Polish party buoys Catholic church – but not the pope's vision

Pope Francis is in Poland to celebrate World Youth Day. The very conservative ruling party has been supportive of the church, but diverges sharply from key parts of the reformist pope's message.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Poles welcome Pope Francis as he travels to Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow Wednesday.

Anna Kulesza lives on Poland's western border, but attends high school in Germany. At school, she says, all of her classmates support abortion. At home, not a single friend does.

Aleksander Choma and Marcin Flaga, two 20-somethings visiting Warsaw from the southeastern region of Podkarpacie, say they go to mass regularly – as do many of their friends. Nothing uncool about that, both say.

Pope Francis’s trip to Krakow for World Youth Day, then, should be a shoo-in. But if the last Catholic youth rally in 2013 in Rio de Janeiro raised questions about whether the liberal views of Brazilian youths would clash with Rome, Pope Francis’s second celebration of what is one of the key events of the Catholic Church may stir tensions of another kind. Some parts of his reformist message are out of step with the conservative Catholicism that has found new expression in Poland, particularly among young people.

It’s not the only rift he’ll face on his trip, which begins today. The Catholic Church has always been a powerful force in Polish life, keeping the nation together throughout centuries of invasion and helping it emerge from its struggle against communism. Ninety percent of Poles identify as Catholic. But while the victory of the ultraconservative Law & Justice (PiS) party has buoyed the Polish church, the party is out of step on key positions taken by the pope, namely on refugee policy and the environment.

Poland has been one of the staunchest critics of the European Union’s attempt to relocate asylum seekers across the bloc, and the spate of terrorist attacks this summer has only hardened resistance, as refugees are often conflated with the risk of terrorism. Jaroslaw Kaczysnki, the leader of PiS, said that migrants in Europe carried “parasites and protozoa,” and the party has backtracked on Poland’s promise to welcome 7,000 refugees under the EU relocation proposal.

The pope, on the other hand, has urged parishes across Europe to embrace refugees fleeing war, and a more widespread terrorism than that which Europe faces. He brought 12 refugees back to the Vatican after a visit to Greece this spring to underline that message.

According to polling by the CBOS Institute in November 2015, young Poles are the strongest opponents of accepting refugees. Among those ages 18 to 24, only 5 percent supported accepting refugees, while 69 percent were against it.

PiS received significant support from those ages 18 to 29 in parliamentary elections last year: 26 percent in this age group voted for them. And when the government this year moved to restrict abortion, listening to Polish bishops on social policy, 65 percent of those ages 18 to 24 said they were in favor of the plan.

 The ushering in of PiS a year ago has given rise to more public religiosity among the young, says Grzegorz Wiktorowicz, the head of Catholic Youth Association in Warsaw. “In the last year more and more young people have started to talk more openly about their faith or going to church. It's not a shame anymore to say that you are religious or you believe in God,” he says.

He attributes that to a changing cultural landscape, where even celebrities more openly discuss their faith, like soccer player Kuba Błaszczykowski. ”Politicians also play a huge role in this trend. For example, President Andrzej Duda is not ashamed to publicly show his faith, and many other politicians, too,” he says. “They also support patriotic values, they don't talk only about the EU, but Poland in the EU. And in Poland, religion and patriotism often come together.”

 But this has been problematic for some Poles - as well as for Europe and the pope - as it has helped feed the argument that there is no place in Polish society for Muslim refugees. 

Magda Kulesza, who now lives in Warsaw and was hosting her visiting younger sister Anna, says she has worried about the conservative turn of the country, especially the attempt to restrict abortion even further.  “I believe the [Polish] church has too much to say these days,” she says. Both sisters welcome the arrival of Pope Francis – Anna was heading to Krakow to join thousands of young Catholic pilgrims around the world.

Many youths have flocked to Pope Francis's message on environmental protection - which might also cause a clash with Poland over its heavy reliance on coal –- and on social issues like divorce or even sexuality.

Debora Carbonell, an 18-year-old who lives in Zaragoza, Spain, in one of the country's most religious regions, was going to Krakow as a pilgrim. She says she feels like Pope Francis is a pope for the young. When he uttered his now-famous question, “Who am I to judge?” in response to questions about homosexuals, she says she saw him “like a normal person, a human, not above everyone else,” she says on a recent Sunday.

“He has a language that appeals to youth, that makes him feel closer to us,” says Ms. Carbonell.

But for many Polish youths, support is not as absolute. “I'm not impressed by the spontaneity of Pope Francis, I preferred the more quiet Pope Benedict,” says Mr. Wiktorowicz, the Catholic youth association head. Still, he says, he might just need more time to understand Pope Francis, whom he quoted on his wedding invitation.

“Many people like this pope because he is likable,” says Marcin Król, a philosopher at the University of Warsaw. “But I don’t think it is going to change anything seriously. It is not the visit of John Paul II in 1979.”

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