According to Article 25 of the Polish Constitution: “Public authorities in the Republic of Poland shall be impartial in matters of personal conviction, whether religious or philosophical, or in relation to outlooks on life.” Unfortunately, the reality is far from this. The Catholic Church has numerous tax privileges, it receives billions of zlotys from the state, crosses are displayed in many public institutions, references to Christian values can be found in the Polish Broadcasting Act, and finally we have the grotesque provision of the Criminal Code on the protection of religious feelings, which is applied only to the Catholic religion. The systemic privileging of the Catholic clergy is also evident during the Covid-19 pandemic.
For hundreds of years, the Church has exploited public fears of natural disasters, wars and epidemics. The clergy presented them as punishment for sins, and the only possible salvation was to submit to the will of the Church.
Modern societies are secularised, the world has become disenchanted with religious explanations, and yet in Poland the Catholic Church still draws on imagery popular in previous centuries. The current climate facilitates this: the epidemic kills hundreds of people every day, there is still no effective cure for the Covid-19, vaccinations are progressing slowly, the authorities fail and act incoherently, mental breakdowns, neurosis and depression are common. The Church knows this, and it is trying to rebuild its position by presenting itself as the only institution that offers spiritual support, a sense of security and order.
Retreat from the Church
The ideological offensive of the Church is ongoing, but at the same time, in recent months, more and more abuses of power connected with the highest members of the Episcopate have come to light. It is no longer a secret that many bishops concealed paedophile priests on a massive scale, and yet they still remain unpunished and protect themselves from justice. Meanwhile, according to the recent United Surveys poll for Wprost, almost 60 percent of Poles are in favour of dismissing the whole Episcopate. Moreover, Polish men and women do not agree with the thesis spread by the authorities and church hierarchy that “nowadays there is no alternative value system that Poles could follow, besides the teachings of the Catholic Church.” In a survey conducted by IPSOS for OKO.press, 63 percent of respondents disagreed with this statement, while 32 percent of respondents expressed the opposite opinion. Also, CBOS surveys show a decline in confidence in the Church. According to the last survey from February this year, 46 percent of respondents assess the activities of the Church negatively, and 43 percent have a positive opinion.
Therefore, it can be seen that the intensification of Catholic propaganda in public media or in statements from the Ministry of Education and Science is not sufficient to disguise the drastic discrepancy between the declared system of values and the conduct of the Church hierarchy.
But even if the Church did indeed enjoy universal authority and trust, it should not stand above the law. Equality before the law and policies of the public authorities are particularly important during a pandemic. Privileging selected topics or professional groups breeds justified distrust of society and weakens the legitimacy of state institutions’ actions. It is difficult to understand burdensome prescriptions and restrictions if they do not apply to everyone. For many of us, churches can be a space that facilitates a spiritual experience and contemplation, but for others, libraries, cinemas, gyms or theatres may serve the same purpose.
Meanwhile, since the beginning of the pandemic churches are the only establishments that do not provide essential goods and services to have remained open. On top of that, the government doesn’t even explain to the public why it made such a decision. It is difficult to justify why people can gather in churches but cannot in cinemas, theatres or swimming pools, even with strict measures in place. It is all the more incomprehensible that so far the owners of secular facilities have complied with the restrictions to a greater extent than priests in churches. Sanitary regulations were repeatedly broken during church events, and yet the authorities did not learn from these experiences.
In addition, many high-ranking priests openly mock the dangers of Covid-19. Recently, Bishop Ignacy Dec not only openly spoke out against closing churches, but was also critical of restrictions on limiting the number of worshippers during mass. “When there were terrible epidemics and people died en masse, no authority ever decided to close churches. These were the places where believers looked for salvation and is where they found it. Now they are trying to tell us that temples are dangerous to our health. We have a right to gather and worship God. This is only truly possible in a temple”, said Dec in an interview with Nasz Dziennik.
His position was supported by the spokesman of Catholic Action in Poland, Artur Dabrowski, who declared that “the nation wants to spend Christmas according to its faith and Polish tradition. No authority has the right to deprive us of this.” Nasz Dziennik also quoted the words of Robert Bąkiewicz, the chairman of the Independence March, who clearly declared that “closing churches or introducing drastic limits is unacceptable.” Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a friend of the authorities, also categorically criticised the idea of closing churches or limiting the number of worshipers. Rydzyk said that limits on the number of people attending mass lead to Satan’s control over the faithful, which is why they take part in women’s protests. Therefore, in his opinion mass should be attended and “let’s leave praying through the Internet for those who cannot come.” The way Tadeusz Rydzyk disregards the pandemic restrictions could be clearly seen during the December anniversary celebrations of his Radio Maryja, which were attended by numerous politicians from the governing parties.
The Church, alongside the Confederation, the far-right coalition in the Polish parliament, is at present the biggest and the most influential body that fights against the sanitary regime and while contributing to the growth of infections. What is important here is not only the pressure not to close churches or limit the maximum number of worshipers, but also the message that the fight against the pandemic is secondary to the mission of the clergy. The Church sends a clear message: discipline, obedience to the demands of faith, and of course collecting the money on the tray are more important than the health and life of citizens. Because, as Robert Bąkiewicz said in the above mentioned article from Nasz Dziennik: “Our life is only a stage on the way to the Father. We need sacraments, we need the Church. And the state is obliged to take care of us and let us live our faithfully.”
Church above the law
The Church’s approach to the pandemic is cynical and socially harmful, but it is the state that is responsible for obeying the law in Poland. Especially during a pandemic it is important that public institutions explain efficiently and transparently to the citizens where the restrictions come from and why they should obey them. There should be no room for discriminating in favour of any person or institution. Meanwhile, the government has been acting chaotically for many months. It has been closing and opening forests, cemeteries, gyms, restaurants, cafés, shops and cinemas without consulting with anyone. What hurts the owners of commercial and service establishments is not that there are restrictions, but that they are unpredictable, inconsistent and inconsequential, so it is difficult to prepare for them. Moreover, the authorities avoid dialogue with representatives of particular branches, which generates even more social resistance and anger.
Only the Church has an extraordinary position: churches are not closed, and any changes regarding limiting the number of people inside are first discussed in consultation with church authorities. Thus, the Church is the only entity with which the government negotiates restrictions and, what’s more, it permanently gives way to it. In the case of hairdressers, beauticians or restaurant owners the authorities require compliance with the law under the threat of a heavy fine. In the case of priests, the government requires a non-binding declaration of a “serious approach”. “Guided by our concern for the life and health of the faithful who participate in the life of the Church, we appeal to all parish priests to take a very serious approach to the current rules regarding the number of worshipers who can attend services at one time” – reads the joint statement from the Ministry of Health and the Episcopate. Interestingly, the health minister himself recently admitted that the limit on people in churches is not likely to be respected, yet he has not taken any disciplinary action.
The police also regard churches as establishments that can circumvent Polish law. “We do not have a custom of ad hoc inspections in churches, there have never been any such inspections […] As police, we count first and foremost on the responsibility of the clergy and the worshipers”, stated Police Chief Inspector General Jarosław Szymczyk. When asked about the details of police actions regarding churches, Szymczyk replied that the police “ask and appeal” for restrictions to be observed. In other words, the spokesman admitted that the police do not intend to enforce compliance with the law when it comes to the clergy.
Placing the clergy outside and above existing laws is not only brutal evidence of a lack of rule of law, but it is also, especially during a pandemic, destructive to society as a whole.