The more liberal Francis was always going to have a problem with Poland’s more traditionalist Catholic hierarchy

27 July 2016 | by Jonathan Luxmoore | The Tablet

The Polish bishops will have given Pope Francis a suitably polite welcome on his arrival in Krakow this week. But behind the scenes, they are determined to ignore most of what he says and sit out his papacy in the hope of getting a more conservative successor

Months of diplomatic and logistical preparations lay behind the arrival of the Pope in Poland this week, drawing inevitable comparisons with one of his predecessors, John Paul II. Yet, Francis’ visit to celebrate World Youth Day has also been a test of his diplomatic skills, as it has prompted speculation about the opposition to his reformist stance within Poland’s powerful Catholic Church.

That Church is firmly wedded to the conservative teachings of Francis’ revered Polish predecessor, and there have been hints of unease since the former’s papal election in March 2013. It is unlikely to have been allayed during this pontiff’s private meetings with Poland’s bishops.

The Polish Church remains important in world Catholicism. Admissions to seminaries have dropped sharply, halving the number of priests in training. However, the country still provides at least a quarter of all the priestly vocations in Europe, and it has supplied clergy for Russia and Central Asia, as well as for dioceses further afield.

Meanwhile, despite signs of falling participation, 94 per cent of Poland’s 38.5 million inhabitants still described themselves as Catholics in a survey in May, while average Sunday Mass attendance in the 10,000 parishes stands at a remarkable 39 per cent, according to the Church’s statistics office. Although poll evidence suggests that many Poles have doubts about Church teachings on such issues as clerical celibacy, contraception and extra-marital relationships, the country’s bishops dismiss any talk of popular support for liberal changes.

After the bitter controversies following the collapse of communist rule 27 years ago, the Church occupies a stable position in Polish national life, and most politicians have learned to leave it alone. Poland’s Catholic clergy see their task as holding the line against secularisation and safeguarding the Church’s religious, social and cultural role – a function made easier by the election last year of a president and a government committed to defending the Catholic faith.

Not surprisingly, the Polish media have reported reservations about Pope Francis’ reformist stance, alongside a determination to uphold the firm line of John Paul II, whose teachings, 11 years after his death, are invoked much more readily than those of Francis.

That undimmed loyalty to the canonised pontiff was showcased at the fourteenth General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops last October, when the Polish Church’s chief representative, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, condemned “feelings of false compassion” towards “mistaken modes of thought”, and rejected any rethinking on the issues of marriage, divorce and homosexuality.

Poland’s youthful Catholic Primate, Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, explained his Church’s reasoning to The Tablet. The Polish bishops had a duty to recall Christian values that are often forgotten by Western Catholics, he said, and to “translate and adjust” the teachings of Pope Francis to fit their own pastoral programmes.

With some reformist Catholics now invoking the Pope’s words against their own bishops, however, there have been signs of discord. Earlier this year, after months of criticism, the 117-member Bishops’ Conference of Poland reversed its defensive position on refugees from the Middle East and appealed to local parishes to help set up “humanitarian corridors”.

In May, it felt it necessary to reaffirm its “sympathetic ties” with Pope Francis. The Pope had “warmly received” the Polish bishops during an ad limina visit to Rome in 2013, insisted the bishops’ spokesman, Fr Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, while Poland would be the first European country outside Italy to host the pontiff on an extended visit. “Poland and the Poles have a special place in the concerns of Pope Francis, and the Polish bishops often mention his teaching”, Fr Rytel-Andrianik added.

Yet, differences remain beneath the surface. When the Pope’s 2013 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, invited Catholics to be “bold and creative” in “rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelisation”, its reception in Poland was lukewarm and few bishops quoted from it. When a follow-up exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, was published in March, conceding “the need for continued open discussion of a number of doctrinal, moral, spiritual and pastoral questions”, the reaction was similarly frosty.

