In Poland the late Pope John Paul II is not only a saint, but an iconic anti-Communist hero who to some of some of his staunchest supporters is one of the greatest Poles to have ever walked the earth.
A longstanding historical myth surrounding him has been cultivated by the Polish Catholic Church, the Polish state, as well as many historians both in Poland and beyond.
A legend beyond criticism?
Much of the late John Paul II’s biography has achieved quasi-hagiographical status, in particular since his canonisation in 2014. However, the historical myth surrounding him grew organically since he emerged on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican as the first non-Italian pontiff in over four centuries back in 1978.
Travelling the globe as no pope had done before, it was his June 1979 visit to Communist Poland and the mass popular veneration that accompanied it which, according to some historians, contributed to the rise of the Solidarity movement and the demise of Communism in Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.
His support for the anti-Communist opposition and democratic forces in Poland gained him the respect of many liberal and even left-wing politicians despite the traditionalist and conservative views propagated by the Church.
Ultimately, his papacy, the second longest in history, intersected with historic events some of which reverberated globally. During his tenure, the Catholic Church came under scrutiny for its stance on women’s rights, its position during the AIDS pandemic and, increasingly, for the problem of child abuse and sexual predation by Catholic priests.
Yet while the latter issue has gained some attention in recent years even in Poland, until last week the stature of John Paul II remained largely undiminished. More so, even in light of the recent allegations, there are plenty of public figures like the former dissident and now editor-in-chief of Poland’s largest liberal newspaper, Adam Michnik, willing to speak up in defence of the late pope.
And in perhaps a related move, the Polish Episcopate announced on Tuesday it will set up an “independent panel of experts” to assess the problem of child abuse by members of the clergy. However, it remains to be seen who these experts will be and what access they will be given to documentary and archival material that, until now, has been off-limits to investigators.
Poland’s political Catholicism
Against the background of the Cold War, it is often overlooked that John Paul II’s papacy coincided with the rise of politicised religion in the late 1970s that included Iran’s Islamic Revolution and the rise of the Christian Right in the US under Ronald Reagan. Polish Catholicism has a strong popular grassroots strand that not only contributed to Solidarity and the demise of Communism, but also forms the backbone of today’s radical right in Poland that is exemplified by PiS.
It is, moreover, hard to imagine post-1989 Poland without the influence of political Catholicism. Having capitalised on its support for the anti-Communist opposition in the 1980s, the Polish Catholic Church managed to weigh heavily on the country’s politics after the demise of the Communist regime. This was most visible with regard to the evolution of abortion legislation.
Though the most fundamentalist clerical drive for an abortion ban was mitigated by moderate Catholic politicians in the early 1990s, the Church never gave up on its ambitions in this area, pushing its political clout whenever it could. This even led to a ‘deal with the devil’ in the early 2000s when the (post-Communist) Left government of Leszek Miller declined to liberalise the then-already strict abortion law in return for the Church’s support for EU accession.
When John Paul II passed away a year after Poland’s entry into the EU, his death coincided with a political realignment and a conservative retrenchment of the Catholic Church in Poland.
That year saw the political spectrum shift to the right as the Left collapsed and PiS won both the parliamentary and presidential elections for the first time. The ascendancy of the radical right nearly two decades ago brought with it new culture wars and a reinvigorated populist mobilisation of political Catholicism.
Catholic counter-revolution in the making
When PiS returned to power in 2015, one of its main beneficiaries was the Catholic Church. The latter has not only received material support from the PiS-controlled governments, but a whole array of policies in the educational and social sphere have been tailored to favour the interests of the Catholic hierarchy.
Most significantly, a near-total abortion ban was finally introduced in 2021 despite mass protests.
PiS has shown itself more than willing to placate the Catholic Church against popular opinion. And while much attention has been paid to PiS’s illiberal populism, it is worth noting that the Church is not a democratic institution despite its erstwhile support for the anti-Communist opposition.
For that reason, the de facto alliance between the conservative Polish Church and the government is a potential threat to liberal democracy.
More importantly, the power of Poland’s political Catholicism lies in its mobilisation potential.
That is why PiS, the government and the president have seized the moment to politicise the defence of John Paul II’s ‘good name’.
The issue is likely to rally PiS’s hardcore conservative Catholic voters in what will be a make-or-break electoral campaign against the backdrop of the war in neighbouring Ukraine, Poland’s post-pandemic economic woes and PiS’s continuing strife with the EU.
While the opposition – itself divided over the issue of John Paul II’s possible guilt – is hoping to finally oust PiS from power and has been polling relatively well, this is still far from a likely outcome.
For the moment, PiS’s support in the polls remains strong enough to win the next election and if their hardcore base turns out to vote in high enough numbers. it is certainly possible that the party will win an unprecedented third consecutive term in government.
If that happens, the Catholic Church will surely be rewarded again.