Last weekend, Poland witnessed the spectacle of the leader of its ruling party, for which Catholic rhetoric is a mainstay, politicking inside of a place of worship. His speech was met by applause from the priest and congregation, and silence from the episcopate. It would be hard to find a more evocative illustration of the state of the Catholic church in Poland.
Last Saturday evening, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, was present at a liturgy in the All Saints Church in Starachowice, the hometown of his late mother, Jadwiga Kaczyńska. Mass was held for her on the eve of the eighth anniversary of her death.
Immediately after the ceremony, the priest gave the floor to the most important person in Poland. The whole event was transmitted live at prime time on the public television news channel, TVP Info.
In his short speech, which was supposed to honour his late mother, Kaczyński warned of the evil that is plaguing the Polish nation and the church. This was an allusion to several women demonstrating outside the church, holding a banner protesting against plans to tighten the abortion law.
We then heard criticism of the political opposition, about how they were responsible for the Amber Gold financial affair. Also on the receiving end were the mythologised “post-communists”, toppled by PiS’s triumph in 2015. The speech was greeted with applause, including from the priest leading the mass, Karol Adamczyk.
The PiS chairman moved smoothly from remembering Jadwiga Kaczyńska, who defended Poland from the Nazi Germans through her underground activity in her hometown of Starachowice, to the need to defend the country from the modern embodiment of evil – the opposition as well as the abortion protestors on the streets.
From a dark historical analogy, Kaczyński created another rhetorical stick to beat his opponents with. His vision is very simple. On the one side, there is the camp representing truth, good, faith and historical justice, and on the other there is ZOMO (communist-era paramilitary-police formations), nihilism, the Nazis and the “Women’s Strike” (who are protesting against the anti-abortion ruling).
This is no overblown interpretation, but a straightforward interpretation of Saturday’s speech. This vulgar Manichaeism has ceased to mean anything other than political division. Kaczyński now has just one key message – if you are a good person, you vote for PiS and go to church; if you are evil, you shout outside the church and persecute good honest Poles.
The entire situation seemed like a play that has been performed too many times and therefore lost any plausibility. All the actors knew what would happen in advance. The chairman ordered public television to transmit the planned speech, and private broadcaster TVN arrived to make a critical report.
Jarosław Kaczyński was able to spin his tale of Catholicism as a besieged fortress because there were a few freezing women standing outside the church, chanting “Your fault, your fault”, as he stepped out of his limousine.
Next, the opposition media fed us clichés we have been hearing for six years from the mouths of weary commentators: about the end of democracy, a creeping dictatorship and the scandalous politicisation of the public media. Their right-wing counterparts, meanwhile, said little about the whole affair, confining themselves to a short report or provocative irony.
The political aspect of the event has gone from being shocking to being deathly dull. The ritual tribal duels of grimaces, to use Witold Gombrowicz’s metaphor, are simply tiresome. The oddity of the performance in Starachowice only heightens this effect. Chairman Kaczyński was not even serious in his hypocritical use of the pretext of his mother’s death.
Because nothing is serious any more. This is a political game played according to rules set long ago, whose circumstances are of minor importance, and the moral rules are loose.
I can no longer believe in any commentator’s righteous indignation about the decline of political mores, let alone summon it in myself. And neither am I able to believe in the sincerity of Kaczyński, the old-school intellectual who with stoical calm lists the embodiments of evil in the history of the Polish nation.
What matters most is not the political show performed by Kaczyński, but the church. It was not the PiS chairman that was noticeable during the recording, but the distant look of the priest who had been giving holy communion a moment before. The silent clergyman, with his grim expression and nervously clasped hands, is an eloquent symbol of the weakness of the Polish church.
In this church, where Father Karol Adamczyk is the host, a few minutes after transubstantiation, the greatest of miracles given to Christians, somebody creates a political cabaret. Not only is the priest unable to interrupt, but he rewards the politically venomous speech with applause. How is Kaczyński any different from left-wing MP Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, who decided in the heat of the protests in October that a holy mass is a good moment for some political theatrics? When we watch such images, the contrast between the trivialities of the issues that the media feeds us and the importance of the true sacrifice made during every mass becomes very clear.
This is not about being sanctimonious. I too often find myself drifting off during the Eucharist, and to interrupt Kaczyński during the live broadcast would have required civil courage. But why was this allowed in the first place? Is the episcopate able to react in some way? How long will such situations be tolerated in the Polish church?
The usual commentators have focused solely on Kaczyński the politician, thereby providing telling evidence of the march of the secularisation process in Poland. If, in a country in which cultural Catholicism is supposedly still dominant, so little attention is given to the sacred context of this event, the conclusion is clear: public religion has been replaced by partisan politics.
Politics has become the air that we breathe, just as Christianity was once something ubiquitous and therefore unnoticeable. Everything is political: from health, to family, intimate relations, and finally religion. Every dimension of our social reality is subject to the logic of political division, like a vulgar version of “the political” according to Carl Schmitt.
And Catholicism is suffering from this. If the church in Poland were not in such a crisis, the situation in Starachowice would be scarcely unimaginable.
The words of Pope Benedict XVI, spoken in Freiburg in 2011, are thus suitably illustrated in the Polish context:
Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbour…The Church opens herself to the world not in order to win men for an institution with its own claims to power.
The sociologist Maria Rogaczewska wrote in the Catholic magazine Więź in 2006 that the strength of the phenomenon of the church in communist Poland was not just great pastors, such as John Paul II or Stefan Wyszyński. The institution constituted a space of freedom in opposition to the political authorities.
It drew its strength from bringing together diverse milieus – artistic and intellectual – in contrast to the oppressive and exclusory state machinery. Catholicism became a public religion, opening itself up to the democratic transformations in Polish society.
With the benefit of hindsight, therefore, a certain historical irony can be observed. Polish right-wing circles, raised on a socially strong and politically weak church, are now strengthening the church politically while at the same time weakening the religious community. Catholic politicians, rather than strengthening Christianity, are only accelerating the advance of secularisation.
Jarosław Kaczyński himself once said about the Christian National Union that this party was the shortest path to the de-Christianisation of Poland. Today, the fast track to the de-Christianisation of Poland leads through his own party.