How will the debate surrounding Pope John Paul II’s legacy affect the Polish election?

By Aleks Szczerbiak

Defending the former Pope’s legacy may only swing a relatively small number of voters, but in a closely fought election this could be decisive in helping the right-wing ruling party to secure another outright parliamentary majority.

Abuse cover-up claims and counterclaims

Last month, a documentary aired by the US-owned TVN24 news channel claimed to show evidence that Pope John Paul II was negligent in handling cases of alleged child sexual abuse by three priests under his authority while he was Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of the Kraków diocese in the 1960s and 1970s. The report suggested that the former pontiff allowed the culprits to continue working as priests and tried to conceal their actions by transferring them to other parishes. Similar allegations in the case of the two of the priests had already been made last December in a book by Dutch journalist Ekke Overbeek, published in Poland during the same week that the documentary was aired.

The report’s defenders argued that, although the Polish Catholic Church has kept the archives from the time sealed, the investigators drew upon a wide range of other evidence and sources. These included court records and interviews with the surviving victims, and apparent witnesses and acquaintances, of the pedophile priests who said that they informed the then-Archbishop Wojtyła about the crimes, together with their relatives and former employees of the Kraków diocese. The latest accusations came amid a broader debate about the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse that has shaken the Polish Church in recent years, with a number of high-ranking clergymen having been sanctioned by the Vatican, prompting some figures to call for a re-assessment of John Paul II’s legacy and record of dealing with this issue during his pontificate.

The Polish Church Episcopate acknowledged that further research was needed to establish an accurate assessment of John Paul II’s response to these cases of abuse, and suggested that some of its archives would be opened in the future. However, critics of the media investigations said that a number of their claims had already been refuted by other journalists. They pointed out that much of the evidence was taken from documents created by the former communist-era security services which, they argued, could not be accepted uncritically as a credible source because the communist regime was extremely hostile to, and keen to find any way to subvert and discredit, the Church.

The former Pope’s defenders accused the investigators of adopting a biased approach and ignoring or failing to properly appreciate the broader historical context of the facts that they uncovered. While his supporters acknowledged that the late pontiff made mistakes, they pointed out that, whereas there are now effective Church procedures to respond to sexual abuse, in the 1960s and 1970s there was a lack of proper understanding of the issue. They also said that the Polish Church felt under siege, knowing that the communist security services weaponised false denunciations against the clergy, which made it wary of openly discussing problematic issues, including those of a sexual nature.

A national hero and moral authority figure

Although, to some extent, the issue transcended the government-opposition divide, politicians from the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) grouping, Poland’s ruling party since autumn 2015, vigorously condemned the accusations against John Paul II. The party located the latest media campaign within a broader civilisational context, arguing that the late Pope was the nation’s most important moral authority figure, and characterised attempts to discredit him as an anti-clerical left-wing plot to strike at the foundations of not just the Catholic faith but Polish national culture, tradition and identity. Law and Justice pushed through a parliamentary resolution defending John Paul II as a symbol of Poland regaining its independence from the Soviet communist sphere of influence, while party leaders took to the social media to defend the late pontiff’s good name and, during the debate, many of its deputies held up pictures of him.

In fact, although Law and Justice presents itself as a staunch defender of Christian values and enjoys a great deal of sympathy among the clergy, it also knows that most Poles, even praticising Catholics, have always been wary about the Church exerting too much political influence. So, fearful of putting off more ‘secular’ centrist votes, the party has been very cautious about adopting too high a ‘religious’ profile. Nonetheless, although Poland is steadily secularising – the CBOS polling agency found that the number who defined themselves as believers declined from 94% in March 1992 to 84% in June 2022, while those attending Mass at least once a week fell from 70% to 42% over the same period – it is still one of the most overwhelmingly Catholic countries in Europe. Moreover, the Church remains an important civil society actor especially in Law and Justice’s small-town and rural electoral heartlands where levels of religiosity are high.

At the same time, as perhaps the single most important and globally known figure in Poland’s twentieth century history, until very recently John Paul II was a symbolic (indeed, iconic) national hero for most Poles, even those who were not especially religious, and one of the few public figures recognised spontaneously as a relatively unquestioned moral authority who transcended social and political divides. This was not just for his charismatic presentation of Catholic Christianity, but also because of the pivotal role that the former Pope was felt to have played in liberating not only Poland but the whole of Eastern Europe from communism. John Paul II’s historic 1979 papal visit to Poland, when millions attended his open air Masses, is seen as a key factor in the rise of the Solidarity anti-communist opposition movement a year later. A May 2022 CBOS survey found that (although down from a peak of 95% in March 2015) 81% of Poles still considered him an important moral authority. The exception here were younger Poles, the demographic that has secularised most rapidly and grew up after his death in 2005, and to whom he is a more abstract figure (and sometimes object of subversive memes).

