The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why so many Poles are breaking with the Catholic Church

Demonstrators protest against a court ruling on tightening Poland's abortion law, on Friday in Warsaw. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)
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Magdalena Moskalewicz is a Polish art historian and curator who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I saw a young woman screaming in a priest’s face today and something in me changed. The priest must have just gotten outside of his church to tell people to disperse, and she was standing there among a group of other young protesters, mainly women. They were holding simple signs and yelling loudly at him, a large man in his 50s, his posture hidden by a long black cassock. I have never screamed at a priest myself, but I found the image impressive, oddly compelling.

I saw this image on video. It was one among the flood of moving and still images populating my social media feed in since the Polish Constitutional Tribunal —equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court — ruled last week that aborting fetuses due to congenital defects is unconstitutional. The decision effectively curtailed the last sliver of choice that the Polish women had in the country with an already extremely restrictive abortion law.

The Catholic Church has long enjoyed near-sacrosanct status in Poland, largely due to the role it played in the anti-communist opposition. Post-1989 governments have worked to maintain amicable relationships with church leaders. Priests have long enjoyed positions of particular authority and respect in their local communities. But the ruling Law and Justice party has taken closeness to the church much further than any of its predecessors.

The court’s abortion ruling has brought to a head a growing sense of alienation from the church. The past week has seen record crowds of demonstrators protesting the court decision — and many protests are directed specifically against the clergy.

The images from my own hometown of Poznan on Sunday showed our Gothic cathedral surrounded by an immense crowd — akin to those I have seen only for the Corpus Christi processions. On Friday, Poland experienced some of the biggest protests in our country’s recent history.

When the protests started a week ago, the police rushed to protect the houses of high-level clergy as well as of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party (and the de facto leader of the country). When the activists managed to sneak into the churches on Sunday, their protests took many forms. Some dressed as “handmaids,” à la Margaret Atwood; some placed protest notes on collection trays rather than cash. One woman in Warsaw stood right in front of the priest at the altar, holding a sign saying “Let us pray for the right to abortion.” In Krakow, protesters gathered at the “Pope’s window” of the archbishop’s palace, a hallowed site where John Paul II had appeared to bless the loving crowds during his visits to the motherland. This time, however, the crowd was chanting “f--- the clergy.”

This was all unthinkable until relatively recently. But as the church’s political and economic bond with government has grown tighter, its connection to the people has waned. My mother used to take me to Sunday Mass in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, she encouraged me to take part in religious pilgrimages. But when I visited her in Poland two years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter, she told me she hoped we wouldn’t be baptizing the child.

Hers isn’t an unusual story. Many Poles see the rejection of participation in any Catholic rituals as the only possible solution to the dominance of the clergy in Polish political and cultural life. The numbers of those turning away from the church have been growing steadily in the past years. In the past few days, numerous Polish media outlets have published how-to guides for those wishing to officially commit apostasy.

The church’s handling of its sexual abuse scandals has alienated many. Over the past few years, the appalling breadth of pedophilia among priests has become vividly apparent. Millions of Poles watched the recent documentaries by Tomasz and Marek Sekielski, which showed how the church and the state covered up cases of repeated abuse.

Law and Justice, meanwhile, has tried to use religious feeling to its own ends. It has relied heavily on anti-Muslim fearmongering and has recently started mobilizing the same sort of social hatred against the LGBTQ community — with comprehensive help from the Polish church, which eagerly preaches against “the rainbow plague.”

In his first statement on the current protests, Kaczynski described them as "nihilism,” calling on his supporters to “defend the Polish churches at any price.” Many took that as a declaration of war. Right now, the party’s nationalist followers are attacking female protesters in the streets in the name of defending the Catholic Church.

I still remember the admiration I had as a 6-year-old for a young priest who joined our parish back in 1990. For years, I saw that priest play a role in all major city events — religious or secular, the difference often blurred. Today, he is still there. I don’t think I would dare to scream into his face, even though I have a lot that I want to say. That deeply embedded sense of the church’s authority is hard to overcome. For their willingness to scream, I thank the young women in Poland today.

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