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Poland’s Catholic church feels the pressure from new government’s ‘quick and rough’ changes

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People stand outside the Polish public television TVP building as protesters and Law and Justice politicians gather after Poland's new government took a public news channel off the air and dismissed executives from state media to restore "impartiality," the culture ministry said, in Warsaw, Poland, Dec. 20, 2023. (OSV News photo/Kacper Pempel, Reuters)

Prominent Polish Catholics have voiced fears of unrest after the country’s state-run television’s informational and regional channels were forced off the air Dec. 20 during a takeover of public media by prime minister Donald Tusk’s new government.

TVP Info channel was seen as one of the previous government’s main propaganda tools; however the new government had promised to bring back its objectivity on the campaign trail prior to the Oct. 15 elections. Observers say Dec. 20 events proved the opposite.

“We’re witnessing scenes reminiscent of martial law in 1981, something resembling a minor coup d’etat,” said Father Piotr Mazurkiewicz, a Polish theologian and former secretary-general of the Brussels-based Commission of European Union Bishops’ Conferences (COMECE).

“Political struggle is normal in any democracy, but what matters now is whether these disputes will be resolved legally and constitutionally. Key moves have been made in just a few hours, sparking resistance and fears of violence,” he told OSV News.

The priest spoke as police were deployed outside at the entrance to the main Warsaw headquarters of TVP, state radio and the Polish press agency PAP, prompting street protests and a sit-in by leaders and supporters of the ousted Law and Justice party, PiS.

In an OSV News interview, Father Mazurkiewicz said many Poles viewed the drama as a violation of constitutional norms by politicians who had pledged to uphold them, and he expected a critical reaction from the European Union and Council of Europe.

Public TV did not air Wiadomosci, its main evening news bulletin, on Dec. 20 as executives from state media have been dismissed to restore “impartiality,” the culture ministry said.

In a statement, new culture minister Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz said that the move had been authorized by a Dec. 19 parliamentary resolution on “restoring legal order, impartiality and reliability” to public media, which had become “exclusively party media outlets carrying out propaganda tasks.”

Polish prime minister Donald Tusk attends the first government sitting at the Prime Minister Chancellery in Warsaw, Dec. 18, 2023. (OSV News photo/Maciek Jazwiecki, Agencja Wyborcza.pl via Reuters) MANDATORY CREDIT. NO ARCHIVES. MUST DISCARD 30 DAYS AFTER DOWNLOAD.

The lay director of Poland’s Catholic Information Agency, KAI, said he believed the Tusk government had acted “legally but precipitously” in asserting media control.

“The era is now over when public media becomes the property of a single party, something totally unacceptable in a democracy,” Marcin Przeciszewski told OSV News.

“But the government is implementing changes too quickly and roughly — I think this mistake may well escalate social conflict, since PiS represents a strong social force, and will seek to mobilise this,” he added.

Meanwhile, President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, also expressed concerns in a Dec. 20 letter to Szymon Holownia, new speaker of the Sejm lower house of parliament, saying changes to public broadcasting must “respect democratic standards” and “accord with constitutional rules.”

In his OSV News interview, Father Mazurkiewicz said private media in Poland had generally supported prime minister Tusk’s coalition, whereas TVP and other state-run media had “represented another part of society,” which risked being excluded by the latest takeover.

A senior Catholic presenter from Polish Radio said the new government’s “show of force” had “pressured and frightened” staff members, who had also been offended by a Dec. 20 email from the new directors pledging to restore “the principles of objective journalism.”

“Whatever your political preferences may be, you can’t just get rid of everyone and suspend broadcasts,” said Malgorzata Glabisz-Pniewska, deputy head of Catholic programs.

But the church in Poland is facing more challenges from the new government that was sworn in Dec. 13. Presenting his program, the new prime minister pledged to improve ties with the European Commission, while pressing ahead with his coalition’s 100-policies program, which includes outlawing “hate speech” for people who identify as same-sex attracted and transgender, restricting religious education and “separating church and state.”

In a Dec. 15 letter, the Polish bishops’ conference chairman, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, urged President Duda to show “courage” by not signing a new law allowing state funding for in vitro fertilization in one of the Tusk government’s first moves.

Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, of Poznan, second from left, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, and Cardinal Giorgio Marengo, third from left, apostolic prefect of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, attend Pope Francis’ Mass at the Expo grounds in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Sept. 14, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In a Dec. 16 statement, however, the president said he had decided to approve the law, to ensure “equal opportunities for all those struggling with the problem of infertility.”

Plans have also been outlined for legalizing same-sex civil partnerships in Poland, another move long opposed by the church, while the European Court of Human Rights ruled Dec. 14 that Polish judges had acted illegally in tightening the country’s anti-abortion law in 2020.

A British-based expert and academic professor, Aleks Szczerbiak, told OSV News that prime minister Tusk, who was president of the EU’s European Council from 2014-2019, had “ratcheted up the anti-clerical rhetoric” during the 2023 election campaign, but would face problems gaining support for some aspects of his program, including liberalizing abortion, while also needing a three-fifths parliamentary majority to overturn vetoes by president Duda, who remains in office until 2025.

He added that the Polish church had “found itself on the back foot” in the face of recent abuse scandals and rapid youth secularization, but was still a “significant civil society actor” that would react if Tusk pressed ahead with “totemic reforms.”

However, a press officer of the Polish bishops told OSV News Dec. 21 that the bishops’ conference would not be formally responding to the latest happenings and would instead leave it to individual bishops to urge “social dialogue and peace” in their upcoming Christmas messages.

Polish Speaker of Parliament Szymon Holownia gestures in the Sejm in Warsaw Dec. 11, 2023. (OSV News photo/Aleksandra Szmigiel, Reuters)

In his OSV News interview, Father Mazurkiewicz added that Polish church leaders were concerned not to be seen to speak “in an obviously political way” after complaints they had stood too close to the PiS-led government.

Meanwhile, Glabisz-Pniewska, the Catholic radio presenter, said Poland’s bishops were also divided in their political sympathies, impeding a collective response, but added that many Catholics would be disappointed if they said nothing.

“Given the bishops normally speak out on every social topic, it’s surprising, even shocking, that they’re staying silent now,” she told OSV News.

“We’re constantly told that Poland is a great Catholic country, defending the great values of life, marriage and family. It’s shameful that now, just before Christmas, we can’t reach agreements or even talk to ourselves,” she said.

Many leaders of the Tusk government, however, such as speaker Holownia and deputy prime minister and minister of national defense Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz declare themselves Catholic.

Up to 500 homeless people have been invited to sing carols and exchange the traditional Christmas wafer — oplatek — in parliament Dec. 22, in what speaker Holownia said would signal the building of a “unified, responsible and modern society.”

Holownia is a former television journalist and author of several books on saints and Catholic social teaching.

In a conciliatory signal to the church, prime minister Tusk has so far ignored electoral pledges to liquidate Poland’s traditional Church Fund, established in 1950 to compensate the church for communist-confiscated lands and properties.

Presenting an amended draft budget Dec. 21, the prime minister said the state-paid fund, which also covers clergy pension contributions, would be increased by a quarter in 2024 to $65 million.