Poland digs in against tide toward secularism

Warsaw, Poland - Poland could be Europe's first red state. The 25 members of the European Union do not think of themselves in terms of blue states and red states, at least not yet. If they did, the map of Europe would have a decidedly blue hue. Even countries with conservative governments, such as France and Germany, are blue when it comes to the "values" debate.

But Poland cuts against the grain. Lech Kaczynski, winner of last October's presidential election, is opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. He has instructed his education minister to come up with guidelines for the "proper upbringing of children." And lately, he has been spending a lot of time cozying up to conservative Christian groups.

While Christianity appears to be in a steep decline across most of Europe, in Poland the faith still burns brightly. The question is whether Poland is an anomaly, a quirky throwback to another era, or whether it is harbinger of Europe's coming culture war.

Poland's churches are packed; its seminaries still are churning out healthy numbers of priests. According to census data, 96 percent of the population identify themselves as Roman Catholic; 57 percent say they attend mass every Sunday. There seem to be as many statues of Pope John Paul II as there once were of V.I. Lenin.

This week Pope Benedict XVI will pay homage to his predecessor with a visit to Poland, and Poles have responded by modestly covering up some of the racier lingerie ads along the processional route.

The pope's stops will include Warsaw, the Auschwitz death camp and Wadowice, Pope John Paul II's hometown.

It was the late pope's fervent hope that the intense spirituality of his native Poland would spark a "new evangelization" of Western Europe. During most of his papacy, there was scant sign of that happening.

But more recently Poland has emerged at the fore of a fledgling movement to restore Christian values to Europe.

"What's new in Poland is that political parties want to express their Catholicism," said Pawel Spiewak, a Polish sociologist and expert on right-wing politics.

"A few years ago, a typical Pole was Catholic in his private life. Now he is expressing it openly and wants to express it as public policy. It's atypical for Europe," Spiewak said.

Beginning in 2003, the Polish government led the push--ultimately unsuccessful--to include a reference to Christianity in the new EU constitution.

Aleksander Kwasniewski, the reformed communist who was Poland's president at the time, told a British newspaper that "there is no excuse for making references to ancient Greece and Rome, and to the Enlightenment, without making reference to the Christian values which are so important to the development of Europe."

An unusual argument coming from a self-professed atheist, but Kwasniewski always has grasped the importance of religion in Polish political life.

Last year, the Polish delegation to the European Parliament made waves by setting up an anti-abortion display in the corridors of the parliament's headquarters in Strasbourg, France. A scuffle ensued when guards attempted to remove it.

"We follow the teachings of the church and the advice of the bishops," said Piotr Slusarczyk, a spokesman for the League of Polish Families, a conservative Catholic party that was behind the anti-abortion display.

In addition to abortion, Slusarczyk said the league opposes gay rights and euthanasia. It also favors large families and takes a dim view of the EU in general.

"Our goal is to defend Catholic values and to defend Poland against Western tendencies that are being promoted by a vocal EU lobby," he said.

Religion and politics blend naturally in Poland.

For more than a thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church has been the chief guardian and repository of the Polish national identity. During the years of partition, when Poland didn't have a territory, it was the church that kept the nation alive. Under communism, the church served as a bulwark of moral resistance.

The papacy of John Paul II applied the coup de grace to East European communism, and when the decrepit Polish regime collapsed in 1989, the church proclaimed itself the victor and assumed a privileged position in the new democracy.

At its behest, Poland's liberal abortion laws were abolished and the Catholic catechism was introduced to public schools.

But when Polish bishops tried to use the pulpit to sway the 1995 presidential elections, it backfired badly. Incumbent and former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, the bishops' choice, was humiliated by Kwasniewski.

"It was a misunderstanding. The church had no experience with democracy," said Maciej Zieba, a Dominican priest and one of Poland's leading social thinkers.

After the 1995 fiasco, the church hierarchy maintained a studied neutrality and much lower profile in politics, Zieba said.

But last year's election brought a new wrinkle. President Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party ran on a populist reform platform but veered sharply to the right after its victory when Kaczynski and his twin brother, Jaroslaw, who heads the party, began courting the League of Polish Families and Samoobrona (Self-Defense), a populist party sometimes described as xenophobic.

