In Poland, Populist Government Gives Church Leaders Heavy Sway

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.

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.”

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SOURCE: Bloomberg
Marek Strzelecki and Dorota Bartyzel