MONDAY marks the first anniversary of the canonisation of Pope
John Paul II. A decade after his death, the late pontiff still
towers far above other national figureheads in Poland; his sombre
visage gazes down from hundreds of statues, and his name is
emblazoned on streets and squares countrywide. The anniversary of
his papal election is marked by John Paul II Day. Dozens of
churches have been dedicated in his name, often with personal
relics, and ampoules of his blood.
Behind the scenes of national life, however, things have been
changing. Priestly vocations at Poland's 80 seminaries have dropped
by one tenth since 2011, according to the Vatican's Annuarium
Statisticum Ecclesiae, while recruitment to its 130 female
religious orders has plummeted by two-thirds. Mass attendance has
been declining, alongside a sharp drop in church weddings. Although
39 per cent of Polish Catholics still attend church regularly, data
from 2014 suggests that participation rates are now at their lowest
Even if vocations and mass attendance go on falling, it could
take decades for this to have a serious impact on church life. Yet
some Polish Catholics detect a sense of drift. While constantly
campaigning against abortion and same-sex partnerships, church
leaders have been criticised for saying little about unemployment
and exclusion in Poland which, according to EU and UN data, has the
European Union's highest rates of child poverty and lowest levels
of family support.
Meanwhile, Catholic doctrine is being questioned, particularly
on social and moral issues. Although 92 per cent of Poland's 38.2
million inhabitants claimed, in a March survey by Warsaw's Public
Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), to believe in God, up to
three-quarters disagreed with their Church's stance on
homosexuality, contraception, and extra-marital relationships, and
favoured a change of direction on issues from divorce to clerical
In mid-April, the Polish President, Bronislaw Komorowski,
ratified a Council of Europe convention combating violence against
women, dismissing claims by the Bishops' Conference that it
reflected an "extreme, neo-Marxist ideology of gender". The Church
is vigorously opposing a Bill by the liberal government of Premier
Ewa Kopacz to allow in vitro fertilisation, warning
parliamentarians that they could be refused communion if they vote
for it. But the law was backed by 79 per cent of citizens in the
CBOS survey, and looks set to go ahead.
In 2012, the Sejm lower house voted down a Bill to tighten
Poland's 1993 abortion law, and several judgments by the European
Court of Human Rights have gone against Poland in abortion-related
cases. In July 2014, a top Catholic medical professor, Bogdan
Chazan, was sacked, despite church protests, for refusing to help
women seeking terminations.
Meanwhile, the mass-circulation daily Gazeta Wyborcza
has accused the Polish bishops of "escaping reality" in circulating
a pastoral letter denouncing "audacious attempts to bring sexual
education into Polish schools".
The Church's image has been tarnished by claims about its former
infiltration by communist secret police; by charges that religious
orders made millions of zlotys speculating on land awarded in
compensation for communist-era seizures; and by allegations that
its bishops have ignored sexual abuse by clergy.
In 2012, the Bishops' Conference said it had adopted abuse
guidelines in line with Vatican instructions, but would not offer
damages or "co-operate with the judicial process" when confessional
secrets were involved. In March, however, its northern
Koszalin-Kolobrzeg diocese became the first to agree compensation
for a former child victim, opening the way to a possible avalanche
of damages claims.
THE Polish Church still stands a long way from any crisis. Its
charity and education networks are extensive, and it enjoys
worldwide respect for its heroic communist-era part in defending
human rights. In the recent CBOS survey, despite disputes and
controversies, 55 per cent still said they viewed the Church's role
The Church's international influence will be tested at next
October's Synod of Bishops in Rome, where it has vowed to offer a
"prophetic voice" by resisting any liberal changes to Catholic
teaching. Its prestige at home will be tested in April 2016, when
the 1050th anniversary of Poland's Christian conversion is marked
by Church-State ceremonies; and the following July, when two
million young people arrive in Krakow for the Catholic Church's
14th international celebration of World Youth Day.
Top of the guest list at that event will be Pope Francis, on his
first visit to Poland. While the recent CBOS survey suggested that
two-thirds of Poles hope the pontiff will liberalise Catholic
teaching, observers say his summonses to simplicity and humility
are encountering resistance from Poland's bishops.
Some Catholics think the latent tension should be welcomed.
While the Polish Church still wields great authority, and provokes
strong reactions on key issues, Catholics are taking the trouble,
as social attitudes evolve, to reflect more carefully on what it
Whether St John Paul II would have approved is another matter.
Having pushed for his beatification and canonisation in record
time, Polish church leaders are now calling for him to be declared
a "Doctor of the Church" - a title reserved for 36 saints, from
Athanasius of Alexandria to Thérèse of Lisieux, who have done most
to define church teaching. On current indications, this further
elevation could take a bit longer.
Jonathan Luxmoore's latest two-volume book, The God of
the Gulag, will be published this summer by Gracewing.