The Archbishop of Poznan, Stanislaw Gadecki, is currently President of the Polish Bishops' Conference.
Picture: © KNA
Increasing secularisation and loss of trust

How Poland's church is losing more and more trust and influence

Warschau - The church in Poland enjoyed great influence and trust under the PiS party government. In addition to politics, a clergyman with his media empire also lent a helping hand. But now the church's house of cards seems to be collapsing.

Published  on 10.02.2024 at 09:57  – by Mario Trifunovic

There is talk of a secularisation agenda and strong support from the European Union when the Polish church talks about Donald Tusk's new government. The new rulers are difficult to deal with. Most bishops remain silent, while others make it clear that they do not accept the change of government and the announcements on the legalisation of same-sex partnerships or the liberalisation of abortion - and will probably not accept them in the near future either.

A prime example of this is the recent hunger strike by two former ministers of the former ruling PiS party, who were sentenced to two years in prison for abuse of office. The chairman of the Polish Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, intervened and offered to campaign for their release. However, his letter went unanswered, while some Catholic publicists and priests criticised him. In the meantime, the two politicians have been pardoned by President Andrzej Duda. According to the Polish Bishops' Conference, Gadecki has not taken any further steps.

However, further episcopal interventions appear to have been unsuccessful, as the dispute over the new law on artificial insemination shows. The new centre-left government under Donald Tusk has made it clear that it is pursuing a different policy towards the Church and will not be swayed. In addition to the liberalisation of abortion and the legalisation of same-sex partnerships, it also wants to reform church funding. The so-called church fund, from which the state pays pensions and other social security benefits for clergy, is to be abolished and replaced by a voluntary donation system. However, this fund only makes up a small part of the total state financing of the Church in Poland, so this is more of a symbolic than a fundamental change, says Ignacy Dudkiewicz, philosopher, publicist and editor-in-chief of the Polish Catholic magazine "Kontakt" to katholisch.de.

Bild: ©picture alliance/NurPhoto/Mateusz Wlodarczyk

The chairman of the Polish Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, has spoken out against the abortion policy of the new centre-left government under Donald Tusk.

Nevertheless, the Church will try to cooperate with the new Tusk government, above all to pursue its own interests, Dudkiewicz suspects. "One must not forget that the Polish bishops have been practised for decades in accommodating every government, especially when it came to their own interests". However, it is clear that this could be difficult at present. Prominent church representatives such as Krakow Archbishop Marek Jedraszewski had still supported the PiS government unreservedly and persuaded the episcopate and faithful to back the pro-church party.

With media support

This was primarily achieved with the help of Tadeusz Rydzyk. The influential priest has built up a media empire with a nationwide reach. He is said to have an extraordinary talent for collecting donations. According to media reports, the priest is said to have received millions in funding from the Ministry of Justice fund for the "Lux Veritatis" foundation associated with his media empire. There is talk of more than 80 million euros since the PiS came to power. According to information provided by the Ministry of Justice to the Polish internet portal "Tvn24", Rydzyk's foundation is said to have received around 10 million euros for the period between 2015 and 2023. The PiS recently paid a further 100,000 euros for the year 2024 and the broadcasting of church services on "Radio Maryja" and the television station "Telewizja Trwam", both media with a supra-diocesan structure and great influence on Polish Catholics.

As a religious priest, the Redemptorist Rydzyk is not directly subordinate to the bishops, but enjoys the respect and trust of some important church representatives and politicians from the conservative wing. He supported some of them years ago during the election campaign by offering them a nationwide platform in his media, says Dudkiewicz. In this way, he has earned their gratitude over the years - above all in the form of donations and investments that have also benefited the church. This triggered a veritable competition for his favour among conservative politicians, especially from the PiS party. Representatives of the episcopate also vied for a broadcasting slot, especially those who share Rydzyk's views on political, social and ecclesiastical issues. He himself pursues an anti-modernist, conservative-nationalist agenda that is sceptical of the West, the European Union, liberalism and any cultural change, analyses Dudkiewicz. This can be clearly seen in the traditionalist and conservative piety that Rydzyk spreads through his media.

Praying hands propped up on a church pew
Bild: ©KNA/Elisabeth Schomaker

Some controversial initiatives such as the 'Wojownicy Maryi' have emerged in Poland. The "Warriors of Mary" have around 60 branches in Poland with more than 5,000 members and have expanded into ten other European countries.

Among other things, "some controversial initiatives such as the 'Wojownicy Maryi' have emerged from this influence", a well-informed Polish cleric told katholisch.de. The "Warriors of Mary", as they call themselves in German, have around 60 branches in Poland with more than 5,000 members and have expanded into ten other European countries. However, the movement has become increasingly radicalised and has even slipped into sectarianism at times. The group is characterised by protests in the main squares of European cities, usually kneeling and praying the rosary, against LGBTQ rights and Muslim refugees, in favour of a ban on abortion and against other liberal ideas of the West.

The movement has spread rapidly. One of the reasons for this is the political and church structures, even if there are no direct links to Rydzyk or the bishops. The Polish episcopate even criticised individual elements of the movement in a document, emphasises Dudkiewicz. "Of course, as always, the bishops decided to act too late, so their influence on this and similar movements is very limited," he says. "Many members of these movements don't care what the bishops think."

Failure to understand developments

The Polish bishops are therefore faced with a double problem: on the one hand, a seemingly uncontrollable movement that the episcopate is apparently ignoring, and on the other, a society that is becoming increasingly secular and is in the process of ideological and religious change. Fewer and fewer young people are attending church services, and vocations are also declining. Similarly, views on LGBTQ rights and abortion are diametrically opposed to those of the church.

The church's strong influence and ties to the PiS party, as well as the scepticism towards cultural change fuelled by bishops and church-affiliated media, have led to a loss of trust in the past. Dudkiewicz also sees other problems in the church, such as the inadequate processing of sexual abuse or non-transparent financial structures. These now carry more weight, as the government is no longer as favourable towards the church as it used to be.

There is also a certain lack of understanding of developments at church level - especially after the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published the declaration of blessing "Fiducia supplicans", in which it recommended the blessing of homosexual and remarried couples under certain conditions. The Polish bishops rejected the document and emphasised that sexual acts outside of marriage are "always a violation of God's will". For this reason, extramarital and irregular relationships, especially same-sex relationships, would not be blessed. At the beginning of the year, the President of the Polish Bishops' Conference spoke of an "openness to dialogue and the search for answers to society's questions". He said that it was necessary to respond to the needs of society. The coming months will therefore show how the Church in Poland will deal with the new political, social and, above all, ecclesiastical changes and challenges.

by Mario Trifunovic