What happens when the clergy are the ones kneeling in the confessional, begging for forgiveness? Well, the Poles may be about to find out. Anger and resentment toward the Catholic Church is reaching unprecedented levels in Poland. Late in February, in a striking show of defiance, activists in Gdansk toppled a statue of the late Father Henry Jankowski, a once-revered political and religious figure of modern Polish history, who stands accused of numerous counts of sexual abuse against minors. An investigation into Jankowski’s misconduct concluded in 2004; however, new allegations have surfaced. Interestingly, not all of Polish society received his dissenters’ actions warmly. Shipyard workers, who maintained close relations with Father Jankowski throughout his political endeavors, restored the statue without formal authority a mere two days after the initial incident.
The conflict surrounding Father Jankowski illustrates the fascinating dynamics of religion and state in Poland. In a country where over ninety percent of the population identifies as Catholic, the Church has maintained a firm grip over social dialogue and political power. Largely stemming from this religious stronghold, its population holds more conservative social beliefs, and the salience of issues such as sexual abuse is far lower than that in most Western countries; Poland profiles more similarly to the staunchly Catholic Ireland of two decades ago.
Why, then, does it seem as though Poland’s moment of reckoning is now? For the first time, both domestic and international conditions have created an opening for genuine opposition against the Church to gain traction in Poland. Allegations of abuse and misconduct within the Church, globally, have reached levels that are simply impossible to ignore. The Church finally appears weak enough to its opponents, who see an opportunity to forge a new future in Poland.
In his strongest attempt yet to quell anger stemming from these issues, Pope Francis convened an international summit on sexual abuse that concluded in the last days of February. The Pope’s address of the abuse by prominent members of the clergy in a formal setting is a major departure from past policy and only serves to bring simmering tensions in places like Poland further into the limelight.
Likewise, political conditions in Poland have shifted substantially since the last election four years ago. The ruling, right-leaning Law and Justice (PiS) party has always aligned more with the Catholic Church and “sought to promote traditional Christian values in public life.” More recently, however, some Poles have become wary of the close relationship between the Church and the party. In a reflection of this, many in the clergy have used their pulpits to step into the political arena and have explicitly picked sides in partisan debate. This behavior exists in spite of egregious political steps the PiS has taken, such as packing the courts and politicizing the historically non-partisan civil service and public television network. Despite these divisive actions, the PiS is still the majority party in Poland by a large margin. Many Poles are highly reluctant to abandon their conservative ideals that have defined the nation for generations.
Nonetheless, a minority of Poles who supported the PiS in the previous election have begun looking for alternatives, and opponents of the Church have pounced. Robert Biedron, Poland’s first openly gay lawmaker, leads the small, but growing, Spring Party. The Spring Party platform represents a slew of liberal policies and stands firmly against ties with the Church, a stance that would have been nearly unthinkable for most of modern Polish history. Yet, they currently poll at fourteen percent. The Party accuses the PiS of prioritizing the concerns of the Church above the true needs of the Polish people. If he continues on his current path, Biedron’s rhetoric will fundamentally alter the terms of debate and cultural discourse in Poland. As the Spring Party continues to improve its standing, its agenda will gain legitimacy across Polish society. How far the Spring Party can push Poland remains to be seen, however. In order to latch onto the average, working-class, conservative Pole, Biedron will need to position the Spring Party as an alternative to the current, dysfunctional leadership rather than the party of radical change.
Polish cultural institutions have taken cues from the growing discontent with the Church too. Kler, a movie released last September, has taken the nation by storm, breaking box-office records and forcing debate about the Church into the mainstream. The picture is highly critical of the Church (kler is a derogatory term for clergy), and some of the scenes include testimony from survivors and more suggestive imagery of a priest abusing a male child. Moreover, the film delves into other moral shortcomings of the clergy such as forcing a mistress to have an abortion, blackmail, and corruption. Containing conversation about the Church’s wrongdoings is nearly impossible given the popularity of the movie and global trends.
In this moment of critique, Poland’s most senior nun, Mother Olech, decided to voice her story as well, bringing to light “very painful” cases of the abuse of nuns. In a rare act of defiance, she spoke out against the male clergy’s abuse of her sisters. The bishops did not respond well to this criticism, and it is thought that they have effectively prevented her from making further remarks.
Poland and the Catholic Church stand face-to-face at a critical juncture in time. Despite growing frustration with the Church stemming from its numerous scandals, both internationally and domestically, Poland remains a staunchly Catholic nation. Opponents of the Church understand that they must pounce on this opportunity to galvanize support for their vision. Robert Biedron and the Spring Party represent a tremendous source of hope for the anti-Church movement, but they cannot interpret this newfound energy as a call for a further push of liberal policy. Instead, by portraying themselves as a responsible, center-left party, they may chip away at traditionally conservative and religious Poles who are disillusioned with the country’s current leadership.
If the PiS and Church fail to repair their image, or worse, fall deeper into scandal, Poles may look back on these few months as a turning point in modern Polish history. If the Spring Party continues to gain traction, it will be critical to watch the response of the PiS. Will Poland’s increasingly authoritarian government move further in this dangerous direction to silence their political opposition, or will they revert back to the governing coalition and platform that helped them oust former President Bronisław Komorowski in 2015? Poles will find out soon enough, as presidential elections are only a year and a half away. In the meantime, they will need to think deeply about what they want the future of their nation to look like.
Photo: “Polish Catholic Church“