John Paul II still looms large, but Poland's church is changing

A woman and a child walk past a vendor offering portraits of St. John Paul II during a parish fair in the town of Lomianki, Poland, Nov. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Warsaw, Poland — When the people of Poland marked the 10th anniversary of St. John Paul II's death on Thursday, it was an occasion for expressing devotion once again to the revered Polish pope, and for a fresh show of unity around the country's Catholic traditions.

Yet there are signs that those traditions are now under strain, as the Catholic church's ascendency in national life is challenged more and more.

"I wouldn't say the church is suffering failures or defeats -- but it's clear that many of our politicians are now acting openly against its teachings," said Fr. Jozef Kloch, spokesman for the Polish bishops' conference.

"It's shocking for us that the doctrine enunciated by the Catholic bishops is now often ignored, as party interests and disciplines are asserted over what they teach."

John Paul's heroic status in his homeland was highlighted when he died in 2005, as 2 million Poles flocked to Rome for his funeral, and millions more came together for candlelit vigils and marches at home.

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A decade on, the late pope still towers far above other national figureheads, while the seemingly unquestioning adulation for him most distinguishes the Polish church from Catholic communities elsewhere.

Besides holding honorary citizenship in dozens of towns and cities, John Paul has given his name to hundreds of streets, squares, schools and hospitals nationwide, while dozens of statues of him are estimated to have been unveiled each year since his death.

The anniversary of his 1978 election is marked nationwide on Oct. 16 with a John Paul II Day, while dozens of churches, some newly built, have been dedicated to him since his May 2012 beatification, often with relics and vials of his blood.

When the pope was canonized in May 2014, tens of thousands of devotees descended on the southern city of Krakow, where he served as cardinal-archbishop, as well as on his nearby Wadowice hometown and Poland's national Jasna Gora sanctuary, where the pope often preached as a pilgrim.

Behind the scenes of national life, however, things have been changing.

Priestly vocations at Poland's 80 diocesan and religious order seminaries have dropped by half in the last 20 years, while recruitment to Poland's 130 female religious orders has plummeted by two-thirds.

Meanwhile, Mass attendance has been falling, too. Although 39 percent of Catholics still come to church regularly, Polish church data published in 2014 suggest participation rates are now at their lowest since 1980, and declining by around 1 percent annually.

However, Polish clergy are still propping up the depleted Catholic church all over Europe, while places of worship are routinely packed for every service around the country's 44 dioceses. Even if vocations and Mass attendance continue falling, it could take decades for this to have a serious impact on church life.

Yet some Polish Catholics detect a sense of unease.

While church leaders are constantly campaigning against threats to marriage and family life, from abortion and same-sex partnerships, they have been accused of saying little about unemployment and exclusion in Poland. The country has the European Union's highest rates of child poverty and lowest levels of family support, according to EU and United Nations data, as well as one of the continent's lowest birthrates.

The church has faced criticism for failing to use the talents of lay Catholics or involve them in the running of Poland's 10,200 parishes, few of which have parish councils or economic committees, as stipulated by canon law.

Meanwhile, there's evidence that church teachings are being questioned, particularly on social and moral issues.

Although 92 percent of Poland's 38.2 million inhabitants claimed to believe in God in a March survey by Warsaw's Center for Public Opinion Research, up to three-quarters disagreed with the church's stance on homosexuality, contraception and extramarital relationships, and favored a change in Catholic teaching on issues from divorce to clerical celibacy.

Church leaders accused the center of reducing key teachings to a "popularity contest."

But Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, a Catholic presenter with Polish Radio, thinks the findings could be a positive sign.

While the church's voice is still taken seriously in national discussions, she points out, most Poles are no longer prepared to assume it's always right on every issue. What will matter in the future isn't how many Catholics go to church, but the quality and depth of their loyalties and devotions.

"People are thinking for themselves now, rather than just accepting everything proposed to them," Glabisz-Pniewska told NCR.

"They're also getting information from various sources, not just from the church, and showing greater maturity in how they evaluate it. Although the church may end up with fewer active members as a result, it doesn't have to marginalize or exclude those who disagree with it."

While opinions may differ about current religious trends, there's little dispute that, on some recent issues, the church has faced open defiance.

