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Poland's bishops pledge dialogue with new government

The newly installed liberal government coalition said it would abolish a state Church Fund as part of its reforms
Father Leszek Gesiak, spokesman of the Polish bishops' conference, (left) is seen at a Jan. 9 press conference in Warsaw with university professors explaining church financing and taxation of clergy

Father Leszek Gesiak, spokesman of the Polish bishops' conference, (left) is seen at a Jan. 9 press conference in Warsaw with university professors explaining church financing and taxation of clergy. (Photo: Polish bishops' conference)

Published: January 10, 2024 05:03 AM GMT
Updated: January 10, 2024 05:07 AM GMT

Poland's bishops have pledged dialogue with their country's new liberal government, but leading Catholics warned that government plans for rapid secularizing change could spark conflict as the ruling coalition plans to limit religious classes in public schools and abolish the state Church Fund.

"While the government's social and economic pledges will prove costly, moves to limit the church's influence cost nothing. It's like in ancient Rome: If there's no bread, you lay on circuses, in this case at the church's expense," said Father Henryk Zielinski, editor of the Warsaw-based Catholic weekly Idziemy (Let's Go).

The priest was reacting to the Dec. 27 confirmation by Prime Minister Donald Tusk that his newly installed coalition also would abolish the state Church Fund as part of its reforms.

In an OSV News interview, Father Zielinski said many Catholics believed church financial allocations should be decided "by society, not by politicians," adding that he believed "taking less and handing out less" would be a "truer expression of liberalism."

Meanwhile, a prominent Catholic historian told OSV News that Tusk's government had already damaged public trust and made church cooperation harder by "violating the law and acting brutally" in a pre-Christmas takeover of state media.

"Although the previous government also acted high-handedly, new limits have certainly been crossed in a bid to get even with political rivals," said Jan Zaryn, professor of history and director of Warsaw's Institute for the Legacy of Polish National Thought.

"Part of the new coalition is ideologically hostile to the church and in a strong position now to shape policy according to its own priorities," he said.

Tusk's government took office Dec. 13, two months after his Civic Coalition, allied to the center-right Third Way and left-wing Lewica parties, won 248 places in Poland's 460-seat Sejm lower house, ousting the national-conservative Law and Justice Party, or PiS, which won 194.

Presenting his program, the new prime minister pledged to improve ties with the European Union and correct alleged illegalities by the previous PiS government, while pressing ahead with a raft of reforms, including "separating church and state."

Among the government's first moves, a law enacted Dec. 16 permits state funding for in vitro fertilization, while plans have been announced for legalizing same-sex partnerships and restricting religion lessons in public school to one hour weekly, instead of the current two hours.

On Dec. 20, police closed the main headquarters of Polish public TV and took up positions outside state-run radio and the PAP news agency, prompting street protests. The move was denounced by President Andrzej Duda as a "flagrant violation of the constitution and the principles of a democratic state of law."

In a Dec. 23 appeal, the president of the Polish bishops' conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, said he was watching events "with great concern," adding that the country's future depended on a readiness to seek agreement "at the negotiating table, without resorting to force."

"No single party or coalition should exercise full power, as happens in a totalitarian system. Some institutions should be independent or under the care of opposition forces -- those in power are not above the law, but formally subject to it," he said.

What sparked the biggest debate so far however was the Church Fund, or rather plans of its cancellation. It was established in 1950 to compensate religious communities for communist-seized lands and properties. Tusk announced that the fund, now mostly covering clergy social security costs, would be replaced by a "voluntary tax deduction system" for "those interested in supporting their church."

In a Dec. 29 statement, the secretary-general of the bishops' conference, Auxiliary Bishop Artur Mizinski of Lublin, said the church was "open to dialogue" on new financial arrangements, provided they are in accord with Poland's 1998 concordat, or treaty, with the Vatican, as well as the "constitutional principle of consensually regulating relations."

Asked at a Jan. 9 press conference whether church leaders had already received an invitation to talks on transforming the Church Fund, bishops' conference spokesman Father Leszek Gesiak said that he had "not heard that any signal has reached us. If it does reach, we will, of course, respond," Polish Catholic Information Agency KAI reported.

Accompanied by three university professors who were invited to the Warsaw archbishop's headquarters, he said that while Church Fund makes headlines because of the new government, a lot of "simplifications, sometimes turning into quite hurtful opinions, far from objectivity" are spread in the media regarding church funding. He stressed that it's not true that clergy don't pay taxes.

"I dare even say that a whole mythology has been created related to the financing of the church, despite many attempts at clarification," he said.

Father Dariusz Walencik, professor at the University of Opole, said Jan. 9 that, despite popular opinion, "no clergyman directly receives any money from the fund."

"The fund does not pay them pensions, annuities or fund their maintenance in any way," he said, and it mostly pays clergy's social security -- seen as compensation for property worth millions taken from the church when the communist government took over after World War II.

The income from seized properties was to be divided among the churches, in proportion to the size of the properties taken. But this assumption was never realized and every time the budget is voted on, the Church Fund gets a separate vote, but property seized in the communist era was never properly valued.

In fact, the future of the Church Fund was long debated by the Polish hierarchy. Speaking to Catholic Radio eM, Archbishop Adrian Galbas of Katowice, said Jan. 8, "It seems to me that no one will give his life for the Church Fund," which is a "grandfather" and there are "more modern methods of supporting the activities of the church," the archbishop said.

Meanwhile, Zaryn warned that other ideas of the new government such as reducing school lessons in religion also would face resistance as similar restrictions had been imposed under communist rule in the late 1950s, ahead of a 1961 law which scrapped religious teaching entirely "in the name of freedom of conscience."

"Conditions are already tense and unstable here, with the political sides bitterly divided," the Catholic historian told OSV News.

"Many fear those hostile to Poland's conservative religious heritage will now extend their rules across all state institutions."

In a Jan. 1 New Year message, Poland's primate, Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, said Poles should ask "where God is calling us and what he needs us for," and recognise the need "for solidarity and responsibility" going beyond "short-term interests and profits."

Zaryn said he was grateful to church leaders who could still raise their voices on behalf of community values "without taking sides."

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