Secularizing Pressures Hit Polish Church

By Luxmoore, Jonathan | National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Secularizing Pressures Hit Polish Church

Luxmoore, Jonathan, National Catholic Reporter

WARSAW, POLAND * When a Polish bishop was arrested in late October for drunkenly crashing his Toyota into a street lamp, it was the latest incident to scratch the church's once-pristine image in Europe's most Catholic country.

Bishop Piotr Jarecki, a Warsaw auxiliary, apologized to local Catholics and offered his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI. But the indiscretion embarrassed a church already smarting under the pressure of public disillusionment, which shows little sign of abating in the current Year of Faith.

If statistics were all that counted, the Polish church could be well-satisfied.

Twenty-three years after the collapse of communist rule, baptized Catholics still make up some 95 percent of the country's population of 38 million, of whom at least a third attend Mass weekly in its 9,000 parishes.

The Polish church still provides a quarter of all Catholic vocations in Europe and a large proportion of all priests in one-time Soviet republics from Estonia to Kazakhstan, as well as a substantial clergy presence in Western countries from Austria to Britain.

Its historical record in defending human rights and national sovereignty remains the stuff of legend, climaxing in the spectacular role played by the Polish Pope John Paul II.

Yet some have detected a sense of drift since John Paul's death in 2005, as high-profile disputes have eroded the church's authority. Though secularizing pressures tell part of the story, human misjudgments appear to have played a part as well.

"Modern reforms have certainly been delayed here, while the church lags behind the West in its organizational structure," explained Fr. Henryk Zielinski, editor of Poland's top-selling Catholic weekly, Idziemy ("Let's Go").

"This may not have mattered much when our church had a strong personality at its head like [John Paul]. But today, the church's leaders are elderly and lacking in dynamism--they either have good qualities but lack strong positions, or have strong positions but lack charisma. Meanwhile, much of the media has turned hostile to the church--you could sometimes get the impression that Polish priests do nothing all day but plan wicked deeds."

For two decades, the church has faced criticisms over its largest broadcaster, the Redemptorist-run Radio Maryja, which has been warned by Poland's State Media Council against airing racist and nationalistic content.

A year ago, its flamboyant director, Fr. Tadeusz Rydzyk, was accused of "preying on the poor" by Danuta Walesa, wife of Poland's former president and Solidarity union leader, Lech Walesa, who has himself urged the authorities to remove the radio's license for "stirring hatred."

However, just a month later, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone praised the Torun-based radio's "message of salvation and honest information" in a letter, and said Pope Benedict XVI himself welcomed Radio Maryja's success in "strengthening the faith."

Some Poles think the controversy over Radio Maryja, whose media empire includes a TV station and daily newspaper, has been something of a sideshow, diverting public attention from more serious problems.

The Polish church's image has also been tarnished by claims about its former infiltration by communist secret police, by charges that its religious orders made millions of zloties speculating on land awarded as compensation for communist-era seizures, and by allegations that it has covered up child abuse by Catholic clergy.

Meanwhile, critics have accused the church of showing insufficient regard for social problems.

Although Poland's clergy have campaigned tirelessly against the evils of abortion, they've said little about economic hardships in the country, which has the European Union's highest rates of child poverty and lowest levels of family support.

While huge sums have been spent on new churches--including Warsaw Cardinal Jozef Glemp's lavish state-funded $90 million Divine Mercy basilica in the Polish capital--little has been said about poor housing, which is also the EU's worst.

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