In the six years of his papacy, one of Pope Francis’s main goals has been to shift the focus of the Catholic church’s preoccupations away from policing “dogma” to an emphasis on inclusion and tolerance. The pontiff must despair of Poland.
In general elections to be held this Sunday, the conservative nationalists of the Law and Justice party are likely to emerge once again as the country’s dominant political force, after four divisive years in government. During a nasty, polarised campaign, the party has repeatedly referenced Catholic doctrine on marriage and the family, in order to aggressively target Poland’s LGBT community. Its chairman and most influential figure, Jarosław Kaczyński, has described the movement for LGBT rights as “a threat to Polish identity”, claiming that only Law and Justice can defend the traditional family from alien “western” values.
Senior church figures in one of the most religious countries in the European Union – around 86% of Poles identify as Catholic – have aided and abetted this campaign of vilification and marginalisation. Last month, in the latest of many such interventions, the archbishop of Krakow, Marek Jędraszewski, issued a pastoral letter identifying LGBT “ideology” as a “new form of totalitarianism”. Parents who failed to robustly resist LGBT propaganda, he wrote, could see their children fall victim to it – and for those who truly love their children, there could be no greater tragedy.
The baleful effects of this extreme language have been all too visible on the streets of Poland’s towns and cities. During the summer, stones and bottles were thrown at around 1,000 LGBT activists attempting to stage the first-ever Pride march in the eastern city of Bialystok. Anecdotal evidence suggests a sharp rise in homophobic attacks in recent months. Municipalities have symbolically declared themselves “LGBT-free zones”. Campaigners report living in a climate of fear.
The church was a vital and beloved bastion of resistance to the communist regime in Poland, which eventually fell in 1989. The country’s identity is still bound up with its Catholicism, even as much of the rest of Europe secularises at pace. But at a time when Pope Francis, albeit without altering doctrine, is attempting to develop what he describes as a “church with an open heart” (famously asking “Who am I to judge?” when questioned on the church and homosexuality), his Polish bishops appear to relish operating as the religious wing of a xenophobic, homophobic government. The Catholic faith is being used to bully and marginalise the vulnerable.
If Law and Justice win a second term in office this Sunday, Europe will face another four years of grappling with the confrontational, illiberal politics of one of its larger member states. It shames the Polish Catholic church that it has given a theological stamp of approval to the kind of hateful bigotry which is nowhere to be found in the Christian gospels.