The Polish far right's complicated relationship with the Catholic church

In the rise of European secularism, Poland is an exception. Not in the rise of right-wing extremism.

Amid the general picture of religious decline in Europe, Poland remains one of the few nations where the traditional institutional church—in this case, the Roman Catholic Church—remains vibrant. But in recent years, Poland has been distinctive in other ways, with its government’s drift to illiberal democracy and authoritarian populism, and the rise of extreme right groups. To what extent do these disturbing trends relate to Christian ideologies, and how has the church responded to the new situation?

Every remark about the rise of European secularism includes an exception for Poland. The Catholic Church retains the allegiance of close to 90 percent of Poles, and religious practice remains at levels that Western Europe has not known since the 1950s. Vocations and mass attendance are both high, and a large proportion of lay believers regularly participate in pilgrimages. Clergy abuse scandals have had a far smaller impact than in other nations.

Historically, elements within the Polish church have been closely aligned with ultra-right and anti-Semitic views, and it would be amazing if the church was anything other than viscerally anticommunist. In modern times, the church overwhelmingly followed the lead of the late Pope John Paul II, with his devotion to human rights and his close friendship with Jews. But older far-right ideologies survived, and they have flourished anew in the present century.