Poland erupts over priest's call to deny Communion to government protestors

Poland is engaged in a struggle to preserve its democracy.

The ruling right-wing, nationalist Law and Justice Party, which won a majority of seats in the Polish parliament last October, has moved the government in the direction of authoritarian rule, undermining the institutional checks and balances that are critical to a functioning democracy and dismissing the rule of law by ignoring a key decision of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal.

The party's actions have drawn international criticism as well as strong opposition within Poland. Anti-government demonstrations now occur on a regular basis, organized by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, an umbrella group.

Questions also arise regarding the role that the Polish Catholic church plays in support of the Law and Justice Party. A prominent Catholic priest, Fr. Stanislaw Malkowski, 71, recently ignited a firestorm when he said that the conduct of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy "cannot be reconciled with the practice of the Catholic faith and of taking holy Communion," in effect saying that those who demonstrate against the government should be denied Communion.

Malkowski told the Polish website Fronda that the committee wants to weaken the Polish state to benefit Germany and Russia. Enmity toward Germany and Russia is a hallmark of Law and Justice foreign policy, with the rhetoric often reaching the level of paranoia. Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has called demonstrators Russian agents.

Malkowski’s call to deny Communion to government opponents, who often number as many as 50,000 at demonstrations in front of government buildings, drew a sharp response from the Committee for the Defense of Democracy’s leader, Mateusz Kijowski, 47.

"Let me share my deep disgust and sadness," said Kijowski in a March 31 letter to Warsaw Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, 56.

"Priest Malkowski's accusations are part of a string of speeches marked by a lack of love of neighbor. They spread discord," Kijowski wrote in his letter to the cardinal, pointing out that many Catholics are involved in the committee’s demonstrations because they are concerned about the government’s assault on democracy and are determined to preserve the rule of law.

Kijowski did not respond to repeated requests by NCR for an interview.

Nycz replied to Kijowski saying that Malkowski's remarks were his personal views and did not represent the official church position. Priests may speak freely, he said, and the church will only intervene if a priest’s words interfere with his priestly duties, or subvert church teaching.

"One should not accept that shepherds of the church in Poland will join the ongoing political and legal dispute in our homeland," the cardinal said in his reply to Kijowski.

However, despite the cardinal’s seemingly neutral stance, it is widely known that Poland’s church hierarchy supports the ruling party. Retired Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, 81, of Krakow, himself a critic of the Law and Justice Party, affirmed this in an email interview with NCR, as did others.

Servite Fr. John Pawlikowski, professor of social ethics and director of the Catholic-Jewish studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said the bishops are determined to redefine Poland.

"The bishops want to define Poland not so much as a pluralistic democracy, but as a country in which their interpretation of Catholic teaching prevails in the internal life of the church and in public society as well," Pawlikowski said in a phone interview.

Stressing the conservatism of the Polish church, Pawlikowski pointed out that the Polish bishops went to the synod at the Vatican last year and were quoted as saying they attended in order to prevent any changes in church teaching, especially regarding divorce and remarriage.

Pawlikowski also expressed concern that the Polish church has not denounced the authoritarian drift of the Law and Justice Party and downplays Polish misdeeds during the Holocaust. "This government has discouraged any critical assessment of the role of the Polish population and the role of the church during the Holocaust," he said.

Even as the Polish church supports the far-right Law and Justice Party, the government appears also to be cementing its ties with far-right elements of the church. The party announced plans in March to help finance a college founded by a controversial right-wing priest, budgeting $4.9 million for a journalism school run by Fr. Tadeusz Rydzyk, the head of Radio Maryja, a right-wing Catholic radio and television organization.

Radio Maryja strongly supported the Law and Justice Party during last year’s election campaign. The party's resounding victory has been credited, in part, to the positive coverage by Radio Maryja, which has a devoted following among conservative Poles, many of them older and living in rural areas.

A 47-year-old Polish Dominican who is studying for his doctorate at Lodz University, Fr. Pawel Guzynski, praised the anti-government protests.

"The demonstrators want the country governed democratically," he said. "They react negatively to any tampering with our constitutional court or other moves to restrict civil liberties."

According to Guzynski, the Polish Catholic hierarchy and the Law and Justice Party want to wall Poland off from a tide of secularization coming from the West. He noted that Polish priests ask on Facebook: "Euthanasia? Gender equality? Abortion on demand? Is this the Europe I should defend?"

"The attitude toward Europe is rather negative," said Guzynski. "This is the world that the Polish church does not want, a secular, secularized world. The church in Poland wants to protect itself from these values."

The Venice Commission, the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights, has sharply criticized Polish government measures that have paralyzed the Constitutional Tribunal -- the Polish high court -- and given the Law and Justice Party direct control over state broadcast media.

The report states that the measures are not just a threat to the rule of law, but to democracy and human rights. The Law and Justice government did not recognize the Venice Commission findings.

But in denying Communion to the pro-democracy demonstrators, Malkowski sees the authority of the Law and Justice Party as a holy authority, says Guzynski. This is making power sacred, he said. "If the sacred is attacked by someone, it means that someone sins, and that person should be deprived of Communion."

Guzynski does not buy this view of a governmental holy authority, or the corrupting influences of secularization, or the idea of sin in this context.

"Secularization is not designed to destroy the church," he said.

[Donald Snyder is a freelance writer who worked at NBC for 27 years as a news producer. He retired from the network in 2003.] 

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