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Losing its religion: Catholic Poland looks to Irish example as it moves towards secularism

Modernity is causing a drop-off in people identifying as Catholic, but the Polish clergy also bears some responsibility

In a cosy Warsaw bookshop cellar, psychologist and writer Marta Abramowicz is explaining to a rapt Polish audience how Ireland swapped its clerical past for a secular present.

Her new book Irlandia wstaje z kolan, Ireland Gets Up Off Its Knees, offers a quick primer on Irish Catholic history and how-to tips for Poles to follow our example.

She plots a slow-motion revolution in Ireland starting with the 1968 Humanae Vitae encyclical, and the silent dissent of countless of Irish women over artificial contraception.

The following decades saw the rise of public figures such as Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese who, Abramowicz writes, became authorities outside – and often in opposition to – the institutional church line.


“I think mentality was key: people in Ireland noticed that their morality and their conscience were better formed than many church leaders,” says Abramowicz, “which is why they preferred to follow their values and not church leaders, many of whom were not Christian at all.”

The Irish and Polish experiences have much in common, in particular a welding together of national and Catholic identity in times of humiliating colonialism and other historical tragedies.

But there are differences, too. Four times Ireland’s size with nearly eight times as many people, Poland’s pre-war population included three million Jews and anti-Catholic feeling was common.

Another divergence is how, unlike Ireland’s religious welfare state, the Polish state always ran the hospitals, schools and residential homes – leaving far fewer opportunities for clerical sexual abuse. Not even postwar communist Poland was as obsessed with locking up women as Ireland, offering instead one of Europe’s most liberal abortion regimes.

The arrival of Polish pope John Paul II in 1978, and his contribution to the end of the cold war, triggered a huge wave of gratitude for the Catholic Church. As decline began in Ireland in the 1990s, Polish bishops secured religious instruction in state schools and restrictions on abortion.

Today, similar to Ireland, growing prosperity has supercharged Polish secularism and support for a fresh pushback against the church by the new Donald Tusk government. It is slashing state funding for church bodies and has begun work rolling back Poland’s de facto abortion ban.

That ban was the pay-off for close church co-operation with the last Law and Justice (PiS) government.

For eight years many bishops endorsed both PiS and its culture wars, likening the LGBT “rainbow plague” to “Bolshevist or Hitlerite” threats from the past. Now in opposition, PiS calls its 2021 abortion ban a “mistake”.

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, until recently the head of the Polish bishops’ conference, warned that MPs who vote for a more liberal abortion regime “cannot receive Holy Communion”. In Poland, this is not the threat it used to be.

Some 71 per cent of Poles identified as Catholic in 2021, down from 88 per cent a decade earlier, while weekly mass attendance has slid by a fifth since 2019. Some 280 men began priest training in 2023, down 73 per cent on a decade ago.

For increasingly vocal critics, secularism and modernity are not undermining the church’s moral authority in Poland as much as clergy language and actions.

Next year Bishop Andrzej Jez of Tarnów will face trial – and up to three years in prison – for allegedly failing to pass on to Polish prosecutors three alleged cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests.

Not all scandals here are so wearily familiar to Irish ears. Earlier this month a Polish priest from the Sosnowiec diocese was given an 18-month prison sentence for hosting an orgy, ignoring a passed-out guest – and obstructing paramedic access to the unconscious man, the boyfriend of another attending priest.

In March 2023 the same diocese saw a priest stab a young deacon to death before taking his own life. Last month in the same southern diocese, a local undertaker was found dead in the apartment of a local senior priest who had previous convictions for driving while under the influence of drugs.

Crowning the latest run of scandals: a Polish priest was suspended from his diaspora parish in Croydon for posing naked for an erotic calendar with other men.

Amid waves of scandal, as Polish bishops stretch to breaking point their favoured “bad apple” logic, Abramowicz has attracted huge audiences to her 40 readings around Poland. Most attending are impatient younger Poles who draw hope from Ireland.

“The Irish discovered their agency and, through their example, many people here increasingly feel they can change Poland,” says Abramowicz. “It was ordinary people who changed Ireland.”