WARSAW — During the long period of communist rule in Poland, the Catholic Church was seen as an institution embodying the resiliency of the nation’s identity, a pragmatic counterforce to a repressive, officially atheistic regime.
But today, as the Catholic Church of Pope Francis has embraced a liberal version of the faith stressing modernity and pluralism, the Polish Catholic Church has pulled an about-face, positioning itself as an anchor for traditional values — and an ally of the government here — in the face of liberal demands for change.
In one of the West’s most heavily Catholic countries, the Polish church has embraced and defended the socially conservative policies of the nation’s nationalist government, dividing an overwhelmingly Catholic body politic striving to revive links to Western Europe and liberal political current while trying to protect Poland’s uniqueness and historical legacy.
The balancing act, however, has led many Poles to question their faith.
“While Pope Francis meets society’s expectations, leading the church into the future, I have the impression that the ideas of the church in Poland are leading it into the past,” said Bozena Kampa, a 31-year-old lawyer in Krakow who identifies as Catholic but doesn’t support the church. “People will become more aloof unless the church deeply reforms.”
Over 90 percent of Poland’s 38 million citizens identify as Catholics, and 64 percent of Poles say that being Catholic is integral to what it means to be Polish, according to a 2017 Pew Research study.
The strength and authority of the Catholic Church in Poland dates back to the 18th century, when the nation was divided among Europe’s conquering powers. The Catholic faith served as a binding agent for the Polish diaspora throughout the region.
The church also took on a central role during the nation’s turbulent Cold War communist era, organizing resistance movements and protecting dissidents against a political system that the church saw as “un-Polish.”
“To be a good Pole means to be a good Catholic,” said Detlef Pollack, a professor of religious sociology at the University of Muenster in Germany. “Poland was divided, and the church stood for national autonomy. This can’t be forgotten: The church was and is still seen as the protector of national identity.”
Poland’s traditional Catholicism meshed well with the Vatican under the papacy of John Paul II, the first Polish pope who was seen as a global hero for his wily resistance to communism but considered a traditionalist within the church. Pope Benedict XVI was also seen as a champion of conservative Catholic values.
But when Poland moved to embrace Western values after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Catholic Church struggled with the shifting political landscape. Many Poles, though, welcomed more liberal social norms and membership in the European Union, especially in urban enclaves such as Warsaw and Krakow.
Fearing irrelevancy, the Catholic Church entrenched itself in its traditional stances on sexuality, migration and abortion, and used its cultural might and historical association with Polish identity as a lever to influence policy.
“They were given the freedom they’d fought for against communist oppressors, but that was a fight against a specific evil,” said Andreas Puttmann, a German political scientist, author and Catholic commentator. “It didn’t mean they wanted to create freedoms for other minorities who didn’t share their own moral views.”
The Polish church is not monolithic. Divisions surfaced in January when the Rev. Ludwik Wisniewski, an 81-year-old Dominican priest, published a sharp attack on the government and the Polish Catholic hierarchy for driving away the faithful with divisive policies and hostility toward immigrants.
“Before our eyes, Christianity is dying in Poland,” Father Wisniewski wrote, “while our bishops are sadly silent.”
The phenomenon has only intensified with the political success of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, whose socially conservative and nationalist stances have increasingly mirrored those of the Catholic Church in an attempt to present itself as the party of Polish identity.
The 2015 refugee crisis that brought millions of asylum seekers to Europe only exacerbated the development. Resentment against what were seen as EU dictates from Brussels were expressed in countries across Eastern Europe, but the political force of the Catholic Church gave Poland’s resistance a different flavor.
Though Poland has settled few refugees compared with Germany and other European nations, the Catholic Church and Law and Justice party officials have stoked fears of increasing Islamic influence in the nation.
Migrants to Europe have brought diseases such as cholera and dysentery, as well as “all sorts of parasites and protozoa, which … while not dangerous in the organisms of these people, could be dangerous here,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a former Polish prime minister and the current leader of the Law and Justice party, said at a political rally in 2015.
Catholic clergymen in Poland deny that the church seeks a direct influence on political matters but applaud the ruling party’s stances on family policies. Law and Justice is working toward effectively outlawing abortion in Poland with legislation that strikes current allowances in the case of fetal deformities, which constitute 95 percent of terminated pregnancies in the country.
“Law and Justice declares respect and faithfulness to Catholic social science,” said the Rev. Grzegorz Kurp, a spokesman for the Warsaw Society of the Catholic Apostolate. “We can’t deny their achievements on matters such as family policies.”
But as the government and the church in Poland move increasingly to the right, the Catholic Church at large is embracing liberal reforms during the tenure of Pope Francis. The Argentine pope’s calls for cultural pluralism, moral tolerance and a willingness to challenge traditional Catholic doctrine and practice often stand at loggerheads with the Polish clergy.
It has created a fissure within Polish society and resulted in a decreased approval of the Polish church, said Mr. Puttmann. Only 54 percent of Poles view the church positively, according to a Polish Center for Public Research poll.
Even so, in an era of creeping nationalism across Europe, many Poles still adhere to faith-based political decision-making. Law and Justice is still polling at 39 percent, according to surveys, and Catholic Poles turned out in record numbers late last year to pray for the nation’s survival at its borders, an event that many viewed as a statement against immigration.
“When it comes to elections, I am more likely to vote for parties supporting values preached by the church,” said Marcin Kielak, 33, of Warsaw, who works in marketing. “Humans, in accordance with their conscience, must be aware of their responsibility and the consequences of their deeds.”
Still, Mr. Puttmann argues that the Catholic Church’s influence in Poland is waning, not least because of its close association with the Law and Justice party.
“The future perspective for the church is one that is ever-shrinking,” he said, adding that the church’s position may become precarious if and when the ruling party is voted out of office.
“If the Catholic Church continues to stand there as a companion of this party, then they will get handed a [bill] for their actions.”
• Austin Davis reported from Berlin.