In March, Poland's president, Bronislaw Komorowski, signed legislation to approve 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 has vigorously opposed a bill by the liberal government of Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz to allow in vitro fertilization. The church argued in March that it reflects "utilitarian motives" and treats embryonic human life "objectively and instrumentally."

Although parliamentarians have been warned they could be refused Communion if they vote for the measure, it looks set to go ahead and was backed by 79 percent of citizens in the recent Center for Public Opinion survey.

In 2012, Poland's Sejm lower house also voted down a bill to tighten a 1993 law that already restricts abortions to cases of rape, incest or irreparable fetal damage, or when a woman's health and life are in danger.

Despite church campaigning, several judgments by the European Court of Human Rights have gone against Poland in abortion-related cases, while in July 2014, a top Catholic medical professor, Bogdan Chazan, was fired, in the face of church protests, for refusing to help women seeking abortions.

In September 2013, the daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza accused the Polish bishops of "escaping reality" when they denounced "audacious attempts to bring sexual education into Polish schools" in a pastoral letter.

The Polish church's image has been tarnished by claims about its former infiltration by communist secret police; by charges that its religious orders made millions of zloty speculating on land awarded in compensation for communist-era seizures; and by allegations that its bishops have ignored child abuse by Catholic clergy.

In 2012, the bishops' conference said it had adopted guidelines for handling abuse that are in line with Vatican instructions, but would not offer financial compensation or "cooperate with the judicial process" when confessional secrets were involved.

The church has since apologized for clerical abuse and announced plans for a network of counseling centers for victims.

In March, when the northern Koszalin-Kolobrzeg diocese became the first to agree on compensation for a former child sexual abuse victim, the church's Catholic information agency, KAI, insisted that the agreed sum, reported by Polish media as 125,000 zloty (US$33,000), shouldn't be viewed as a "payment for damages," but as "financial help in the spirit of Christian solidarity."

However, media reports say the case could now trigger an avalanche of similar compensation claims.

Kloch, the bishops' conference spokesman, doubts this and defends the church's record. Whatever the criticisms, he insists, the church is the only institution in Poland to have adopted abuse guidelines. On this and other issues, the bishops have made their position clear.

"What we're seeing today isn't opposition, but rather a tendency to misunderstand the church's position -- especially among people who've allowed their consciences as Catholics to be marginalized," Kloch told NCR.

"Some seem to think everything coming here from Europe is fine and in order. All the church has tried to do is show where the problems lie."

Whatever its current challenges, the Polish church still stands a long way from any crisis.

Its charity and education networks are extensive, and it enjoys continuing respect worldwide for its heroic communist-era role in defending human rights and national self-determination.

In the March survey, despite the disputes and controversies, 55 percent of Poles said they still viewed the church's role as "positive."

The Polish church's wider influence will be tested at October's Synod of Bishops in Rome. Polish Catholic leaders have vowed to offer "prophetic voice" by resisting any liberal changes to Catholic social and moral teaching.

Catholicism's prestige at home will be tested in April 2016, when the 1,050th anniversary of Poland's Christian conversion is marked by church-state ceremonies, and in July that same year, when 2 million young people will arrive in Krakow for the Catholic church's 14th celebration of World Youth Day.

Top of the guest list at the weeklong youth event will be Pope Francis, who'll be making his first visit to Poland.

While the March survey suggested two-thirds of Poles hope the Argentine pope will liberalize aspects of Catholic teaching, some observers say his summons to simplicity and humility have encountered resistance from Poland's bishops.

Glabisz-Pniewska, the Polish Radio presenter, thinks the apparent contrast should be welcomed.

While the Polish church still wields great authority, and provokes strong, even extreme, reactions on key issues, Catholics are taking the trouble now, as social attitudes and political alignments evolve, to reflect more carefully on what it postulates and represents.

She thinks St. John Paul II would have approved.

"The pope encouraged people, believers and nonbelievers, to debate with him -- he didn't expect them just to praise and concur with everything he said," Glabisz-Pniewska said.

"As times change and we become more pluralistic, the church can't expect to win every battle -- what's important is that it presents its position clearly, so people can give due consideration to it, and explain clearly and honestly when they disagree."

[Jonathan Luxmoore is a freelance writer covering European church news from Warsaw, Poland, and Oxford, England. His latest two-volume book, The God of the Gulag, will be published in 2015.]

This story appeared in the April 10-23, 2015 print issue under the headline: John Paul still looms large, but Poland is changing .

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