Standing at an outdoor pulpit at Poland’s holiest Roman Catholic site, the nation’s top church leader delivered a message to the president and prime minister seated before him: Poland must show compassion to refugees and respect its own Constitution.
Archbishop Wojciech Polak’s words were understood by many Poles as criticism of the country’s conservative leaders. Though manifestly Catholic and attached to the church, they have pursued policies so hostile to migrants that they would seem to contradict the principle of compassion their religion teaches. They also have pursued reforms widely viewed as undemocratic.
The archbishop’s admonition, along with disapproving remarks from other religious leaders in the homeland of sainted Pope John Paul II, signal that the influential Catholic Church sees a need to correct the path of the country’s governing politicians.
The church’s reproach, while so far delivered diplomatically, raises the question of whether the ruling Law and Justice party could be at risk of losing some of its wide support among believers in a country where nine out of 10 citizens identify as Catholic.
“We must be open and compassionate and ready to help those most needy, weak and persecuted, migrants and refugees,” Polak said during a Mass celebrated at the Jasna Gora shrine in the city of Czestochowa to honor church-state relations. “We must respect the social order rather than destroy it thoughtlessly.”
Another prominent bishop, Tadeusz Pieronek, went further recently, accusing leaders of consciously “violating the Constitution” as they overhaul the judiciary system. He called it “villainy.”
Law and Justice party came to power in 2015 thanks in part to the support of the church. Parish priests in small towns and villages used their sermons to help the party in its campaign by praising the values it advocated.
So did the Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk, a business-minded priest who runs an influential broadcasting network. The government subsidizes the network and Cabinet ministers often appear on its Radio Maryja station.
At the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, which came during Poland’s 2015 election campaign, Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski advocated anti-migrant attitude, saying migrants posed a threat because they might carry “parasites and protozoa,” a comment criticized for inciting xenophobia.
A 2016 visit from Pope Francis did little to budge the Polish authorities from their unyielding refusal to accept refugees or migrants. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, the mother of a priest, often stresses that Poland aids refugees financially and medically in centers outside of Europe, close to their homelands.
The church hierarchy stepped into politics again last week. With gentle language that nonetheless displayed displeasure, five bishops opposed the Polish government’s renewed demand for World War II reparations from Germany. Occupying German Nazis killed nearly a fifth of Poland’s population during the war and left the nation in ruins.
The bishops said that “ill-considered decisions and rash words” could easily destroy the hard-won reconciliation between Poland and Germany. They also recalled the help Germans gave to Poles during some of the darkest days of communism.
Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, who heads Poland’s bishops’ council, also waded into an ongoing political dispute over the ruling party’s attempts to overhaul the justice system. Gadecki thanked President Andrzej Duda for having vetoed two government-proposed bills that he found too extreme.
Warsaw University political scientist Anna Materska-Sosnowska said Polak’s unusually strong words at the shrine Mass could turn away some voters, but that the effect only will become evident during local elections next year and the parliamentary election scheduled for 2019.
But Kazimierz Kik, political analyst of the Jan Kochanowski University interpreted Polak’s words as a friendly reprimand and expression of concern that could paradoxically strengthen the public’s trust in the leaders.
The words show that “the church is with the government, not against it and warns it at the right moment against going too far into a conflict situation,” like the standoff with the EU over migrants, Kik said.
The question is, will the authorities heed the warning.
Some Poles don’t expect criticism from the church to cost the ruling party much support.
“People in small towns will keep listening to their local parish priests, the majority of whom praise the government,” Andrzej Kaminski, 77, a retired engineer said. “The church hierarchy is high and far away and the local priest is right there, with them.”