How Catholic is Poland’s “Law and Justice” Party?

Despite its caricature in both Poland and internationally as arch-Catholic, Law and Justice does not always see eye to eye with the bishops, albeit not on the issues one might expect.

Main Market Square in Krakow, Poland. (Jacek Dylag | Unsplash.com)

On Sunday, October 13th, the Law and Justice party won 43.59 percent of the vote in Poland’s parliamentary elections, giving it a majority of 235 seats in the Sejm, the lower chamber of Poland’s Parliament. The party’s rhetoric is often Catholic – its very name comes from the Bible (Psalm 33:5) – and many of its politicians are deeply engaged in Church life. Despite its caricature in both Poland and internationally as arch-Catholic, however, Law and Justice does not always see eye to eye with the bishops, albeit not on the issues one might expect.

An authentic Faith?

According to a December 2018 poll by Poland’s national statistics office, 94 percent of Poles aged sixteen and above claim membership in a religion (91.9 percent of them identify as Catholic), while 81 percent profess belief in God (3 percent do not), 70 percent pray at least weekly, and 50 percent attend church services once a week or more.

Thus, in a country such as Poland, making frequent appeals to religious feelings is politically profitable. Indeed, Law and Justice politicians often speak about the Judeo-Christian roots of Poland and Europe. In 2017, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the “re-Christianization of Europe” was among his priorities. Last month, Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński said that outside of Catholic ethics there is only “nihilism.”

“It’s good to appear to be pious, faithful, humane, honest, and religious,” Machiavelli counseled in The Prince, “and it’s good to be all those things; but as long as one keeps in mind that when the need arises you can and will change into the opposite.” Are the pious pronouncements of Law and Justice leaders authentic, or are they just a Machiavellian way of keeping up appearances and getting the votes of churchgoers?

Many prominent leaders of the party are authentically devout Catholics. The son of Beata Szydło, who served as prime minister from 2015 to 2017, was ordained a priest while his mother was in office. President Andrzej Duda himself is a very devout man, and images of him rescuing a dropped host during a public Mass have gone viral in the worldwide Catholic web.

Meanwhile, although Opus Dei has never wielded comparable political clout in Poland as in Spain or some Latin American countries, according to the conservative daily Rzeczpospolita many Law and Justice politicians are members of St. Josemaria Escriva’s movement or go to it for spiritual formation, while many of them attend courses at the Opus Dei-run IESE Business School in Navarra.

Genuine social conservatism

Across the West, many political parties purporting to be on the right side of the spectrum have, over time, become purged of social conservatism; in particular, Britain’s Tories and Spain’s Popular Party come to mind. Poland’s Law and Justice, however, is genuinely traditional in the culture wars.

During the recent electoral campaign, Jarosław Kaczyński said his party would oppose the legalization of euthanasia and same-sex marriage. Over the past year, growing numbers of gay pride events have been organized across Poland. Polish society is deeply polarized on this. In Warsaw, easily the most liberal city in Poland, the Equality Parade attracts tens of thousands of local residents. Most Poles oppose the LGBT agenda, though, and in smaller cities and towns attendance at gay pride events is paltry; participants are often bussed in from Warsaw. The biggest epic fail took place in Zabrze, an Upper Silesian town of 170,000, where turnout for a recent gay pride march amounted to one person, the organizer himself.

Law and Justice has opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage (which in any case contradicts Article 18 of Poland’s Constitution) and civil unions. The party has also ended state subsidies for in vitro fertilization (although it has failed to introduce legislation that would limit the number of embryos used in the procedure) and the morning-after pill. Law and Justice has also resisted attempts at getting rid of optional religious education in public schools.

In 1990, optional religious education was reintroduced to Polish public schools by the government of the late Tadeusz Mazowiecki, himself a devout Catholic. The left-liberal media have constantly attacked it ever since. However, a recent poll shows that 54 percent of Poles are in favor of religion classes in public schools, while 42 percent are not (although two-thirds believe that the Church, not the state, should finance such lessons).

Since most Poles oppose the LGBT movement and support religion in public schools, it is easy for Law and Justice to come out against them. However, the party is less eager to take a stand on a certain more divisive matter.

An abortion stalemate?

In December 2017, I wrote in the Catholic World Report that Poland was “poised to ban eugenic abortion.” Nearly two years have passed; this has not happened and it is uncertain if it will in the coming parliamentary term.

According to Poland’s 1993 abortion legislation, abortion is legal in three cases: when the pregnancy threatens the life or death of the mother, when it results from an illegal act such as rape or incest, and in the case of “fetal malformation.” About 1,000 legal abortions are performed in Poland each year; most concern the eugenic exception, and children with Down syndrome make up almost a quarter of them.

In 2017, a civic legislative initiative signed by 830,000 Poles proposed banning the procedure (a second civic initiative, proposing the legalization of abortion on demand during the first trimester, received about 200,000 signatures and was voted down in the Sejm). Law and Justice has frozen it in the parliamentary committees.

Two years ago, more than 100 members of parliament, mostly from Law and Justice, petitioned the Constitutional Court to study the constitutionality of this third condition for legal abortion. The court, widely believed to be controlled by Jarosław Kaczyński, has yet to respond. Legal experts believe that when a new parliamentary term begins, this petition will be nullified.

It is unknown if Law and Justice will do anything to change the abortion law in the coming term. On the one hand, President Duda has repeatedly stated that he would sign a bill banning eugenic abortion. Many Law and Justice backbenchers are active in the pro-life movement.