The Polish Bishops’ Conference secretary-general, Bishop Artur Mizinski, admitted that his Church had differed from others on how to interpret the document when it was debated earlier this month in Berlin. Last month, the Polish bishops noted that a “comprehensive programme” would be needed in the light of Amoris Laetitia. But there was no word on when or how this would be put together.

Polish Church commentators highlight Amoris Laetitia’s stipulation that each national church “can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs”. But they have accused the Argentinian Pope of failing to understand the Church’s complex challenges in Europe, and have warned that his calls for tolerance, self-criticism and inclusiveness could relativise key aspects of Catholic doctrine.

With that in mind, most Polish bishops look set to sit out the current pontificate, paying lip service to Francis’ pastoral appeals, but doing little if anything in response. With a firm grip over their country’s Catholic media, and a strong influence in secular debates, they are in a position to largely control how the Pope’s initiatives are reported and received.

In any case, the Polish Church has plenty to deal with at home. Though widely said to have helped secure the election last October of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s controversial centre-right Law and Justice Party (PIS), the bishops have been careful not to identify with it directly. Returned to power with an absolute majority, PIS claimed a mandate for sweeping reforms – designed, government backers say, to break the stranglehold of the outgoing Civic Platform party on the economy, administration, justice and the media.

Opponents of PIS accused Kaczynski of seeking absolute power and took their case to the European Commission, which announced an investigation into a possible “systemic threat” to fundamental EU values and called on the government in Warsaw, headed by Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, to uphold “the rule of law”.

Government supporters say that European institutions are being deliberately misled by the Civic Platform, whose former leader, Donald Tusk, now heads the European Council. The previous government turned a blind eye to corruption and nepotism, they allege, and helped the well off and the well connected to prosper at the expense of the excluded and marginalised.

The PIS government has sought the Church’s benediction, announcing plans to restrict contraception and meeting a Church demand to scrap state funding of in vitro fertilisation, as well as backing legislation to ban abortion, a practice that is already tightly restricted. But in day-to-day politics, they insist the Church has kept a prudent distance, appealing for national unity and urging rival factions to modify their rhetoric.

In Krakow, celebrating World Youth Day, the Pope will have had little time for the intricacies of Polish politics, or for grievances and criticisms from the Polish Church. Speaking last week, the Vatican’s Jesuit spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, said Francis hoped their meeting would be like a “family gathering”, allowing the bishops to ask questions “as children to their father”. Yet with so much to deal with, it remains unclear how strong a grasp Francis has of Polish affairs anyway, and how much objective information he receives from those around him.

Meanwhile, some say the Polish Church’s current predicament is largely of its own making. Having stressed the Pope’s infallibility under John Paul II, it can hardly now question the actions of his successor.

This was not a problem under Benedict XVI, who was viewed in Poland as cold and distant, but nevertheless loyal to the legacy of John Paul II. But it is a problem now, especially for headstrong bishops determined to ensure modernisation occurs on their own terms. “This is not a contest, and we are not trying to portray ourselves as a better Church – just as people who wish to express a truly evangelical witness in their lives,” Archbishop Polak said in his recent Tablet interview.

“I am not suggesting Pope Francis has broken with the tradition of St John Paul II,” he added. “God has given us a pope for a specific time, and we are trying on that basis to accept his teachings as much as possible. But our Church, as in every country, has to know how best to proclaim its Good News.”

Just what that may mean in practice is still being revealed. For now, Poland’s bishops are likely to be polite and diplomatic with Pope Francis, while calmly and discreetly ignoring much of what he says.

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  1. “But behind the scenes, they are determined to ignore most of what he says and sit out his papacy in the hope of getting a more conservative successor”

    Aren’t we all????!!!!

  2. This in the context of +Fellay reported raprochment with the current Vatican mafia?

  3. Quote: “The Polish bishops will have given Pope Francis a suitably polite welcome on his arrival in Krakow this week. But behind the scenes, they are determined to ignore most of what he says and sit out his papacy in the hope of getting a more conservative successor.”

    Along with everyone else.

    Who still thinks that the Third Secret of Fatima refers only to events in the past?

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