Indeed, a March poll conducted by the IBRiS agency for the ‘Rzeczpospolita’ newspaper found that only 16% of respondents said that the latest allegations had changed their attitude towards John Paul II for the worse, while 77% said that they had had no impact (4% said they changed them for the better). 51% felt that the critical media coverage was primarily an attack on the late pontiff’s memory while only 32% said it was an attempt to reveal the truth about his past. A survey by the same agency for the ‘’ online news platform found that only 27% felt the allegations undermined John Paul II’s reputation and moral authority, while 62% disagreed. 45% said that he had taken sufficient action as Pope, and earlier as Archbishop of Kraków, to tackle clerical sexual abuse while only 27% disagreed; although a relatively large number (29%) did not know.

The opposition splits three ways

The vote on Law and Justice’s parliamentary resolution also revealed a three-way split among the opposition parties. The agrarian-centrist Polish Peasant Party (PSL), which has a relatively socially conservative support base in small-towns and rural areas, joined the radical right Confederation (Konfederacja) grouping voting in favour. On the other hand, almost all of the votes against came from the anti-clerical ‘Left’ (Lewica) grouping, some of whose leaders even called for the former Pope’s patronage to be removed from the monuments, statues, street names, town squares and schools that were named after him.

However, it was the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15 and currently the main opposition grouping, that found itself in the most difficult situation. The party’s residual, and increasingly marginalised, conservative wing has generally acquiesced in the leadership’s shift to a more socially liberal stance on moral-cultural issues such as abortion and state recognition of same-sex civil partnerships, reflecting the changing ideological profile of its increasingly secular electoral base. But being associated with a narrative that openly undermined John Paul II’s moral authority and legitimacy was much more difficult for Civic Platform conservatives and centrists to swallow, and, anyway, the party could not risk offending too many ‘religious’ voters if it hoped to win the up-coming autumn parliamentary election.

Not wanting to bring the party’s divisions out into the open, virtually all of Civic Platform’s deputies abstained in the parliamentary vote and accused Law and Justice of cynically dragging John Paul II into contemporary political disputes. However, most Poles expect their political leaders to take a clear and unambiguous stance on such a highly emotive and polarising issue. Civic Platform could end up alienating both centrists, who dislike Law and Justice but continue to see the former Pope as a national hero, and the anti-clerical voters who increasingly make up the party’s core electorate.

A political gift for Law and Justice?

So can this issue swing the parliamentary election in Law and Justice’s favour? The steady erosion of John Paul II’s moral legitimacy is, as noted above, partly a generational phenomenon and linked to a broader crisis of the Church’s societal authority, as well as fading memories of his impact on the transition to democracy. However, given the current state of public opinion on this issue, in the short-term it can only benefit Law and Justice and damage the liberal-centrist opposition. Civic Platform is certainly hoping that it will fade and other issues where Law and Justice is much more vulnerable, such as price increases and falling living standards, become the most electorally salient.

In fact, bread-and-butter socio-economic issues will almost certainly be the dominant ones in determining the election outcome. However, debate over John Paul II’s legacy will provide an additional dimension to the campaign, because for many Poles he is such an important societal authority figure and so tied up with national identity. Indeed, there have been suggestions that Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda will call the election for October 15th, to coincide with ‘St Pope John Paul II Day’.

Defending John Paul II’s legacy is an effective rallying cry for Law and Justice because it is not just party’s core supporters who regard him as an important authority figure. In that sense, the issue is a gift for Law and Justice because it allows the party to portray itself as the defender of mainstream Polish values and convey a very clear and simple message that goes with the grain of public opinion: that it is the one true defender of John Paul II‘s ‘good name’ against those in the opposition and its supportive media who are undermining, or failing to effectively defend, one of the most important Poles in history. This could prompt some more conservative Poles who dislike Law and Justice to hold back from supporting the opposition, if not necessarily voting for the ruling party.

Mobilising core voters will be crucial

But, even more importantly, this is an issue that consolidates Law and Justice’s base. The autumn election will be extremely closely fought and a key factor determining the outcome will be which party can mobilise its supporters most effectively. According to the ‘Pooling the Poles’ micro-blog that aggregates voting intention surveys, Law and Justice is currently averaging 37% support, so only needs a small uptick to get to the 40% required to have a chance of securing another outright majority. The key to this will be winning back disillusioned ex-Law and Justice voters, who are currently more likely to abstain than support the opposition parties. Defending John Paul II’s legacy is an ideal way of mobilising precisely these voters, including some who would not otherwise have turned out to vote, particularly older ones in the party’s rural electoral heartlands where local priests are still hugely influential public figures. So even if it if only influences a relatively small number of voters, the issue could still have a decisive impact on the election outcome.

Aleks Szczerbiak is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex.

This article was originally published on The Polish Politics Blog, and has been shared on Redaction Report at the permission of the author.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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