Economics

Jesus Is King for Poland’s New Rulers

The populist government wants the country to answer to God, not its critics in Western Europe.

Christ the King statue in Swiebodzin, Poland. 

Photographer: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesNurPhoto/NurPhoto

The Tuesday service at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in the small Polish town of Zakopane doesn’t normally have such a distinguished congregation.

But on this day last month, the president, prime minister and a government delegation joined a ceremony to affirm their country to be under the protection of the “immaculate heart of Mother Mary” against moral decay.

Even for one of the most pious nations in Europe and home to the continent’s largest statue of Jesus Christ, it was a notable declaration. It marked the governing Law & Justice party’s latest move to knit church and state closer together just a few months after Jesus was pronounced the country’s king by bishops at a service also attended by the president.

The Catholic Church is one of the “foundations of our identity, our way of life and of being Polish,” Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said two days before the Zakopane service. And some people, he added, are “in great pains” over that.

It comes down to the uneasy relationship between faith and power. Poland’s nationalists spent their first year in office replacing the heads of companies, the media and courts with their own people, drawing criticism in western Europe. It’s now trying to return a nation to its religious roots and giving priests unprecedented influence on politics and business in modern Poland.

President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, and Law & Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski attend a Mass that was part of a celebration of 1,050 years of the nation’s Catholicism in April 2016. 
Photographer: Janek Skarzynski/AFP via Getty Images

Executives and ministers regularly consult the church. The government’s favorite cleric is Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who runs a network of businesses including a proselytizing radio station called Radio Maryja from the medieval city of Torun. The celebrity priest hosts economic seminars with the chiefs of state-run companies.

Elsewhere, the Archbishop of Gdansk named a priest as chaplain to Lotos SA, a government-controlled oil refiner and retailer in the city with 21 billion zloty ($5.6 billion) in annual sales. The managers of state-run utility Energa SA and the national mint also have “entrusted” their companies to “divine providence and the Mother Mary.”

“The Catholic Church in Poland is a group of interests within the government camp,” said Roman Backer, a political scientist at the Mikolaj Kopernik University in Torun, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) northwest of Warsaw. “The church has become very much dependent on the ruling party financially while for Law & Justice, the church is a precious source of voters. Thanks to that interdependence, the party has secured sustained political support.”

Kindred Spirits

While former communist Europe has been a fertile ground for organized religion since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the apparent determination to ally with the Church echoes the conflict playing out between urban elites and populist leaders in Turkey, Russia and even the U.S. under Donald Trump.

Trump stressed Poland’s religious traditions during a speech in Warsaw this month, saying that the nation overthrew communism nearly three decades ago by sticking to their faith. “Poles sang three simple words: ‘We Want God’,” he said.

Like Trump, Law & Justice came to power vowing to challenge the “liberal elite” and champion economic patriotism. The government also has promised to protect Poles from the terrorist threat it says refugees from the Middle East pose. It refuses to shelter the mostly Muslim migrants, with Kaczynski arguing they would spread disease and create ghettos because they are unable to adopt to Poland’s Catholic culture.

The European Union, which gives Poland more money than any other member, has lambasted the country for its increasing control of  society. Last year, Poles took to the streets to protest, among other things, the banning of abortion in almost all circumstances.

Rydzyk attends a funeral at the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw.
Photographer: Adam Guz/Gallo Images Poland/Getty Images

The Catholic Church has long been a political force in Poland. Under the country’s own Pope John Paul II it was credited with helping Solidarity topple the regime in 1989. Political leaders always have attended church ceremonies. A cross hangs in the Polish Parliament’s main hall.

But it’s Law & Justice government’s relationship with Rydzyk that has gone too far, according to opponents such as former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

“If it weren’t for Father Rydzyk, they wouldn’t be here anymore,” Walesa said in an interview with newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza published on July 8. “Rydzyk is the most dangerous and the strongest element of this coalition. He’s supporting them and adding fuel to emotions.”

Kaczynski, who nominated loyalists President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo for their posts, has said his party wouldn’t have won the election in October 2015 without the 72-year-old priest’s Radio Maryja.

Rydzyk, a member of the Redemptorist order, also founded a national television channel, a university and a geothermal energy company. He declined a request to be interviewed via his office. The Vatican, meanwhile, distanced itself from Rydzyk a while ago, saying in 2011 that he doesn’t speak for Catholics in Poland.

Blurred Lines

Yet there’s no doubting his public role, if not his influence.

In April, he hosted an economic seminar in Torun, holding private talks with Szydlo, several of her ministers and the chief executive officers of the biggest state-controlled companies. They included Zbigniew Jagiello, head of PKO Bank Polski SA, Poland’s largest bank, who praised the idea of the city becoming a forum for economics. The conference had sponsorship from PZU SA, the biggest insurer, while the company’s deputy CEO moderated the event.

“Father Rydzyk has crossed the line of priesthood a long time ago,” said Pawel Guzynski, a priest from the Dominican order. “Above all, he’s an activist, a politician and a businessman. Being a priest is just an addition.”

Rydzyk frequently attacks the EU for its liberalism, though he too has applied for European money. During his seminar, he praised Szydlo for changing Poland for the better even as “the post-communist mafia fights back.”

Weekly magazine Wprost said in February that businesses overseen by Rydzyk’s not-for profit organizations have amassed enough wealth to put him among the 100 richest Poles, if he officially owned them.

Environment Minister Jan Szyszko, who lectures at his university, defended him against the report, calling him a “charismatic visionary who influences the results of elections.” His sway over Poland, he wrote in an open letter, “is much bigger than his nominal rank of an ordinary priest.”

—with assistance from Wojciech Moskwa

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