The Polish Church’s Gender Problem

“Gender” has been chosen as the 2013 word of the year in Poland. In making their selection, scholars from the University of Warsaw and the Polish Language Foundation passed over other buzzwords like “wiretapping” and “Euromaidan.”

Since the fall of Communism and integration into the West, gender has become an established concept in Poland, along with the feminist and L.G.B.T. movements. Many universities have Gender Studies programs, and numerous books on the subject have been published. And, as a European Union member, Poland is obligated to follow a policy of so-called gender mainstreaming.

In any case, the English word “gender” is hardly new to Poland. Academics have managed to make it standard in Polish humanities, and the country has had time to get used to it. Why, then, has gender suddenly become a hot topic?

The first sign that something strange was happening emerged this past summer at a debate I participated in with one of Poland’s best-known bishops, Tadeusz Pieronek. We were at a summer culture festival at a resort in Swinoujscie, on the Baltic coast. All of a sudden, Bishop Pieronek blurted out, “I would like to add that the ideology of gender presents a threat worse than Nazism and Communism combined.”

Bishop Pieronek, considered part of the liberal wing of Poland’s Catholic Church, seemed to be reciting memorized talking points. In any case, he didn’t have more to say about his statement, nor could he name any victims or give the number of people killed or maimed by the threat of gender. He did, however, repeat his statement, while adding that gender ideology is at odds with nature and natural law.

The clergy always protest that in vitro fertilization, abortion, civil unions for gays and teaching sex education are at odds with nature. Yet priests’ lifestyles, namely their celibacy, are hardly a textbook product of the theory of evolution.

Because politicians in Poland fear the church, all of the above activities are either banned or heavily restricted by the law or, as in the case of compulsory sex education, ignored by the authorities. But exist they do, on more or less the same scale as in any Western country. In this way, freedom has been privatized in Poland, and access to it depends on social class, and therefore on the contents of one’s wallet, level of education and place of residence.

Bishop Pieronek’s statement touched off a series of ever more perplexing actions by the church hierarchy. Posters have appeared in schools proclaiming, “Protect Your Child Against Gender.” (The newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that young children have begun to ask their parents how they can be vaccinated.) Almost every day there are new pronouncements warning against gender ideology, for example, as when a priest commented in a talk in Poznan that “gender leads to the devastation of families” and “is associated with radical feminism, which advocates for abortion, the employment of women and the detention of children in preschools.” Lining up behind the church fight, conservative politicians have convened a parliamentary group, “Stop Gender Ideology,” consisting of one woman and 15 men.

The bishops voiced their official opinion in a pastoral letter posted online entitled, “Threats to the Family Stemming from the Ideology of Gender,” which proclaimed that “the aim of gender education is the sexualization of children and young people.” According to Poland’s Catholic Church, the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence is promoting “nonstereotypical sexual roles” and is breaking down the educational system by requiring education on homosexuality and transsexuality.

In their letter the bishops also went after the World Health Organization, writing that it “promotes, among other things, masturbation by preschool-aged children, encouraging them to seek joy and pleasure in touching their own bodies and those of their peers.” The bishops warned that “as a consequence of the education implemented by youth sexual educators, young people become regular customers of pharmaceutical, erotic, pornographic, pedophile and abortion enterprises.” The letter, perhaps not surprisingly, was replaced with a toned-down version less than two hours after it was published, according to Gazeta Wyborcza. Even so, the bishops announced that both versions were legitimate, but that the original was for pastoral use, and the second version for the laity.

The church hierarchy claims none are immune to the influence of gender. It might be that even the Polish Church itself is threatened. “Church” was originally a feminine-declined noun (from the Greek “ecclesia”). And it is traditionally personified by the image of a woman. In Polish, however, this same word is masculine. Is the Catholic Church also having gender issues?

A more serious question many in Poland are asking is, Why is this anti-gender paranoia happening now? If “gender ideology” were such an apocalyptical threat, it should have wiped out a significant part of the Polish population before our church’s recent wake-up call.

For two decades, the church hierarchy exhibited no interest in the “ideology of gender” until suddenly one day it began to speak of little else. The reasons behind such an orchestrated action might be found in the church’s recent problems. Poles have been outraged by the large-scale financial fraud carried out by the commission tasked with the reprivatization of church property that had been seized by the Communist government. Poles also continue to be disturbed by increasingly common disclosures of pedophilia within the church.

In Poland, politics is the one area in which the church does not need any lessons. And in today’s politics, when a party finds itself in trouble, its best bet is to change the subject with a media campaign. Necessity is the mother of invention, and thus arose the church’s new invention, the “ideology of gender.” This seems to be working wonderfully, since “gender” has become the word of the year, handily beating not just “wiretapping” and “Euromaidan,” but also “pedophilia” and “property commission.”

Slawomir Sierakowski is a sociologist and a founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement. This article was translated by Maria Blackwood from the Polish.