After Communist rule, Poland transitioned towards democracy. However, since 2015, the Law and Justice Party, or PiS, has maintained control over the state and begun to erode democratic institutions and processes. The Catholic Church has contributed to this democratic erosion through the rise of Catholic Nationalism, the Church’s support of PiS, and its support for anti-democratic policies. Recent steps by the Catholic Church to distance itself from PiS are essential to resisting democratic erosion but don’t fully counteract its negative impact.
Throughout history, Catholicism and the Polish Catholic Church have played a deeply influential role in Polish society and politics. Under communism, the Church was “a support system” for many, especially in rural villages, during a time of economic and social hardship. It was also influential in the transition from communism to democracy, with Church basements often becoming “meeting places for dissidents.” The Polish Catholic Church remains an important element of Polish society today.
However, the Church has also contributed to democratic erosion through the combination of nationalism and Catholicism. This has become an increasing issue with the growing power of National Catholicism, a faction of the Polish Catholic Church focused on the idea that Catholicism is central to the Polish identity and that Polish policy decisions should be based on Catholic values. In a recent study, over 80% of younger priests in Poland, “declared their allegiance to National Catholic ideas” and PiS has adopted its ideas. This has allowed PiS to legitimize many of its discriminatory policy decisions under the guise of traditional Catholic values or protecting Catholicism. For example, the National Catholic faction of the Church has mobilized Catholics “to defend Poland from an Islamic invasion.” These ideas can be seen in PiS policy such as forcibly expelling migrants from the Polish border. Not only are these policies harmful to those they target, but they also contribute to the overall erosion of democracy. Democracy relies on certain norms of mutual toleration and forbearance. When mutual tolerance decreases and different groups begin to see each other as existential threats, like in the portrayal of Muslim migrants, the incentive for forbearance decreases, and those in power feel like they have to maintain power by any means necessary. PiS can use this fear and idea of an existential threat to justify violence against Muslim migrants and policies that keep them in power while eroding democracy.
The Church has also driven support for PiS itself. The Church is extremely influential in Poland with around 87% of Polish people identifying as Roman Catholic, meaning that its endorsement can help drive public support. Religion often influences politics and Christian-based political parties such as Christian Democrats exist throughout Europe. However, when such a party, like PiS, is actively eroding democracy, the support of the Church contributes to that erosion. The Church maintains support for PiS, especially from older Poles in rural areas. In return, PiS implements social policies that align with Catholic “family values” such as anti-LGBTQ+ policies. This support has helped PiS remain popular and stay in power even though it undermines democracy.
Not only has the Church helped build the foundations for PiS’s rise, but it has also more directly supported anti-democratic policies. For example, it supported the taxation of independent news sources because the national news station provided the Church with more access. This taxation pushed most independent news sources towards bankruptcy leaving TVP, the national news station, as the main source of media. According to Robert Dahl, access to alternative sources of information is essential to maintaining democracy. By supporting this taxation policy, the Church is contributing to the erosion of democracy in Poland.
In recent years, the Catholic Church has begun to distance itself from PiS. For example, in 2016 Pope Francis began a campaign to push back against anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies supported by the Church. This demonstrates the Catholic Church at an international level distancing itself from one of the central views of Catholic Nationalism and PiS. This is essential for resistance to democratic erosion in Poland since PiS relies on Catholicism to justify its policies and maintain its support. Without support from the Catholic Church on an international level, PiS may lose support, especially for anti-refugee policies that the Church has condemned. However, large sections of the Church, specifically Catholic Nationalist factions, still support PiS. Previous support also laid the foundation for PiS to gain power and begin eroding democracy. The Church’s influence is still contributing to PiS and its attempts to erode democracy in Poland. For the Church to truly counteract its negative impact, it must clearly condemn PiS and work against democratic erosion in Poland.