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Unrest at Polish reforms prompts archbishop to appeal for peace

05 January 2024


Donald Tusk (bottom row, centre), the newly elected Prime Minister of Poland, gives an inaugural speech in Warsaw, last month

Donald Tusk (bottom row, centre), the newly elected Prime Minister of Poland, gives an inaugural speech in Warsaw, last month

POLISH church leaders have appealed for peace and reconciliation, as the country’s new government presses on with liberalising reforms that have sparked widespread protests.

“I am watching recent events in and around our homeland with great concern,” the President of the Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki of Poznan, said in a statement on 23 December. “We are living today in very difficult circumstances, as a war to the east and the European Union’s wish to become a single Western state make national reconciliation particularly important. We can only meet these challenges when our common concern for the homeland’s fate becomes more important than anything dividing us”.

The Archbishop published the appeal amid plans for mass nationwide demonstrations on 11 January against the forcible pre-Christmas takeover of state media by Donald Tusk’s new governing coalition.

Archbishop Gądecki said that Poland’s future depended on returning to the “democratic state of law” enshrined in its constitution, as well as on a readiness to seek reconciliation “at the negotiating table, without resorting to force”.

He continued: “Since people tend to abuse power, power has to be divided and balanced. No single party or political coalition should exercise full power, as happens in a totalitarian system. Some institutions should be independent or under the care of opposition forces — those in power are not above the law, but formally subject to it.”

In an open letter last month, the Archbishop urged President Duda not to sign a new law allowing state funding for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), in one of the first moves by Mr Tusk since he took office last month.

IVF methods, the Archbishop wrote, had been condemned as immoral by popes from Pius XII to St John Paul II for reducing children to “products created in a laboratory”. He urged President Duda to show courage in blocking the measure.

In a statement, however, the Polish President said that he had approved the law, despite “ethical doubts” by “part of society”, after considering the need to ensure “equal opportunities for all those struggling with the problem of infertility”.

Mr Tusk’s new government took office last month, two months after his Civic Coalition, allied to the centre-Right Third Way and left-wing Lewica parties, won 248 places in Poland’s 460-seat Sejm lower house on a record 74.4-per-cent election turnout, ousting the national-conservative Law and Justice Party, which won 194 places.

Presenting his programme last month, Mr Tusk pledged to improve ties with the European Commission and correct alleged illegalities by the previous government. At the same time, he is pressing on with his coalition’s 100-point programme, which includes liberalising abortion, outlawing LGBT “hate speech”, restricting religious education, and “separating Church and State”.

Professor Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, told the Church Times that the new Prime Minister, who was President of the European Council from 2014 to 2019, had “ratcheted up the anti-clerical rhetoric” during the election campaign.

He said that Mr Tusk would face problems gaining support for harsher aspects of his liberal programme, and would also require a three-fifths parliamentary majority to overturn vetoes by President Duda, a Law and Justice ally who remains in office until 2025.

Plans were also outlined, however, for legalising same-sex civil partnerships in Poland, another move long opposed by the Church.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Polish Constitutional Court judges had acted illegally in tightening the country’s anti-abortion law in 2020, and said that Poland had also violated the human rights of same-sex couples by refusing them the possibility of marriage.

Poland’s predominant RC Church has been badly affected by sexual-abuse accusations, and 11 mostly retired bishops and archbishops have been sanctioned for ignoring complaints. It has also faced a sharp drop in vocations, mass attendance, and declared church membership.

In a traditional annual message last month, the Rector of the Catholic University of Lublin, the Revd Professor Miroslaw Kalinowski, feared that “dialogue with God” was being replaced by “quarrelling among people” in Poland. He hoped that Christmas would be marked by a new “spirit of peace and reconciliation”, in the face of “fundamental disagreements”.

Professor Szczerbiak said that the Polish Church had “found itself on the back foot”, however, in the face of recent scandals and public perceptions that it had been too close to the Law and Justice government.

Church leaders, he said, had also been widely blamed for abortion restrictions at a time of rapid youth secularisation, but would be forced to react if Mr Tusk’s government pressed forward with its “totemic reforms”.

“Tusk himself has never liked or cared about the Church, and his party adopted its anti-clerical pivot in response to its electorate — but it may put some pledges on the back burner to avoid opening up too many fronts,” Professor Szczerbiak said.

“Although Polish society is secularising, it isn’t secularising as fast as many liberals would like, and, in large parts of the country, parish priests still carry huge moral authority. The Church may have lost some of its authority and chosen to stay quiet. But it still remains a significant civil-society actor.”

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