Is the Pope Catholic? Not in Poland


Pope Francis is about to touch down on a brief pilgrimage to Poland, to participate in the World Youth Day, a major gathering and festival of young Catholics from around the globe started by John Paul II three decades ago. This year’s World Youth Day is being held in my hometown of Krakow. Poland has embraced the event; the Pope, not so much:

Polish bishops circulated a letter publicizing the event that was read in churches throughout the nation on July 3. The letter praised the late Pope John Paul II three times, yet made no mention of Pope Francis.

“Here in Poland – a papal country – we have a very unusual situation,” journalist Katarzyna Wisniewska wrote. “Nobody here is waiting for the pope”…

Francis’ liberal social positions clash with the Polish church’s conservative orientation and alignment with the far-right Law and Justice Party government. Church support for Law and Justice was an important factor in the party’s landslide victory in the 2015 national elections.

The nationalist party is committed to defending the Catholic identity of a homogeneous Poland.

“Francis is seen as someone strange, alien, and Poles don’t relate to an Argentinian Pope,” journalist Adam Szostklewicz, who writes about the Church and international affairs for the weekly news magazine Polityka, told

The pope, who took 12 Syrian refugees back to the Vatican with him after visiting a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos last April, has called upon European nations to admit more Muslim refugees from war zones in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

In his first speech in the country, to an audience including President Andrzej Duda at Krakow’s Wawel Castle, the pope is expected to renew his support for refugees. Three days later, a young Syrian will speak during a prayer service presided over by the pope.

Poles reject that papal call. Seventy percent of Poles don’t want any Muslim refugees, according to a recent survey by CBOS, a leading pollster…

The Polish Church is also anxious about the tide of Western secularism.

Bishop Piotr Libera, in a speech in Radom, equated secularism with multiculturalism.

“It is a leftist policy in which all religions and cultures are equally important,” he said. “But not the one they grew up in. Christian, of Christ.”

This view stands in contrast to Pope Francis’ internationalist vision.

A few caveats here, as people’s popular image of Poland in the West often remains stuck somewhere between the 17th century and the 1980s. While an overwhelming majority of Poles are nominally Catholic, the past 27 years of independence have seen the collapse of Catholic practice in the country, and with it the historically all-pervasive influence of the Church. Poland is not quite yet down to the standard European levels of secularism and areligiosity but it’s only because the downward trend has started so relatively recently. This is not John Paul II’s old country any more. While the Church’s reach shrinks, its remaining core continues to be significantly more conservative than most other Catholic churches around the world.

Secondly, while the conservative-nationalist-populist Law and Justice party is currently in power it is not overwhelmingly popular. Its political base is largely amongst the less educated and less well-off, often in small towns that haven’t benefited much from the growing economy, while the opposition Civic Platform, a more liberal centre-right party, has a more metropolitan and cosmopolitan feel to it. The left in Poland is electorally irrelevant and absent from the parliament, so the political and ideological contest for the hearts and minds is mainly between two visions of the right – one could say, by analogy, between the Trump and the Paul Ryan wings of the Republican Party.

Be all that as it may, the general sentiment of the population tends towards cautious and conservative. The article is correct that feelings in Poland are strongly against taking in refugee claimants; 71 per cent believe that refugees increase the risk of terrorism and 75 per cent that they are a burden on the economy (only Hungarians express stronger views). It’s difficult to blame the Poles as they observe from a distance what is happening throughout the rest of Europe. Poland has had such a chequered history for the past three centuries that people just want to live normal and peaceful lives for a while, while they still recover from the legacy of communism and try to slowly catch up to the rest of the continent. Needless to say, the Poles are strongly pro-NATO, but also strongly pro-EU, both as a net beneficiary of the Brussels’s largess and also as an extra insurance policy against Russia. Strong national sentiments and mythology, as distasteful and quasi-fascist they might seem to sophisticated Western observers, are what kept the people going through hundreds of years of partitions, wars and occupations. I say this as a semi-sophisticated Western observer and not a big fan of either the current Law and Justice government or the politically active Church.

It’s safe to say that, unlike in the past, half the country doesn’t care much about any Pope, and the half that does, for most part doesn’t care much about this one. Happy World Youth Day everyone.