Shifting attitudes towards the Catholic Church in Poland

ZOiS Spotlight 45/2020 by Agnieszka Halemba (9 December 2020)

Krakow, 10 November 2020. People protest after the release of a film regarding Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz allegedly covering sexual abuse within the church. The sign reads "I've seen nothing, I've heard nothing, I've been busy“. © imago images / Eastnews

On 10 November 2020, the Secretariat of the Holy See published a report on institutional knowledge and decision-making in the case of sexual misconduct by former US cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick. Rather than being devoted to the victims’ testimonies and evidence for the accusations, the report focused on knowledge of these matters within the church—in short, who knew what about McCarrick’s crimes, when, and how.

What resonated in Poland was the fact that a large part of the report concerned the papacy of John Paul II, who in Poland is not only venerated as a saint but was also instrumental in bringing down the country’s communist regime. According to Polish philosopher Jan Hartman and theologian Stanisław Obirek, John Paul II’s cult following in Poland has gained an almost pathological status: there are hundreds of monuments to him, and countless schools, streets, buildings, and institutions of various kinds carry his name. Until fairly recently, any critical discussion of the former pope’s theology, policies, or actions was almost impossible.

Concealing child sexual abuse and other crimes

This situation seems to be changing, indicating that the position of the Catholic Church in Polish society is undergoing a significant shift. A day before the Vatican report was published, the private broadcaster TVN24 showed a documentary by journalist Marcin Gutowski entitled Don Stanislao: The Second Face of Cardinal Dziwisz. Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, who plays a significant role in the Vatican’s report and is the hero of the film, was a long-standing secretary of John Paul II and enjoyed the pope’s confidence.

It is clear from the report that Dziwisz knew about cases of sexual abuse and protected the perpetrators. The film presents documents and witness accounts that strongly indicate that he also knew about many paedophile scandals but covered up cases reported to him. How much knowledge was divulged to the pope remains unclear, although some commentators claim that he must have been well informed.

This is not the first time that the authority of the Catholic Church in Poland has been severely challenged. In particular, accusations of child abuse have been reported with varying intensity since the start of this century. The films Just Don’t Tell Anyone and Hide and Seek by Tomasz and Marek Sekielski are the most well-known examples of investigative reporting. There have been also criticisms of the church’s involvement in politics, its backwardness in terms of gender equality and the rights of sexual minorities, and its finances.

Until recently, however, even the gravest accusations were countered by two arguments. First, the church was portrayed as an organisation that provided a platform for Polish national identity and therefore deserved respect and protection. Second, all cases of misconduct were presented as results of the individual faults of particular members of the clergy that could not be held against the church as an organisation.

A new discourse on the Church

The accusations against Dziwisz—and, indirectly, against John Paul II—and their public reception mark a new chapter in the relations between the Catholic Church and large parts of Polish society. Until recently, only the church’s most fervent critics would point out that John Paul II probably knew about the criminal actions of priests and cardinals and that he was extremely conservative with regard to the role of women in the church and society, contraception, or the rights of LGBTQ people.

However, current criticism of the church goes much deeper than the crimes of particular priests or bishops. Rather, the criticism focuses on the power structures of the church as an organisation that works first and foremost to protect its unity, resources, and loyal members.

Indicative of this shift are the ways in which criticism of the church has been expressed during recent protests in Poland over a ban on almost all abortions, including in cases of foetal abnormalities. On several occasions, protesters entered churches and disrupted religious services, sprayed church buildings with slogans, and entered into heated discussions with members of the clergy.

Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, called on his supporters to defend the Catholic Church, which he described as providing ‘the only moral system that is commonly known in Poland’. After that, the protesters limited their direct attacks on church buildings to avoid provocation and confrontation with people who followed Kaczyński’s call. Yet, the fact that the church has been challenged in such a direct way indicates a qualitative change in Polish society. New ways of communicating dissatisfaction with the church’s position in contemporary Poland mark a strong contrast with previous restrained and respectful forms of criticism.

For decades, it seemed obvious to many observers that the Catholic faith was a key element of Polish identity. Probably for this reason, politicians of most political parties have tried to accommodate the wishes of the church, traditional Catholic values, or even Catholic rituals in their political programmes, public performances, and electoral promises. It might be, however, that recent events and public criticism of the church as an organisation have started to call into question the supposed inseparability of Polishness and Catholicism.


Agnieszka Halemba is a professor at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.