Does the Advent of the Tusk Government Foreshadow an Erosion of Poland’s Christian Culture?

NEWS ANALYSIS: Under the impetus of progressive policies pushed forward by the new national government, the socio-cultural landscape seems to be changing rapidly in a country that remains among the most Catholic in Europe.

A statue of the late pope, St. John Paul II, at market square in Wadowice, Poland on April 2, 2023.
A statue of the late pope, St. John Paul II, at market square in Wadowice, Poland on April 2, 2023. (photo: Beata Zawrzel / AP )

WARSAW, Poland — An inflammatory atmosphere has prevailed in Poland since the recent parliamentary elections in October 2023 — and these ongoing political and ideological clashes have not spared the Church, still a central institution in the life of the Eastern European nation. 

The new government, led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, was sworn in on Dec. 13, bringing to an end the eight-year rule of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. 

While technically the conservative party remains the country’s largest ,with more than 35% of the votes in the Oct. 15 elections, it lost its parliamentary majority to a coalition of the centrist Civic Coalition (KO), center-right Third Way (Trzecia Droga) and The Left (Lewica) parties.

Supported by the European Union’s leadership, which is currently studying the possibility of releasing the 76 billion euros of the Covid Recovery Fund that the European Commission has frozen since 2022 due to EU concerns over the independence of the Polish judiciary, the new executive has already implemented a series of measures and interventions designed to liquidate the legacy of its predecessor.


‘Brutal Methods’

To this end, Prime Minister Tusk’s government has resorted to methods deemed brutal and even authoritarian by its opponents and some foreign commentators. The most emblematic case is the spectacular arrest at the Presidential Palace of former Law and Justice ministers Mariusz Kamiński and Maciej Wąsik, on Jan. 9. 

The two MPs had been convicted in a Polish lower court in 2015 of abuse of power and pardoned that year while appealing the court decision by President Andrzej Duda, who as head of state has unimpeded constitutional authority to confer pardons. The case subsequently triggered a legal battle between Supreme Court and Constitutional Court judges. 

Last June, the Supreme Court invalidated the presidential pardons, on the grounds that they were issued before the full judicial process had been completed. The Constitutional Court, for its part, upheld the validity of the pardons, but its authority is being questioned by some legal experts, notably following a 2021 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that the Polish court is not founded in law due to the presence of a judge appointed by the conservative PiS party through President Duda, who is aligned politically with the PiS. 

This situation has led some observers to fear the emergence of a long-term constitutional crisis.

“Since the new government is picking and choosing which rulings of different courts they would obey, ignoring the fact that our constitution gives the president an absolute power to pardon citizens, then it is difficult to deny that its officials are breaking the law,” Iwo Bender, a Warsaw-based political commentator and manager of EWTN East Central Europe, told the Register. The Register is a service of EWTN News.

Moreover, the new government deemed it advisable to liquidate the public media outlets TVP, Polskie Radio and Polish Press Agency (PAP), in order to “depoliticize” these leading media outlets. Opponents have condemned these actions as a bid by the Tusk government to suppress critical media voices for its own political advantage. These methods have also been questioned by outside experts, including the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, which stated in a press release that they “raise serious legal questions.”


The End of Christian Poland?

Beyond the constitutional crisis that is shaking the country, another dynamic is at work, the effects of which could be more profound and decisive for its future. 

Poland, which is around 90% Catholic and has stood out as an exception in recent years in a predominantly post-Christian Europe, faith has necessarily become a battleground between opposing ideological camps. While the PiS conservatives and their allies were notable during their eight years in power for their closeness to the country’s religious authorities, and by a series of laws supporting the institution of the family, religious freedom and the defense of human life, their opponents have aligned themselves with the progressive views of the European Union, based in Brussels, and campaigned on relatively anti-clerical stances.

Although a self-professed Catholic, Tusk, when in opposition, had in 2021 called for the removal of all crucifixes and other religious symbols from public spaces, starting with the Sejm Cross in Parliament (in place since 1997), a wish that his government’s local representatives are beginning to implement.

As early as mid-January, the new coalition introduced a plan to reduce the Church Fund — state subsidies worth several million zloty (the Polish currency) each year — which is due to be discussed in parliament by the end of March. Similarly, the new minister of education has already announced a reduction in catechism classes in state schools. 

The government has also announced that a series of compensatory measures for the country’s LGBT community are being studied, including the possible introduction of same-sex civil marriage.

According to Belgian historian David Engels, research professor at the Instytut Zachodni in Poznan in northern Poland and author of numerous works on European political and civilizational movements, an “ideological revolution” is currently taking place under the stunned eye of the opposition. “We see the supporters of the ‘progressive’ side having fewer and fewer scruples about imposing their vision of a ‘great reset’ of our civilization, using every means — the media, politics, education, rights, economics. This gives the not entirely unjustified impression of witnessing the beginning of a new ‘soft’ totalitarianism,” he said in an interview with the Register. 