"The leading party, Law and Justice, wants to engage the church in politics, especially this extreme wing in the church," Zieba said. "This is a real danger."

Lech Kaczynski's first visit as head of state was to the Vatican; his second was to Washington. Andrzej Dominiczak, co-director of the Polish Humanist Federation, an organization that aims to maintain a separation of church and state, said the president's itinerary was meant to send a message.

"The politicians from Law and Justice use America as an example of a democracy that is also a very religious state," he said. "And it's effective because Poles are incredibly fond of the America."

The League of Polish Families makes no secret of its admiration for America's religious right.

"I like what I see happening in the United States--the emphasis on the family, the emergence of so many pro-life groups," said Slusarczyk, the league's spokesman.

"I feel much closer to the United States than to Europe. I'm very concerned about France, Germany, even Italy. They have lost their way in terms of moral development," he said.

In some ways, the League of Polish Families could be the doppelganger of American groups such as James Dobson's Focus on the Family or the Family Research Council, but this kind of religious activism in politics is a recent phenomenon in Poland, and Polish religiosity is different from that in the United States.

"Poles are religious, but they are not passionate about it the way Americans are," said Anna Hejka, an investment banker in Warsaw who worked on Wall Street in the 1980s.

"In America, there's this need to immerse yourself fully in religion. ... You have all these sects and born-agains and charismatic groups," she said.

Although the anti-abortion lobby in Poland is deeply committed, Hejka said, the idea of bombing an abortion clinic "would never happen in Poland."

But as conservative Catholic activists begin to flex their political muscles in Poland, liberal Catholics and secularists are increasingly alarmed. Recently, media attention has focused on the growing influence in Poland of Opus Dei, the Catholic lay organization that is invariably described as "secretive."

According to Polish media reports, several ministers, deputy ministers and key advisers in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz are members of Opus Dei, including Roman Giertych, director of the League of Polish Families, who this month was named education minister.

Later this year, Opus Dei, whose IESE Business School in Barcelona is considered one of Europe's best, plans to open a Warsaw branch. Radoslaw Koszewski, director of the Warsaw program, insists the school will not mix business and religion.

"No priests or bishops will be teaching there, and we don't pay attention to the religion of professors or students," he said.

The fuss about Opus Dei appears to be overblown.

The one European country where Opus Dei members have held positions of influence over the years, Spain, keeps barreling down the path of secularization. The government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero recently legalized same-sex marriages over the protests of the Vatican and Spanish bishops.

Radio Maryja stirs alarm

More disturbing for Poles is the growing influence of Radio Maryja, an ultranationalist Catholic radio station with a decidedly anti-Semitic worldview.

Radio Maryja has been an embarrassment to the church for more than a decade. This year, the Vatican and the Polish Bishops Conference issued separate condemnations of the station's involvement in politics, but to no apparent effect.

"In the beginning, [Radio Maryja] was treated as a necessary evil in a pluralistic society ... but now it is really hurting the image of the church," said Kazimierz Sowa, a priest and journalist.

During the 2005 election, Radio Maryja embraced the cause of Law and Justice and helped sway a close vote.

The Kaczynski brothers have repaid the debt by snubbing mainstream media outlets and making the radio station and its television affiliate the quasi-official voice of the government.

"Imagine if George Bush appeared only on the televangelists' news? Well, that's what's happening here," said the Humanist Federation's Dominiczak.

Concerns about intolerance

The rise of a religious right in Poland has set off alarms in Western Europe, according to Krzysztof Bobinski, director of Unia i Polska, a research center in Warsaw.

"When they started out, the Kaczynski brothers were fairly mainstream ... but now they've gotten into bed with the League of Polish Families and Samoobrona. They are moving to the right, and it's a pretty intolerant right," Bobinski said.

"Poland risks losing the sympathy it has in the West as a freedom-loving, freedom-fighting nation," he said.

Given the shadows of the Nazi Holocaust that linger over Poland, its leaders can ill-afford to be seen as intolerant, nor do they have much to gain by antagonizing other members of the EU.

Zieba, the Dominican priest, said Poland's place is not to lead the charge in a culture war but to show, simply, that a modernizing society and strong democracy also can have a deep Christian faith.

"Faith is not an ideology," he said. "Faith has to inspire people, to offer them possibilities."