Although Poland remains one of the world’s most Catholic cultures, in recent years its government has pushed an agenda separating Catholicism from decision-making in public life, often at odds with Poland’s Constitution and society itself. However, this is now coming to an abrupt halt with the ascent of President Andrzej Duda: young, charismatic, media savvy, and unashamed of allowing his faith to guide him in controversial matters.
Since its adoption of Christianity in 966, Poland has often played the role of Antemurale Christianitatis, a bastion of Christendom. From halting the European advance of Mongols at the Battle of Legnica in 1241 to saving Europe from Muslim colonization when King John III Sobieski defeated the Turks at Vienna in 1683, this has been reinforced as Polish Catholicism failed to be extinguished by communism, when John Paul II was elected pope in 1978 and inspired the rise of Solidarity, playing a crucial role in ending communism. More recently, Polish immigrants have filled hitherto empty pews in Western Europe, while parishes from Paris to Peru suffering from priest shortages rely on Polish missionaries. During the current Vatican synod on the family, Polish bishops have been among the most vocal defenders of tradition.
However, Poland is not an island, and secularism has been creeping in. According to the Polish Church’s census, the number of Polish Catholics attending Mass weekly has declined from 51 percent in 1980 to 46.8 percent in 1995 and 39.1 percent in 2013. This is not dramatic; West European and North American Catholics visiting the country (such as this British priest writing in the Catholic Herald) are impressed by Polish religiousness. However, some decline has occurred.
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More troubling has been the pace with which Poland’s government has been accommodating secularism. In power since 2007, the current ruling party, Civic Platform, was once a center-right Christian Democratic party. However, in recent years—due to a desire to have good relations with the European Union and the void resulting from the secular post-communists’ flagging support—Civic Platform has shifted leftwards on social issues.
Almost all Civic Platform deputies are Catholics; its former national president, Bronisław Komorowski (2010-2015), once lectured in the Franciscan seminary established by St. Maximilian Kolbe, is a father of five and is close to the Club of Catholic Intellectuals. However, both Komorowski and his party have ostentatiously shown that they don’t believe that their faith should influence policy. This was pronounced in Komorowski’s last major activity as president, when he signed into law a very permissive law on in vitro fertilization allowing for the creation of six embryos (most of which die) for each procedure. Although the Polish bishops publicly threatened MPs who supported the bill with excommunication, prominent Civic Platform politicians said they don’t see the law as interfering with their faith. Former Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski arrogantly wrote on his Twitter account that he doesn’t care if he is excommunicated.
Civic Platform’s recent secularist direction often goes against Polish society’s mood, and even against the constitution. Although polls show that Poles oppose homosexual domestic partnerships by a 2:1 margin, Civic Platform has aggressively tried to legalize them (this ultimately failed thanks to Civic Platform’s conservative minority, which was later harassed by party leadership). Although pro-life NGOs have repeatedly procured hundreds of thousands of signatures for civic initiatives that would completely ban abortion and surveys show that Polish society is increasingly pro-life (currently, Polish law bans abortions except in the cases of incest, rape, threats to the health of the mother and “fetal malformation”; although this is clearly better than in most Western countries, several hundred abortions are legally performed in Poland each year), Civic Platform has said that the voices of these citizens should be ignored in parliamentary procedures. Meanwhile, although Civic Platform’s politicians have harassed Polish doctors who refuse to perform abortions in the cases in which it is legal, Poland’s Constitutional Court decreed that limiting the conscience clause is contrary to the nation’s constitution.
However, Civic Platform’s rule is waning, and in August, the Third Polish Republic’s most Catholic president came into power. The youthful Andrzej Duda (age 43) is, above all, devoutly Catholic. He has cited his faith as the most important part of his life and said: “Polish strength results from Christian values.” As a youth, he was active in Poland’s scouting movement, which (excepting its post-communist fraction) is strongly tied to the Church. Images of Duda rescuing a fallen host and bringing it to Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz during Mass have gone viral.
Komorowski also is a devout Catholic and never had qualms about photographing himself with bishops or publicly celebrating Mass during national holidays. However, when it came to difficult matters related to life and the family, Komorowski was afraid to let his faith help him make decisions. He was not unlike the Kennedys in the United States, the Aquinos in the Philippines or Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Andrzej Duda, by contrast, does not care what the European Union thinks of him (although Duda’s visits to Britain and Germany received glowing reviews in the local press). His first presidential veto, of a Civic Platform bill that allows people to change their sex solely by filling out paperwork, regardless of biological reality, was a major defeat for gender ideology.
In order to bring his program into life, Duda needs a parliamentary majority. Polls consistently show that in the upcoming fall elections, Civic Platform—disgraced by embarrassing scandals and its turn to the left—will lose to Law and Justice, Duda’s party, by a wide margin. Law and Justice is as Catholic as Duda (the son of its candidate for prime minister, Beata Szydło, is a seminarian) and has promised to make Polish legislation even more pro-life.
Law and Justice also plans on giving strong financial support to Polish families, especially poor and large ones. Currently, Poland’s birthrate is among Europe’s lowest due to poor living standards and high unemployment (evidence that this is the result of economic factors is that in Britain, Polish immigrants have more babies than any other ethnic group, including Muslim Pakistanis). Financial aid has significantly boosted birthrates in other post-communist countries: Russia, Estonia, Hungary. Whereas Komorowski and his party resorted to gender ideology and moral relativism, Andrzej Duda understands that only families can save Poland and Europe.
The difference between Duda and Komorowski and their respective parties can also be seen in the question of migrants. Civic Platform’s government has been obediently supporting the European Union, pledging to bring tens of thousands of Muslim immigrants to Poland, regardless of the cultural consequences. By contrast, Duda and Law and Justice have stressed that persecuted Christians from the Middle East—who, unlike Muslims, are threatened with genocide and share similar cultural roots as Poles—should be given preference.
The battle for Poland’s soul is not one of whether or not outward Christianity should be present in the public sphere. In Poland, radicals in the vein of Obama or Zapatero who want Christianity to completely disappear from public life are marginal. Instead, the question is whether or not a public figure can let Christian understanding of human anthropology determine policy. For now, conservatives have secured a major victory.