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A Nation (Still) Faithful to Its Roots? What St. John Paul the Great Might Say to Poland Today

For several years, Western media created a false narrative that Poland had descended into an “illiberal,” “anti-democratic,” oppressive state ruled by a “nationalist” regime bent on turning its back on “progress.” But the recent election, with an incredible voter turnout of nearly 73 percent, reveals the health of the Polish democratic process and Poles’ ongoing recognition of the importance of building a free Poland.

At the same time, Poland’s current political situation is quickly devolving into the power politics of revenge, and the new ruling coalition is seeking a “reckoning” after eight years of conservative Law and Justice rule. In its first month of legislation, the government has already introduced bills to expand abortion rights, arrested political opponents, and pursued legally questionable actions to purge institutions of Law and Justice influences. In its majority rule over the last eight years, Poland’s Law and Justice Party oversaw continued economic growth and expansion, aligned itself more closely with the United States, instituted judicial reforms, abolished the teaching of LGBTQI+ ideology in public schools, and proposed a vision of a strong Polish republic that could reassert itself as a European power. For many conservatives in the West, the party became a model for a politics faithful to Christian culture and national values over and against the secular humanism infecting many liberal democracies.

Although Law and Justice still won a simple majority of the votes in the elections in October of 2023, they were unable to secure enough support to form a ruling coalition, which places them in the minority opposition to the alliance formed by the center-left Civic Platform party, the far left progressives, and the centrist “Third Way” party.

A Changing Culture

The recent election clearly shows that the Poland of today is no longer the Poland of the 1990s or even of the early 2010s. It raises the question whether Poles have sustained the kind of culture necessary to build a market society based on authentic freedom and the truth about the good, one with a robust civil society to support both the logic of the state and the logic of the market.

Recent statistics reveal that one should not be optimistic about the ability of Poland to continue to craft a unique vision of democracy that accords with Gospel values. In many ways, the Catholic Church has failed to convince Generation Z of the joy of living the Gospel. Entrenched institutional clericalism and recent clergy sex scandals have left many people disillusioned with the Church. Some have perceived an inappropriate alliance between some of the Church’s ministers and the Law and Justice party, with many fearing that the party instrumentalized the Church for its own political ends.

As in many places, the effects of Covid-19 lockdowns have exacerbated a decline in weekly Mass attendance. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of Poles who identify as Catholic dropped from 88 to 71 percent, Mass attendance has fallen from 46 percent to 28 percent over the last decade, and the number of priestly ordinations has dropped from 5,367 in 1992 to only 1,341 in 2022.  Catholic marriages have fallen from 230,000 annually in 1990 to 103,000 in 2021. Particularly worrying are the trends among young people: only 23 percent of members of Gen Z attend Mass regularly, while a full one-third now profess to be unbelievers (a number that has doubled since 2015). Official acts of apostasy are at a record high, propelled by videos of influencers and celebrities encouraging young people to leave the Church in Poland.

Perhaps because they have rejected their faith, Poles between eighteen and twenty-nine are much more secular. They are also more concerned about upward social mobility, often at the expense of marriage and family life, and Poland faces a looming demographic cliff. The birth rate has fallen by 40 percent in thirty years to the fourth-lowest birth rate in Europe (1.33). A recent study of Polish women found that 68 percent between ages eighteen and forty-five plan on never having a child. Unless these trends change, Poles can expect their economic boom to end, and the economy to start shrinking by 2050.

Read more at Public Discorse 

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