For a country that has long been one of the bastions of Catholicism, it was a remarkable scene. In a square in Szczecinek, a small town in north-west Poland, a crowd of young women, furious at a court ruling that will introduce an almost total ban on abortion, screamed in the face of a local priest, chanting at him to “go back to church” and then to “fuck off".
“Don’t you understand? In five years it will be a sentence to be a woman living here!” one young woman shouted at the priest, who alternated between trying to debate with the women and making gestures implying they were mad.
The confrontation in Szczecinek on Sunday was part of a wave of anger at one of Poland’s most influential institutions that has been sweeping through the central European nation since the constitutional tribunal ruled last week that a 1993 law allowing abortions in cases of foetal abnormalities is unconstitutional.
The decision marks a dramatic tightening of the country’s abortion laws, which were already among the strictest in the EU. Once it comes into force, abortions will only be allowed in cases of rape, incest and a threat to the life or health of the mother. Such cases accounted for just 2.4 per cent of the 1,100 terminations carried out legally in Poland last year.
In the seven days since the decision, tens of thousands of people have defied pandemic-related bans on public gatherings to join protests across the country. Much of the ire has been reserved for the Catholic Church, which has long pushed for tighter abortion laws. Over the weekend, activists disrupted church services, and churches were daubed with pro-abortion slogans and the number for an abortion hotline.
“I have never seen protests actually go to churches before,” said Marta Kolodziejska, a sociologist from the Polish Academy of Sciences. “Of course you have protests with anticlerical programmes, but I have never seen a physical protester in a church, or spraying them with paint. This is a shift . . . in contemporary Poland this is something very different.”
The Church’s influence in Poland owes much to its past. When the country was wiped off the map in the 18th century after being partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, the Church was one of the key institutions in keeping the dream of a return to independence alive. And when the country escaped the orbit of the Soviet Union in 1989, the role that priests such as Pope John Paul II — a Pole — had played in defeating communism ensured the Church a special place in Poland’s new democracy.
Yet although more than 85 per cent of Poles still identify themselves as Catholic, in recent years, the Church’s influence has begun to ebb.
Part of the shift is generational: a Pew study in 2018 found that Poland had the biggest gap in church attendance between those over and under 40 of the 102 countries surveyed. But the church has also had its authority tarnished by scandals, including allegations of paedophilia and cover-ups among priests.
The ruling tightening Poland’s abortion laws was welcomed by senior church figures, including archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, head of Poland’s episcopal conference. But others fear that it will compound the church’s troubles connecting with younger Poles. “I think Polish Catholic Church is a discredited institution,” said Konstancja Ziolkowska, member of the editorial board of the leftwing Catholic magazine, Kontakt.
“In my environment there are two competing attitudes. There are people so disgusted with what is happening in the Church that they walk away from it. And there are people who agree with this critical diagnosis but who decide not to leave the Church to the radicals. Of course we, the Catholic left, are a minority in this Church, but we have to stay to save it.”
The Church’s critics receive short shrift from Poland’s rulers. On Tuesday night, Poland’s de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, delivered an address to the nation in which accused protesters against the tougher abortion rules of nihilism.
“This attack [on the Church] is an attack that is meant to destroy Poland. It is supposed to lead to a triumph of forces whose power in fact will end the Polish nation as we know it,” he said.
The uncompromising message was echoed by Poland’s state broadcaster, which claimed that “leftist fascism is destroying Poland”. Another programme recalled that in one part of Poland in medieval times, women who caused an argument in the public sphere had to walk around the main town square with a stone on their neck. “Who knows whether similar rules would not be worth introducing in the public life of today?” the narrator mused.
Mr Kaczynski also urged supporters of his conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party to defend churches “at every price”, echoing a pledge by a far-right group to set up a “national guard” to defend churches in a “war” against the left.
However, some within the Church fear that it is already far too embroiled in politics, and that the Episcopate should ask militias to stay away. “The whole history of the Church teaches that whenever the Church entered a deal with politics, reached for the sword of secular authority, the consequences for the Church were really bad,” said Pawel Guzynski, from the Dominican religious order.
“The Church is [already] bearing the consequences of entering a certain deal with the political authorities: an outflow of the faithful from the Church, and a loss of authority.”
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