At the same time, Prime Minister Morawiecki recently come out as a proponent of the 1993 law. Many Law and Justice politicians, such as Jadwiga Emilewicz, minister of entrepreneurship and technology, take a prudent approach. They argue that if they change the abortion legislation, they could stir up public opinion against life, and once more liberal parties replace Law and Justice, they could use arguments about women being forced to give birth to children with rare conditions like anencephaly as an argument to make Polish abortion legislation more “humane.” Undoubtedly, international pro-abortion organizations would generously fund such efforts. Hence, the compromise law of 1993 would be replaced with the legalization of abortion on demand.

Given the low public support for a ban of eugenic abortion, leftist forces indeed could succeed in stirring up public opinion against life overall. A recent poll shows that about 40 percent of Poles believe that abortion should be “generally banned,” while 29 percent believe it should be “generally permitted,” but there is higher support for eugenic abortion, which according to other surveys is as high as 70 percent.

It has been speculated that Law and Justice may ban abortion in the case of Down syndrome or Turner syndrome rather than a total eugenic ban, but time will tell what it will do. Certainly, Polish pro-lifers will not throw in the towel in the coming parliamentary term.

A polarized society, a divided Church

Both in Poland and abroad, Law and Justice is often portrayed as being synonymous with the Polish bishops. For example, the cover of the leftist Przegląd weekly recently depicted Krakow’s Archbishop Jędraszewski dropping an electoral ballot into a box with the caption: “One Church, One Party, One Bank Account.”

Such a depiction of Poland’s bishops is both unfair and inaccurate. Like in the United States, society in Poland is bitterly divided. This polarization even affects conservatives, many of whom do not support Law and Justice. During the last election, the combined number of votes for two other right-wing parties – the Polish People’s Party, traditionally a farmers’ party which in the recent election also gained numerous votes of urban conservatives disgruntled with Law and Justice, and the far-right Confederation, led by Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who as a member of the European Parliament embarrassed Poland by saying extremely sexist and racist things, including using the awful “n-word”– exceeded 15 percent.

As Polish citizens, Polish bishops themselves are divided on their country’s political situation. This reflects a larger historical trend: in the 1980s, the Catholic Church gained much popularity among Poles for its support for Solidarity, but following the transition to democracy and capitalism a debate on what role the Church should play in society unfolded.

This discussion has not only taken place between Catholics and secularists; among Catholics themselves, two camps emerged: the “open Church,” whose mouthpieces are magazines such as Tygodnik Powszechny, Więź, and Znak, and a current resembling America’s religious right, led by the controversial Radio Maryja radio station and including media such as Niedziela, Fronda, and Polonia Christiana. The basic difference between the two is that former camp tries to see the positive in contemporary society, while the latter is more inward-looking. There are bishops from both blocs in the Polish Episcopal Conference.

The bishops vs. the Law and Justice party

There have been times when Law and Justice has clashed with Poland’s bishops. The Polish episcopate has followed Pope Francis in encouraging Europe to take in refugees fleeing wars and persecution in the Middle East and Africa. In particular, Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw and Archbishop Wojciech Polak, Poland’s primate, have taken the lead in unsuccessfully pleading for the Polish government to accept refugees. In an interview with Tygodnik Powszechny, Polak said that priests in his archdiocese who take part in anti-refugee manifestations would be suspended.

Law and Justice’s leaders have frequently responded to accusations that they do not care about refugees by claiming that there are between one and two million Ukrainian refugees working in Poland. However, the vast majority of these are not refugees, but economic migrants; most Ukrainians in Poland come from the west of the Dnieper, which is unaffected by Russian aggression.

In 2017, Law and Justice tried to push controversial changes to the judiciary. Ultimately, they were vetoed by President Duda. Both Archbishop Polak and Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, sent letters to Duda thanking him for the veto. This was widely seen as the bishops’ siding with critics of these reforms.

Archbishop Polak has emerged as an eloquent critic of Law and Justice. He has criticized priests who publicly support the party. “The Church has people with different views, and we have to remember that,” he told the magazine W Drodze, published by the Dominican order. Last month, the primate responded to Jarosław Kaczyński’s claim that there is only nihilism outside Catholicism, decrying this statement as contrary to Church teaching.

In the West, there are plenty of politicians who publicly profess to be Catholic and use religious based arguments to support migration or the struggle against climate change, but when it comes to issues related to abortion, marriage, or bioethics, they adamantly deny that faith should play any role in the decision-making process.

Law and Justice is the reverse: the party has overall solidly conservative credentials on social issues, but on other matters it sometimes conflicts with the country’s bishops. The party stands in contrast to parties in the West whose understanding of conservatism is limited to lowering taxes, but to portray it as controlled by the bishops, as its adversaries do, conveniently overlooks several important facts.


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About Filip Mazurczak 44 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a journalist, translator, and historian. His writing has appeared in the National Catholic Register, First Things, Tygodnik Powszechny, and other publications.

3 Comments

  1. “How Catholic is Poland’s ‘Law and Justice’ Party?”
    “Despite its caricature in both Poland and internationally as arch-Catholic, Law and Justice does not always see eye to eye with the bishops, albeit not on the issues one might expect.”

    If clericalism means anything, this is it: reducing Catholicism to servitude to the bishops of one country. You know, like the ones in Germany giving us so many blessings today, or the English bishops who burned St. Joan of Arc at the stake.

  2. Tygodnik Powszechny is a mouthpiece for “the open Church”? Am I the only person who notices the parallel between the expression “open church,” and the “Open Society” of Popper and Soros?

    “The ideology of liberal individualism promotes a mixing that is designed to erode the natural borders of homelands and cultures, and leads to a post-national and one-dimensional world where the only things that matter are consumption and production.”

    Perhaps Cardinal Sarah is not authentically Catholic, either.

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