Saturday, July 20, 2024

Poland’s divided stance on the Pope

Pope John Paul II at old Yankee Stadium, New York City, in October 1979 (Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/ Author: Thomas J. O’Halloran, photographer, U.S. News & World Report magazine)

The premise of those who want to marginalize the role of the Church in Poland is set out over a wide timespan. The idea is to create a permanent moral ambiguity around the figure of Karol Wojtyla, and later John Paul II. The dispute over the Polish Pope will play out for decades to come.

Piotr Semka

We will have to get used to the fact that the dispute over the attitude toward Karol Wojtyla will be another dividing line on the Polish political and intellectual scene. It didn’t have to be that way, because the Polish Pope seemed to be a symbol that could unite across divisions. Having such a positive symbol helped ease disputes between believers and non-believers, between the left and the right. It also enhanced Poland’s international prestige in the world.

But this consensus was deliberately blown up by all those who made the decision to publicize the film Franciszkanska 3 and the book Maxima culpa by Ekke Overbeek. The appearance of this film as well as this book is not unusual. No one would be able to prohibit their authors from presenting their findings to the public. But making them into works that create a great Copernican revolution in thinking about Karol Wojtyla is a decision made by specific people at TVN and Agora media outlets. The reaction to them is a matter for individual politicians to decide.

In the pages of Gazeta Wyborcza, Witold Mrozek announced with evident satisfaction: “There is no longer a Father of all Poles. There is the accused Karol W. and Saint John Paul II the Great.” And it is this new division that all those who dream of permanently reducing the role of the Church in Poland will guard. They are the ones who will always say, whenever the name of Karol Wojtyla is mentioned, that he is a controversial figure, or, in the case of the more aggressive anti-clerics, outright that he has blood on his hands. They will be the ones trying to influence the opinions of the younger generation, they will be the ones defending high school contesters throwing in the faces of catechists that they are defending the ‘patron saint of pedophiles.’” The premise is set out over a wide timespan. To create a permanent moral ambiguity around the figure of Karol Wojtyla, and later John Paul II.


The question of how to approach the appearance of Gutowski’s and Overbeek’s work is the clearest dividing line. In general, it consists in recognizing or not whether the whole operation makes moral sense. Because for those who were outraged by such a knocking of the Pope off his pedestal, it was clear that this was part of the conflict with the Church that has been going on for more than three decades after ‘89. They were aware that John Paul II’s record of merit and greatness was incomparable to any claims about his omissions or his succumbing to the bishops’ tactics, common in the 1960s and 1970s, to cover up cases of pedophilia and to place the welfare of priests above concern for the wronged.

This sense of attack was put into words very well by Teologia Polityczna columnist Wojciech Stanislawski, who compared Ekke Overbeek’s photo with a portrait of a diabolical ringleader character from the film “Cabaret.” In that film, in one of the final scenes, you can see how the cabaret hall begins to fill up with brown uniforms, and the perverse ringleader is not at all bothered by this. Stanislawski summed up both portraits with the maxim: “He finishes painting the eyelid and turns from the mirror to the camera: ‘And now I will destroy what you loved, because I feel like it.’”

Stanislawski described the condition that moved millions of Poles this way. “Commentators on the ‘papal affair’ subtly and thoughtfully calling for moderation and prudence, explaining like a child that ‘recognizing that »everyone did this« does not mean healing the wounds’ – behave as if they don’t notice the avalanche of hatred experienced by the Church faithful these days, Facebook declarations of ‘I’d gut those priests’ and ‘outlaw the sect.’ Immediately toppling monuments, renaming streets. […] A drawing of today’s Polityka (an opinion weekly of the Polish intelligentsia) penned by Patryk Sroczynski, which depicts John Paul II with devil horns. As if they don’t know how a man who is beaten in a dark alley by several type behaves […], curls up into a ball, covers his head with his hands and his lower abdomen with his legs. Resist kicks to the elbow and to the nerves […]. Perhaps the publishers of Bielma and Maxima culpa did not realize what the consequences of their publication would be. Or maybe they did. Maybe they were counting on them. Or maybe they weren’t. [And that’s why, and this is really important, the reasonable, nightmarishly disregarded demand of Fr. Isakowicz-Zalewski and others who have been petitioning for years for the opening of church archives will be implemented with far more resistance than it should be. Because a man kicked in the kidneys is reluctant to listen to an appeal to sit down at the table and talk about past transgressions.”

Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski next to Pope John Paul II in October 1980 (Source: / /

This state of affairs, very well described by Stanislawski, caused a surprising mobilization of the emotions of a multitude of Poles. And whether the reasons for this emotion were felt or not became the first line of division among Poles. Because, of course, one can defend a journalist’s right to investigate the past, as currently exemplified by former ombudsman Adam Bodnar, and one can tell Poles that they are now paying the price for the excessive idolization of John Paul II, as some “cool Catholic open-minded journalists” recently have, but this does not change the fact that one either feels the climate of the social engineering operation around the Pope or one does not.

