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Polish Church’s hold is weakening

24 April 2015

The cult of St John Paul thrives, but the bishops have lost ground, says Jonathan Luxmoore

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 since 1980.

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 celibacy.

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 as "positive".

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 postulates.

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.

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