In order to illustrate the openly hostile attitude toward EU let me quote a speech which was delivered by Archbishop of Cracow Marek Jędraszewski on the occasion of the ceremonies of Good Friday. He claimed that Jesus was condemned to death by the people from the street and from abroad (“ulica i zagranica”). Is it preaching of mystery of salvation or a political speech? I am sure that the hearers of it could easily grasp the actual political message. It overlaps, obviously, which the message of government which blames opposition to use “people from the street and people from abroad” against the policy of violating Constitution. What matters here is that bishop points out EU to be an enemy of Poland as dangerous as Pontius Pilatus who represented the Roman Emperor happened to be against Jesus Christ. It is needless to say how naïve and primitive is that kind of exegesis of Gospel, for absolutely worse is abuse of Gospel for spreading the nationalistic emotions.
Naturally there is quite active current of bishops, priests and lay Christian believers who are committed to the idea of community and solidarity of nations and who thereby reject nationalism and isolation. In 2017 the Conference of Polish Bishops succeeded to publish the pastoral letter on the Christian form of Patriotism. They praise and recommend Patriotism as a Christian virtue based on love toward own Fatherland and at the same time they criticize nationalism for being expression of the pagan egoism. One may only regret that in this letter the object of patriotism is limited to Poland as Fatherland, such a letter should have given also an excellent opportunity to extend the concept of patriotism as much as to speak about “European patriotism” in addition.
There is in fact a serious contradiction to be noted. On the one hand Poles are very satisfied with their membership in EU, for they take all economic advantages which derive from it, but on the other hand a certain irrational national pride is emerging as well. The background for it is very complexed and at this place it suffices only to point generally to historical, economic and cultural factors. Without considering those conditions in details, I would like to move attention to the fact that massive appearance of national pride coincides with revival of the Sarmatian forms of Polish Catholic Religiosity. Sarmatianism was an ideology popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. According to it old-style Poles, primarily nobles, are the descendant of the legendary ancient nation of Sarmatians and they are the second chosen nation. For they are called by God for a special mission with respect to the other nations. This is obviously Messianic interpretation of the vocation and destiny of Polish nation. In XIX Century when Poland ceased to exist as the independent state this idea assumed explicit doctrinal form of messianic ideology and Poland was proclaimed to be “Christ of Nations”. One does not need to say that there was nothing else but heresy. This pattern of conceiving of Poland’s exceptional, evidently exclusive vocation is very deeply rooted in Polish traditional religiosity and devotion. It comes from the era of baroque, but what is a paradox, now it becomes very attractive as it shows, for instance, very spectacular action “Rosary up to the borders”.
Though in Poland there are many resources of the popular religiosity, they need to be purified from nationalistic deformations, which not only isolate us from other Christians, but they conserve a model of Christianity which is resistant to the real message of Christ. This model of Christianity engenders a battle against Modernity in terms of the direct political action whereby the whole of religious energy is consumed. The Polish Catholicism is, indeed, at the cross-roads, it may pursue a way of the pastoral conversion and new evangelization but it may also deviate moving toward national sectarian Church.