Those two million Poles who watched the televised replay of the 1979 papal homily from Warsaw’s Victory Square sensed this specificity of the moment. The question of whether they will be able to translate their instinctive desire to defend the memory of John Paul II into the coming years is, of course, open. So is the question of whether this psychological reaction will extend only to those who have enshrined in their own memories the beautiful and moral force of the Wojtyla era, or whether an understanding of its significance can be passed on to the next generation. Those who dream of a new Ireland on the Vistula assume that sentiment toward Karol Wojtyla will increasingly be the marker of the older generation. But in this sense, attitudes toward the Pope will be the same dividing line as attitudes toward the Polish soldiers who were hatched, June night and the overthrow of Jan Olszewski’s government, or the question of what really happened at Smolensk. Polish disputes will gain another new dividing line.


Law and Justice was very quick to come out in defense of the memory of John Paul II. Was there political calculation in this? Probably yes. Mateusz Morawiecki publishing a sort of clip with a papal message, a TV speech by Speaker Elżbieta Witek or a parliamentary resolution were probably created with the knowledge that mobilizing the Catholic electorate is a favorable turn during the election campaign, which is, after all, already underway. But that’s the way it is in politics, that a given tradition is of the one who considers it important and who does not hesitate to defend it. He pays for this by being pigeonholed by his opponents, but wins then by being an integral party. That the voters know that this is how it will react to the tarnishing of their sanctity, and not otherwise. And that the party will recognize this sanctity as something more important than current political fashions or the opinions of the intellectual salon.

A good counterpoint to the behavior of the Law and Justice Party was the attitude of the Polish People’s Party. It decided that it was not the time to split hairs into four, and supported the Law and Justice resolution on protecting the good name of John Paul II. And yet, no one can question the clearly oppositional stance of Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz’s party, PSL. The behavior of the Civic Coalition, which did not take part in the vote, was an example of the party’s moral paralysis. The fact that this was not necessarily the case is evidenced by the example of the lone vote in favor of the resolution defending John Paul II by Joanna Fabisiak, a Civic Platform deputy.

Members of the Civic Platform who once presented themselves as disciples of John Paul II, like Pawel Kowal, immediately hid behind the screen of a convenient formula that Law and Justice had taken the Catholic Church in Poland hostage. But the example of the Polish People’s Party (PSL) shows that the Civic Platform could have acted differently. Yes, vote in favor of the Law and Justice resolution, and then in a fiery speech Donald Tusk could have explained why the Civic Platform supported the bill in the name of the higher good, and then disavowed the alleged partisan calculus that Law and Justice associated with the parliamentary act.

Szymon Holownia’s behavior was equally drastic. A politician who holds press conferences about a hole in a bridge in some small town in Pomerania, now all he had to say was a rather chaotic argument on Facebook, combining the theses that “facts must be revealed” with an emphasis that respect for John Paul II must be preserved. But already the number two person in the “Poland 2050” movement – Michal Kobosko – has managed to publicly criticize PSL for having “played to the defense of the Law and Justice Party in the case of the parliamentary resolution in defense of John Paul II.”

In the case of publicists sympathetic to the Civic Platform, the moral outrage at the fact that Law and Justice appropriates the Polish Pope for political purposes has become a convenient explanation for why they themselves do not come to the defense of the Polish Pope. Pawel Kowal thundered: “You people want to enroll John Paul II in the Law and Justice Party, you do not want to defend him. Your actions serve no good purpose.”

No more moral brakes on the Left. Maja Staśko announced to the world that “victims of rape in Poland will die because MPs had to pay their honors to the defender of rapists.” On the Krytyka Polityczna website, one could read a column about the “beast from Wadowice1,” and see memes on the Internet: “For the poor rapists protected by Wojtyla, John Paul II will always be a saint.” Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus is already announcing that the Left is preparing teams that will carry out actions to devolve Polish cities from streets named after John Paul II. In Warsaw, Agata Diduszko-Zyglewska put forward a proposal to turn the John Paul II Institute, financed by the city of Warsaw, into a worldview-neutral center for reflection on various philosophies and cultures.

How will the political camps situate themselves in this battle over John Paul II in the future? Past experience shows that the Civic Platform is succumbing, surprisingly quickly, to the canons imposed by the extreme left on such matters. Rafal Trzaskowski will probably reject Agata Diduszko’s extreme demands for the time being and preserve the John Paul II Institute, but when the political campaign is over, in some time he may succumb to such proposals.


All the referenced examples show that the dispute over John Paul II will play out for decades to come. The question is which side will be more effective in this clash.

1 The hometown of Karol Wojtyla