How the Catholic Church’s crash in Poland brought down the Law and Justice party

With an exodus of young people, the Polish church may be facing the ‘Irish scenario.’

Poland’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski delivers a speech in Warsaw, Poland, Oct. 15, 2023.  (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

(RNS) — In Poland’s parliamentary elections this month, Law and Justice, the right-wing populist party that has ruled the country for the last eight years, still got the biggest share of votes nationwide, with 35%, but not enough to keep the party in power, even with the help of its natural partner, the far-right libertarian Confederation party’s 7%. Instead, Law and Justice’s main opposition, the Civic Coalition, led by Donald Tusk, announced its plans to create a coalition government with the New Left and the Third Way parties, which got the support of 54% of voters.

The three parties’ coalition will likely push through significant changes in the political landscape, reversing polarizing Law and Justice measures on immigration and reproductive rights. But this turnabout was prefaced, and probably caused, by a watershed shift in the once unassailable position of the Catholic Church in Poland.

Besides their hard-line populism on the above wedge issues, Law and Justice politicians have been tarred by their ties to corruption (sometimes involving the church) and anti-democratic “reforms” of the judicial and electoral systems and the media. It’s thought that worries about the country’s future brought out a record turnout — 74% — with some voters reportedly lining up eight hours before the polling places opened.

Law and Justice’s tenure dovetails neatly with rapidly falling support for the Catholic Church, described in “Church in Poland 2023,” a report recently published by the Catholic Information Agency. The strong relationship between Law and Justice and the Catholic hierarchy is reflected by enormous financial support that the Polish state has given to the church, including $48 million to the Church Fund that pays for clergy’s social security contributions, in 2022 alone. The recent tightening of abortion restrictions instituted by Law and Justice was received with satisfaction by the Catholic clergy who had campaigned for it for years.

The party’s leadership openly embraced most of the church’s agenda in its public comments. “Christianity is a part of our national identity,” said Law and Justice’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, in 2019, conflating as usual Christianity and Catholicism. “The church wields the only system of values commonly known in Poland.”

Shortly before this month’s election, the Polish Bishops Council published a voter guide called “The Catholic’s Electoral Vademecum.” Though no party was named, many of the values listed in the document, including protection of the “unborn,” marriage for heterosexual couples only and refusal to accept the world “as if God did not exist,” reflect much of Law and Justice’s program.

But Law and Justice’s identification with the church, which for years locked in rural and elderly urban voters, looks to have backfired. In recent polls, two groups — young adults and those living in larger cities — appear to have turned away from the church in overwhelming numbers. In 1992, 52% of those living in the large cities regularly practiced the Roman Catholic faith; in 2022 this share fell to 28%. Those who called themselves nonpracticing constituted 19% of the inhabitants of large cities 30 years ago; in 2022, they represent 38%.

It’s not hard to see the reason for these findings: Young Poles have abandoned the church in huge numbers. Adults aged 18-24 who participate regularly in religious services dropped from 43% to 22% in the eight years Law and Justice was in power, while the share of those who told pollsters they do not participate doubled from 18% to 41%.

Young adults said they dislike organized religion, citing pedophilia and sex scandals among the Catholic clergy. Said Lidia, 33, from Poznan in central Poland: “I voted for Civic Coalition. I am disgusted about everything about the Catholic Church. It is morally repugnant. Recently, a group of priests organized a party and hired a male sex worker. He passed out because they abused him so much. And then they refused to let the paramedics in after someone called the ambulance. … This kind of stuff. And then of course, the new ban on abortion.”

Exit polls this month indicated that 69% of young people aged 18-24 turned out, more than 20% more than in the previous election four years ago, with 28% of them backing Civic Coalition, 18% the New Left, and Third Way and Confederation each garnering 17% of this group’s votes.

The writing has been on the wall for months. In a March 2023 Warsaw street poll, some young people explained why they disliked Law and Justice: “For breaking the Constitution,” “For setting the Polish people on each other,” “for their hate towards the LGBT community,” “for money payouts to all social groups that cause inflation,” “for financial fraud,” “for limiting women’s rights,” “for anti-EU politics” and, tellingly, “for letting the Church into politics.”

Writing for The Guardian in April, Maria Skóra, a policy fellow at the Berlin-based think tank Das Progressive Zentrum, directly associated the negative reception of the church with “intolerance, arrogance, outdated views, financial machinations and scandal. Only recently, allegations about John Paul II proactively covering up sexual predators rocked the country. The hardline views of the church, its hypocrisy and its undisguised, ongoing involvement in Polish politics have been the final straws for many.”

Alicja, 42, an academic from the traditionally conservative city of Krakow, told me, “My views on the Catholic Church definitely mattered in how I voted. Due to the strong position of the church and its influence on politics, I wanted to support a party that postulated limiting this influence. I am strongly against the changes introduced by Law and Justice, at least partly due to the church’s and Catholic interest groups’ pressures.”

Though she voted for the New Left, Alicja said: “I am under no illusions about them. I know their predecessors, the post-communists, collaborated with the church in the ’90s, but I feel they set the best boundaries.”

Polish bishops generally refuse to address these concerns, blaming secularization and “gender and LGBT ideologies” for the exodus of young people from church, an echo of the so-called Irish scenario. After countless sex abuse scandals, often covered up not just by the Irish Catholic Church but also the complicit state apparatus, Irish society was turned on its religious leaders. Seminary applications dwindled, and all but the seminary at Maynooth closed. The rejection of Catholic values followed: In 2015, same-sex marriage was made legal via referendum; in 2018, the Irish voted for the legalization of abortion up to 12 weeks.

Churches also emptied. In 2023, 69% of Irish citizens described themselves as Catholic, a 21 percentage point decline since 2006. Once the paramount moral authority, the Irish Catholic Church has become a symbol of hypocrisy.

The results of the 2023 Polish parliamentary election may be an indicator of a similar change. For now, the three opposition parties say they plan to dissolve the Church Fund.

(Anna Piela, a visiting scholar in religious studies and gender at Northwestern University, is the author of “Wearing the Niqab: Muslim Women in the UK and the US.” She is also the senior writer at American Baptist Home Mission Societies and an ordained American Baptist Churches USA minister. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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