Catholic Church in Poland: 'Powerful' and 'conservative,' except when it isn’t

World Youth Day is under way in Poland, with up to 1.5 million expected at the main events. American news readers, of course, have learned to expect something else on such occasions: a long, ponderous look at church and state by the New York Times.

And the Gray Lady comes through, with nearly 1,500 words on the church in Poland -- mainly how cozy it is with Polish conservatism and, of course, how out of step its traditional faith is with that of Pope Francis:

WARSAW -- When Pope Francis arrives in Poland this week to attend World Youth Day, one of the major events on the Catholic calendar, he will face a politically powerful church closely tied to the country’s new right-wing government. The church here carries a deep strain of social conservatism that does not always align with the pope’s more open and welcoming views.

Is there a contest for the number of liberal catch-terms in a single paragraph? Because it looks like the Times is trying to win it. You gotcher "right-wing." You gotcher "politically powerful." You gotcher "conservatism" -- a word used in various forms four times, including the headline: "Pope Francis Will Encounter a Socially Conservative Church in Poland."

One of our Faithful Readers fumed over what she saw as a "prism of anti-Catholic bias." She saw "socially conservative" as the Times' semi-curse term that means "following church teachings." 

Actually, I liked the article better than that. For one, it quotes Polish sources instead of using the "sources say" phrase, which often covers for a reporter's own opinion. The seven named sources include church leaders, a theologian and leaders of Poland's political parties. 

The Times also establishes the prominence of faith in Polish history and society. It says 92 percent of Poles identify as Catholic, and 40 percent attend weekly -- higher than other Catholic countries. The article notes also that the church worked closely with the Solidarity movement in Soviet-era Poland, although it doesn't acknowledge that Archbishop Karol Wojtyla -- the future Pope John Paul II -- waded personally into the thick of that struggle.

The article continues:

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, political leaders from nearly all parties in Poland have sought the blessing of church officials and built a system that guarantees a central role for the church in Polish society. So the close alliance between the church and the current governing party is only a matter of degrees from what the case has been for nearly 30 years.

Some results: All Polish students learn catechism, usually taught by a local priest; grants from the government for a new church-museum-memorial building; and a grant to a "a very conservative Catholic media network." However, the Times admits that the monies go to church projects rather than directly to the church. 

But then the story works against its own thesis of a close relationship of church and state and society. 

First it says that some legislators recommended a total ban on abortion, but backed down after large street protests. Then it says that the ruling Law and Justice Party has tried to keep refugees out of Poland, "But the Polish church has echoed Pope Francis on the subject, arguing that those fleeing war and persecution should be welcomed." 

So the church is cozy with the government, yet it opposes party leaders on immigration. And nearly all Poles are loyal Catholics, yet they rebelled and turned back an attempt to ban abortion. How does this show the church as top dog in government and society?

There's more in this article, but it's mostly general opinions. A theologian and a party leader say Polish church leaders differ with the pope, but they don’t say who or about what. Another theologian (and politician) says the Polish clergy is "known for its lavish lifestyle," but doesn't name names. 

The Times also agrees with the obvious: "While there may be a shift in tone from this pope, it has not yet been matched by fundamental changes in church doctrine."

Indeed, one national church leader -- the Rev. Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, a spokesman for the Conference of the Polish Episcopate -- tells the paper: "The pope does not look on the left or on the right, but looks up."

At the end, the Times inserts its version of "Of course, we could be wrong":

Some are hoping that the visit by the pope will show that the Polish church is not as monochromatic and monolithic as portrayed.
"The Polish church may be seen as very conservative from the outside but, in fact, it is not so easy to label," said the Rev. Maciej Zieba, a former close associate of John Paul II and a prominent Solidarity activist.

But you don't have to cross the Atlantic to learn that. The Catholic Church doesn't fit those comfortable American categories of right or left wing. Morally, it opposes abortion and gay marriage. Socially, it opposes war and capital punishment, and favors welfare and immigration reform. 

If the Catholic Church in Poland is portrayed as "monochromatic and monolithic," the painters of that portrait include major newspapers like the New York Times itself.

Thumb: Flag-waving pilgrims to World Youth Day 2016 in Poland. Posted by Silar on Wikimedia Commons. Used by permission (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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