This strong movement towards secularization, which could herald a major turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in Poland if the new government’s policies take hold over time, has left its hierarchy in a quandary. While many bishops are already seeking dialogue with members of the new government, some of whom openly declare themselves to be Catholic, tensions are also emerging — including the recent controversy surrounding the president of the Polish Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, who offered to mediate between the current minister of justice and the two imprisoned former ministers Kamiński and Wąsik, offering the latter “humanitarian help.” This initiative earned him accusations of interference in public matters and political bias.


The Stumbling Block of Abortion 

But it is the sensitive issue of abortion that has crystallized the nascent antagonisms, with the Polish clergy formally opposed to any idea of liberalizing abortion access, which was severely restricted by the outgoing government in 2020. 

As soon as he came to power, Tusk expressed his desire to introduce a bill allowing abortion under any conditions up to 12 weeks. 

At present, abortion in Poland is only permitted in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother. Eugenic abortion — in cases of fetal abnormality — was banned by a ruling of the Constitutional Court on Oct. 22, 2020. This ruling led to the country being sanctioned by the European Court of Human Rights in 2023. 

In addition to this broader project to liberalize abortion access, the new parliamentary group also plans to enact a law allowing the morning-after pill to be sold over the counter to minors age 15 and older.

But beyond the opposition of the episcopate, which remains an influential voice in the country, on these societal issues the coalition will probably have to face the veto of President Duda, known to be a devout Catholic hostile to abortion, and whose term of office will not end until 2025. 

Curiously enough, the issue has upset the usual political divides since some members of the new government are not in favor of much liberalization of the existing abortion laws, whereas former PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki partly blames the right’s electoral defeat on the harshness of its anti-abortion legislation, as do some conservative analysts including Engels. Indeed, it was the massive mobilization of the female electorate —  with a turnout of almost 75%, the highest since the fall of communism in 1989 — in favor of the left-wing parties that caused the conservative camp to lose its majority in Parliament. 

Activist Kaja Godek, who spearheaded the vast “Stop abortion committee citizens group” that prompted parliament to legislate in 2020, takes issue with these diagnoses. “There is no such a thing as ‘historical necessity’ to justify moving from pro-life to pro-abortion policies,” Godek told the Register. “The West in general lost this battle for life whenever they believed they should not fight further, but count on the little they had. And in doing so, they eventually lost the little they had left to protect the unborn. 

“We should not repeat that mistake,” she continued, adding that while the current coalition in the parliament will certainly “try to impose pro-abortion measures, what will really happen will ultimately depend on ordinary people.”


Inoculated Against Anti-Christian Ideology? 

But if a majority of the country was still hostile to abortion in 2020, mainly out of religious sentiment, the cultural landscape is being transformed at high speed by the effects of globalization and the spread of progressive currents among young people, in particular woke culture — further facilitated by the expansion of social networks and other channels such as the Netflix platform — whose foundations are mostly at odds with Christian anthropology. In 2021, the Polish government was already reporting a significant decline in religious practice among young people since the 1990s.

This makes David Engels fear that the current secularization movement will rapidly take root, starting in the major urban centers. In his view, this is more likely as Poland’s conservative ranks struggle to find adequate tactics of resistance to counterbalance the prevailing trend. 

“During their eight years in power, the Conservatives failed to create independent media, thinktanks or academies that they could now use as remote defensive positions. Using only the means that the state made available to them, they literally lost everything by losing the majority,” he said.

In contrast, he pointed out that the current progressive government enjoys the support of European institutions, a majority of Western media and the German government, making the ideological battle unequal.

However, he nuanced his remarks with the observation that the radicalization of part of the liberal side is making “the absurdities, even the dangers of wokism more apparent to citizens,” as is “the brutality with which dissenting opinions are vilified as ‘far right,’ pushing more and more people into active resistance.”

This ties in with Iwo Bender’s point of view, who suggests that young people in rural areas, where 40% of the population still live, tend to be much more inclined to preserve the spiritual and cultural heritage of their parents, thus making them more impervious to political and ideological movements from the big cities and abroad.

He pointed out that in a country deprived of a state between the end of the 18th century and 1918, then again under the Nazi (1939-45) and Soviet communist (1952-1989) yokes, national identity is intrinsically linked to faith, with periods of conquest and occupation by outside forces often accompanied by intense religious persecution, especially during the communist era. 

“These various inoculations have made ideologies tinged with anti-Christianism absolutely unpalatable to a large majority of Poles,” Bender said, “which suggests that they will not allow themselves to be dispossessed of their religious affiliation without a strong fightback on the ground, and it is highly doubtful that this flame will ever be extinguished.”