Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, leader of the Civic Coalition, speaks next to Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski April 7, 2024, during the Civic Coalition election evening in Warsaw, following the results of local elections exit polls. On May 8, 2024, Trzaskowski ordered the removal of Christian symbols from public offices. OSV News photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters

Polish church warns of widening conflict over 'hostile reforms'

By  Jonathan Luxmoore, OSV News
  • May 24, 2024

Poland's bishops have warned of growing conflict with anti-clerical politicians if they press ahead with plans to remove public crosses and curb religious education in the traditionally Catholic country, as church leaders across Europe also cautioned against the "marginalization" of Christianity.

In the current political and social reality "instead of a coordinated separation, typical of a secular state, a pattern of hostile separation is being promoted, appropriate to the ideology of secularism," said the social council of the Warsaw-based bishops' conference.

A statement signed by Auxiliary Bishop Marian Florczyk of Kielce, chairman of the Council for Social Affairs of the Polish Bishops' Conference, said the state acts as if it was trying to separate "the enemy," which "consists in the removal and ultimate suppression of religious symbols and manifestations of religious worship, the elimination of the social role of the Church and all manifestations of private and public religious life."

"The logic of secularism, defined in this way," is said, "does not respect the objective limits of politics, usurping the right to decide on good and evil and human rights, including the right to life and religious freedom."

The statement was issued May 21 as a Warsaw mayor and one of the leaders of Poland's governing Civic Coalition, Rafal Trzaskowski, ordered the removal of Christian symbols from public offices.

Meanwhile, the bishops' Catholic education commission also criticized "hasty" unilateral plans, unveiled April 30 by Prime Minister Donald Tusk's government, to cap religious classes by placing pupils from various grades together.

Such changes "contradict all pedagogical, psychological and didactic principles," and "deprive classes of the required level of educational quality," the commission said in a separate May 18 statement.The commission urged believers to take action "to demonstrate the value of school religion classes and (oppose) this unfair treatment," asking Catholic parents to speak out.

Tusk's Civic Coalition came second in Oct. 15 elections behind the incumbent Law and Justice party, but allied to the center-right Third Way and radical-left Lewica parties to gain a majority of 248 in Poland's 460-seat Sejm lower house.

Besides restricting religious education, taught nationwide in public and private schools by 30,000 mostly lay catechists, the government has pledged to legalize same-sex partnerships and liberalize access to abortion, although the moves face opposition within the coalition, as well as from Poland's conservative president, Andrzej Duda.

Meanwhile, as the mayor of Warsaw signed the decree May 8 asking for the removal of "any symbols related to a specific religion or denomination" from city offices and events, a mayoral spokesman, Monika Beuth, said May 16 the new guidelines are aimed at "counteracting discrimination and inequality," rather than fighting "any tradition or religion." But she added that official "religious and ideological neutrality" was essential in a "free, democratic state."

However, the move's constitutional validity was questioned by legal experts with Poland's Catholic Information Agency, KAI, and rejected by the Archdiocese of Warsaw, whose spokesman, Father Przemyslaw Sliwinski, said May 17 current "dramatic events beyond our country's borders" required unity rather than "polarization that destroys dialogue."

Among international reactions, U.S. entrepreneur Elun Musk said in a May 21 post on X social media platform, formerly Twitter, he was "embarrassed" that Trzaskowski appeared to be "shamelessly copying stupid things from America."

In a brief statement, Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz of Warsaw said pluralism required "respect for all social groups," while Poland's newest cardinal, Grzegorz Rys of Lódz, said moves to enforce "one ideology and one language" resembled the biblical Tower of Babel.In an OSV News interview, a theologian and social scientist at Warsaw's Cardinal Wyszynski University said he also believed the claim of neutrality conflicted with Poland's 1997 Constitution. He added that the May 8 decree would associate Trzaskowski with Wladyslaw Gomulka (1905-1982), a communist ruler who ordered the removal of crosses in the late 1940s, and also banned Catholic schools and processions.

"Our constitution guarantees the possibility of publicly manifesting religious convictions, and a city mayor is obliged to ensure this freedom," said Father Piotr Mazurkiewicz, a former secretary-general of COMECE, the Brussels-based Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union.

"Whereas the communist state declared its neutrality as a means of eliminating Christianity from the public scene, today's constitution speaks of impartiality -- meaning the authorities must not stand on any one side if conflicts occur over religious convictions or worldviews," Father Mazurkiewicz said. "If atheists wish to remove religious symbols and Christians wish to keep them, the authorities cannot order their removal since this would violate impartiality."

The conflict occurred as May 21 data from Poland's public opinion research center, CBOS, suggested practicing religious believers had fallen from 39% to 34% of Poland's 40.3 million inhabitants since 2020, with 14% now declaring themselves nonbelievers, with a parallel drop in priestly ordinations.

In his OSV News interview, Father Mazurkiewicz said current anti-church moves were intended to "mobilize an anti-Christian electorate" for upcoming European Parliament elections, but had not "gained any popular applause."

"There's certainly an anti-Christian group in parliament which seeks to exploit the church's current weaknesses and has more support in Warsaw than in smaller population centers," said the former COMECE secretary-general.

"But this option is quite marginal nationally, and it's why we must defend the presence of crosses in public places, as permitted under our constitution."

Meanwhile, Europe's Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches cautioned against wider attempts to exclude Christianity from public life at an ecumenical symposium ahead of the June 6-8 European elections.

In a joint declaration, signed May 17 in Thessaloniki, Greece, church leaders said the exclusion of "any appropriate reference" to Christian values in EU treaties and directives suggested Christian traditions were being overlooked, leaving many European Christians feeling "marginalized, as they do not have the opportunity to express their positions and opinions in an autonomous and distinct way."

Values, formerly taken for granted, "such as peace, stability and prosperity, and the rule of law rather than rule by power, have now been torn apart," said the statement, co-sponsored by COMECE.

Father Mazurkiewicz told OSV News that COMECE and other church organizations were "picking up certain signals" of a hardening of attitudes against "church influences" across EU institutions.

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