Polish president Andrzej Duda visited Pope Francis in the Vatican on Friday, in a meeting between two men seen by many in Poland as embodying very different visions for the future of the Catholic Church.

Mr Duda, a conservative regarded by his supporters as a guardian of traditional Catholic values, drew international criticism for a re-election campaign this summer in which he warned that “LGBT ideology” was more “destructive to man” than the Soviet-imposed communism endured by his parents.

Mr Duda’s remarks echoed those made last year by Marek Jedraszewski, the archbishop of the southern city of Krakow, who warned of a coming “rainbow plague” that he compared to Nazism and Bolshevism. The archbishop has previously claimed that by 2050 European whites would be “living on reservations”, and that “abortion is even more evil than paedophilia”.

Thirty years after the fall of communism, the Catholic Church retains a powerful role in Polish public life. But observers say that a tacit ideological alliance between Poland’s ruling conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party and hardline clerics like Archbishop Jedraszewski is eroding the standing of an institution already damaged by a succession of corruption and abuse scandals. Young, moderate Polish Catholics see in Pope Francis’s more inclusive brand of Catholicism an alternative to that espoused by much of the country’s political and clerical establishment.

“The conservative elements in the church leadership are becoming completely detached from the needs and priorities of society,” said Adam Szostkiewicz, a veteran commentator on political and religious affairs. “We are going through a pandemic, through an economic crisis, and they are raging against the modern world.”

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Surveys suggest that church attendance among the young in Poland is falling at the fastest rate in the world, with steep declines in trust in the church as an institution. A poll conducted last year for IBP suggested that 54 per cent of Poles do not trust the Church, against 33 per cent who do.

Now, there are signs that the disillusionment felt by many moderate Catholics is manifesting itself in the country’s politics.

Szymon Holownia, a Catholic journalist turned television personality, stood against Mr Duda for the presidency earlier this year. He came third, winning 14 per cent of the vote on a platform that appealed to young Catholics by offering the restoration of ethical values to public life while limiting the Church’s institutional links to the state and party politics. Some polls suggest that he would have beaten Mr Duda in a second-round run-off.

“I can no longer look at a Poland where the Catholic Church is being used to such an extent that it becomes, in the eyes of many, the ideological or spiritual extension of [Law and Justice],” he declared in June.

For decades, the liberal and conservative traditions in the Polish Church were united under the influence of Pope John Paul II, who, as Karol Wojtyla, was Archbishop of Krakow. But the fall of communism in 1989 and the death of the Polish Pope in 2005 deprived the two traditions first of a common enemy and then of a common leader. As liberals have drifted away, so hardliners have tightened their grip.

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Szymon Holownia has launched a new political movement aiming to fill Poland’s ‘spirituality gap’ © Leszek Szymanski/EPA-EFE

A survey of trainee Polish priests found that in the European elections of 2019, 62 per cent had voted for Law and Justice and 24 per cent for the far-right Confederation party. Seven per cent voted for the centrist opposition Civic Coalition, which received 38 per cent of the popular vote.

Mr Holownia has drawn the ire of elements of the Polish clergy. During the presidential campaign he was refused communion by a priest angered by his platform

But he has endeared himself to many lay Catholics who identify more with the progressive agenda of Pope Francis than with their own episcopate.

“A lot of what the Polish episcopate declares is just appalling — it is not good for the Church, it turns Poles against each other, and a lot of Catholics just don’t identify with it,” said Anna, who is from northern Poland and works in local government. “The abuse scandals upset me and my friends a lot. It feels like all they care about is defending their institution.”

“I have a friend who was an altar-boy but now doesn’t go to church and asks me why I still go,” said Adam, a civil servant from the southern city of Czestochowa, who like Anna withheld his second name. “He still believes in God, but won’t go to Mass. A lot of people think like that.”

Ben Stanley, associate professor of political science at SWPS university in Warsaw argues that Mr Holownia’s movement reflects disillusionment as much with the secular, technocratic liberal and centrist parties as with Law and Justice and its conservative allies in the Church.

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“Holownia is consciously catering to something of a spirituality gap — lapsed or moderate Catholics who want something more from their politics than the managerialism of the mainstream opposition, but are disgusted by the intolerance and radicalism of a politicised Church. They want God, they just don’t want Archbishop Jedraszewski.”

After the presidential elections, Mr Holownia set up a new political movement, Poland 2050, which is currently enjoying about 10 per cent of support in the polls.

Whether or not Mr Holownia succeeds, said Agnieszka Koscianska, an anthropologist at the University of Warsaw, he appears to have revived a dormant political tradition. 

“People outside of Poland may not be aware of it, but liberal Catholicism has very deep roots in this country. Progressive Polish Catholics were having open-minded discussions about sexuality in the 1960s, and pioneered the process of Polish-Jewish reconciliation in the 1980s. It has been marginalised by both left and right in recent years — its return is a significant development.”

Via Financial Times