Poland and the Catholic Church

Poland, Bastion of Religion, Sees Rise in Secularism

Gordon Welters for The New York Times
The statue in Swiebodzin rivals the height of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.


SWIEBODZIN, Poland — A statue of Jesus, one of the tallest in the world, stands on the flat frozen fields of this small western Poland town, its arms outstretched and gaze fixed straight ahead at a community trying to push back a rising tide of secularism.

Gordon Welters for The New York Times
“I hope this statue will become a remedy for this secularization,” said Rev. Sylwester Zawadzki, who inspired the project.

Gordon Welters for The New York Times
Tourists visiting the 108-foot-high statue of Jesus erected last month in Swiebodzin, a small town in western Poland.

The New York Times

The stark, white, 108-foot-high figure was erected last month in part to serve as sentry against a force already churning through Poland. “I hope this statue will become a remedy for this secularization,” said the Rev. Sylwester Zawadzki, the priest who inspired the construction of the figure, which rivals the height of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. “I hope it will have a religious mission and not just bring tourists.”

Poland is still an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, still conservative and still religious, especially when compared with its European neighbors. But supporters and critics of the Roman Catholic Church all acknowledge that the society is changing. They agree that church representatives in Poland have lost authority and credibility, and that much of the population is moving toward a more secular view of life, one with a greater separation between church and state, and a rejection of church mandates on individual morality.

“We are considered the European museum of Catholicism, but let me tell you we are no longer,” said Szymon Holownia, program director for Religia TV, a relatively new station that aims to convince Poles that faith can and should be relevant in modern life with programs like a cooking show led by a nun. “The relationship between faith and state is changing; it is changing dramatically in Poland,” Mr. Holownia said. “It is really huge.”

“Twenty years of freedom and religion is evaporating,” he said. “This is the crisis of Christianity in Poland.”

Church supporters said the trend was evident in the numbers: 95 percent of Poles identify themselves as Catholic, but only 41 percent attend Sunday Mass regularly. In the big cities of Warsaw and Krakow, only about 20 percent attend Mass regularly on Sundays, according to the Institute of Statistics of the Church. Supporters of the church also said that the numbers dropped far below the 41 percent when it came to accepting moral mandates about issues like divorce and in vitro fertilization, both of which the church opposes and a majority of people appear to support.

“It seems we are Catholics in a cultural way; we identify as Catholic, but do not attend church,” said Tomasz Terlikowski, editor of Fronda, a conservative Catholic magazine, who said he was upset with what he called the lack of effective church leadership against the secular tide.

Mr. Terlikowski said he was astounded when he heard that church leaders in Poland were so frustrated with what was being said about the church in the national newspapers that they ordered their staff members to stop bringing them the papers.

“Yes, really!” he said slapping a table for emphasis.

Poles cite a wide variety of reasons for the church’s declining influence. They say the dynamic gained momentum after the death in 2005 of the hugely popular Pope John Paul II, whose leadership is credited with helping bring down the Iron Curtain.

Church critics and supporters said that the trend was partly an expression of disgust with the clergy for taking sides in recent political battles, and partly the influence of thousands of Poles who had returned home after working and studying in the more secular societies in the West.

But they also said there was a strong anticlerical movement in Poland, one that was unique to this nation and not tied to the sex scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church elsewhere. It is more closely linked to an almost genetic predisposition to rebel against authority, many people here said, as much as the church’s often heavy-handed intervention in national politics and debates over social issues, particularly in vitro fertilization.

“I think most people would say their priest is a drunkard, that he is corrupt, that he takes too much money from weddings, that he bought himself a fancy car,” said Pawel Spiewak, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw, who added that the perception was not always fair or accurate.

The list of grievances against the church tends to be Polish specific: that it managed to recover its property after Communism, but that average people often could not; that it appeared to take sides in politics, supporting the more conservative and nationalistic Law and Justice party of former President Lech Kaczynski over the governing Civic Platform party; and that the church allowed Mr. Kaczynski and his wife, Maria, to be buried in the historic cemetery at Wawel Castle after they died in a plane crash in April, a decision now seen by many as partisan.

During the decades after World War II, when Poland was controlled by the Soviet Union, the church and its leaders were not allowed to have their hands — or their voices — involved in the temporal matters of government. Instead, the church served as a “moral leader,” said Witold Kawecki, a priest and the director of the new Institute for Studies of Culture at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw.

That became especially true in October 1978 when a Pole was selected as the next pope and then when that pope, John Paul II, visited Poland in 1979 and delivered his famous words — “Do not fear” — that are credited with helping to propel the Solidarity movement.

These days the church is involved in far more prosaic issues, like the matter of in vitro fertilization. The medical procedure has been practiced for years in Poland, but when Parliament recently decided that it needed to issue guidelines, the church called for the procedure to be banned. While supporters said it was time the church stepped into moral arguments, its actions engendered widespread anger, analysts said.

Antichurch sentiment has run so hot that one of the most popular politicians in the country, Janusz Palikot, started a political party based largely on an anticlerical platform. He said that the national divide tended to be generational, with older citizens more closely aligned with the church, but that it was impossible to discern distinct boundaries.

“I believe that those anticlerical and anti-Catholic feelings in society are deeper than it seems, especially in the little towns,” Mr. Palikot said. “People will not leave the church, but their tendency to disagree with the church has become more apparent.”

That, however, was not the case in this village, where the towering statue of Jesus is visible from nearly every corner. Father Zawadzki, the man who inspired its construction, said that his church was packed during each of the seven Masses he celebrated every Sunday.

“The Holy Bible holds lots of examples of miracles that brought people back to Christianity again,” he said. “This might happen again.”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 12, 2010, on page A14 of the New York edition.