Inside St Paul’s Church, the English-speaking Catholic Parish in Warsaw. Photo credits: Gdziejestforograf.pl
By Alessandra Iellamo and Natasha Pearce
Poland is still a stronghold of faith, where nearly 94% of the population identifies as Catholic, according to the Central Statistical Office.
Under the communist regime which dissolved in 1990, the country regarded gender equality as a given and abortion was therefore legal, as most of society did not contest its legality.
Although abortion was legal at the time, the Polish social structure remained patriarchal in nature, with women firmly anchored in their traditional roles of ‘mothers’ and ‘caregivers’.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc exposed the lack of a rights-based approach and traditional values, which eventually brought conservative parliamentarians, supported by the Catholic Church, to pass a legislation banning abortion under specific circumstances in 1993.
Since 1993, there have been many protests and several actions from organisations and NGOs attempting to liberalise the law. Despite the large mobilisation from many Polish citizens, the results of these demonstrations were unsuccessful, mostly because of the powerful role of the Church in Poland.
The influence exercised by the Catholic Church has qualified them as ‘protectors’ of the new Polish nation, an aspect that brought the Catholic Church to not only shape the political sphere but also the minds of Polish citizens.
In theory, the Polish Constitution recognizes a division between the Catholic Church and the state. In practice this is not the reality in the country: bishops and priests have much wider influence over education, culture, the law and politics than any other group, aside from politicians.
Wiesław Dawidowski is an Augustinian priest and Pastor for the English speaking Catholic community of Warsaw. He realises that the church has a heavy influence on the political agenda which impacts society, in particular when it talking about the abortion legislation.
The Catholic church believe that abortion is akin to murder. The current government, characterised by right wing ideologies, is pushing this through changes in legislation.
“The position of the Catholic Church is that life begins at the very moment of conception and continues to its natural ending. It has always been this way and we have no right to cut life shorter, that belongs to God. It belongs to God to decide whether life ends up and when it continues,” Dawidowski explained.
Abortion flyers inside St Paul’s Church in Warsaw. Photo credits: Alessandra Iellamo.
Dawidowski understands that the topic of abortion splits into many sectors, creating a hard polarization in Polish society .
“On one side there’s the state legislation, on the other the Church position on the issue of abortion and a final – crucial – component, politics, which connects those two realities,” he said.
However, despite the Church’s political influence, its moral authority has been in decline, as new generations reject the Church’s conservative stance. This can be seen in the large gap between younger and older generations about the importance of religion in their lives, as well as a decline in the attendance of church services.
“There has been a phenomenon of people leaving the church and stepping out. And there are some people surprisingly young who endorse – for me the strangest – political or religious ideas. And the reason for both, especially the second group is that they lack a good spiritual leadership of the church that is reliable and credible. And what they do is, they endorse all sorts of ideological paths,” said Dawidowski.
It is imperative to understand that it is not Catholicism as a religion that drives this societal divide, but rather the church itself as an institution.
“Religion is not the problem in fact as the research shows that Polish people can combine being religious on one hand and having progressive views. It’s rather that the church is an authority for the people. People feel loyalty to the church, and this is what stops them supporting more progressive relations,” said Kamila the Vice President at FEDERA, the Foundation for Women Family Planning in Poland, whose mission is advocating for women’s rights by providing legal and psychological assistance to women who seek access to reproductive health services.
Poland’s political leadership is encapsulated in what is seen as a two party system with the Law and Justice party (PiS) and the Civic Platform. Although the second platform is meant to be a liberal democracy it is rather a Christian democratic. PiS, elected to power in 2015, has a concoction of left wing social politics with ring wing conservative and Catholic ideas.
Franek, a twenty year-old young student at the University of Warsaw, says this leads to an “utter polarisation in Polish society.”
As young Catholic man who received information about sexual health and reproduction from his parents, Franek says he believes in the ethical problem of the case of abortion. However, he finds the new legislation “a disgrace.”
Franek distinguishes the problem as not a standalone social issue but a problem of the whole Polish political class.
“Poland has failed to create a political class in the post-Communist era,” he said.
The transition into a post-Communist era plays a defining role in this topic. Poland as a whole is fearful of a liberal society, not in the similarity of the spread of right wing ideology
we are seeing across Europe, but because of the country’s disdain towards Communism. To Polish people, left-wing politics is a reminder of their historical suffering.
“In Poland we struggle with left wing politics in general. It is considered to be post-Communist. However, post-Communist politicians are not liberal, pro-abortion, nor pro minorities. They just don’t speak their minds out loud. They are extremely outdated left wing,” said Franek.
Father Dawidowski describes Poland as a ‘tribal society.’
He believes Polish society today to be very polarised, with a big division between those with a right-wing ideology and others with more left-wing-liberal ideas where ‘hysterical’ movements can be seen.
“This is because the polarisation between these two groups is so hard and high, that people stop talking to each other, or rather they stop listening to each other and that is very dangerous,” he explained.
“I would say the important thing to do is that we start to listen.”