The Pope Returns to Polish Politics From Beyond the Grave

Pope John Paul II was credited with helping bring down communism in his native Poland and then uniting the country behind democracy. Almost two decades after his death, the late pontiff has been thrust back to the center of Polish politics before an election later this year.

(Bloomberg) — Pope John Paul II was credited with helping bring down communism in his native Poland and then uniting the country behind democracy. Almost two decades after his death, the late pontiff has been thrust back to the center of Polish politics before an election later this year.

A critical documentary triggered outrage led by the ruling party, which accused the liberal elite of orchestrating a smear campaign against a national icon. But it was also an opportunity to dust off a familiar playbook in a culture war that the nationalist Law & Justice leadership has waged for years to consolidate its staunchly Catholic base and keep power. 

The government denounced the investigation, which raised questions about John Paul’s awareness of child abuse while he was archbishop of Krakow from 1964 to 1978, as “hybrid war.” Lawmakers streamed into parliament with posters of the pope’s image, state television aired footage of his homilies and his figure was beamed onto the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. Parliament passed a resolution defending him as the “most outstanding Pole in history.” 

The outpouring of emotion goes down well in a country where church attendance ranks among the highest in the European Union and where clerics can influence the electorate. The Law & Justice government, which has overseen a near-total ban on legal abortions and targeted LGBTQ rights, is faithfully supported by church-driven media such as the arch-conservative Radio Maryja. 

That could be critical as Poland heads into an election expected in October. Polls show Law & Justice retains a healthy lead as war rages next door in Ukraine, but still well short of a majority the party needs to clinch a third straight term in office.

“This is a huge campaign weapon,” Marcin Duma, the founder of research firm IBRiS, said — calling the late pope “untouchable” in Poland. “The defense of his memory is probably the best thing that’s happened to Law & Justice.” 

It also may be having an effect. Law & Justice and its junior coalition partner advanced three percentage points to 31%, according to a monthly Kantar survey published on March 16. The opposition Civic Coalition, led by former premier Donald Tusk, slid by the same margin to 26%. 

The bump may just be respite for a party buffeted by the rising cost of living and a running battle with the EU over access to billions in aid. With less scope to tout its economic successes — the party’s marquee policy was a popular monthly payment for families — the rally to defend the Polish pope’s legacy offers a well-worn path to energize voters. 

Civic Platform lawmaker Pawel Kowal slammed the ruling party, calling its lawmakers “Pharisees” for wielding the pope for political purposes. “You want to sign John Paul II up for Law & Justice today, you’re not trying to defend him,” Kowal told parliament as it passed the resolution on the pope. “Your actions lead to no good.”  

Law & Justice has always maintained strong ties with the church and has never been shy to use them. The country is home to the largest statue of Jesus Christ in Europe and bishops declared him the nation’s king in 2016 in a service attended by the president. 

John Paul’s handling of abuse cases has repeatedly come under scrutiny in the decades since his death in 2005 — with the church beleaguered by accusations across the globe. But the reverence for the late pontiff, canonized in 2014 as Pope Saint John Paul II, hasn’t ebbed in Poland. 

Towns and cities across the country have streets and squares named after John Paul, including a main thoroughfare in central Warsaw. Born Karol Wojtyla in the southern town of Wadowice, the pope is viewed as an authority by 60% of Poles — a number that climbed to 65% after the documentary was aired — according to a survey by polling company IBRiS. 

“There are those who are trying to stir up not a military conflict, but a culture war here in Poland,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said in a video posted on his Twitter account. “I stand in defense of our beloved Pope, like most of my fellow citizens, because I know that as a nation we owe a lot to John Paul.” 

The documentary was aired on independent broadcaster TVN, owned by New York-based Warner Bros Discovery Inc. The TV station became a target of a controversial 2021 Polish media law — later vetoed by the president — that would force the investor to reduce its stake in the company.

The political storm culminated in the foreign ministry summoning — later termed an “invitation” — the US ambassador, Mark Brzezinski, a stalwart Polish ally. The US hasn’t commented on the exchange. 

TVN has been one of few critical voices against Law & Justice, chronicling cases of corruption and criticizing the party’s bid under leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski to consolidate power by eroding the justice system and tightening its grip over media.  

Law & Justice’s papal campaign has been abetted by state television, which critics say the government turned into a propaganda mouthpiece. They say the papal coverage is diverting attention from the outrage directed at state-controlled radio and television over the suicide of a 14-year-old last month. The state media had effectively identified the son of an opposition lawmaker as a victim of sexual abuse. 

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