Church needed to rally Poles around EU

  • 2002-04-18
  • Maja Czarnecka

Though Polish communists used to persecute Catholic priests, the ex communists currently in government are now actively wooing the Church for help in rallying support for joining the European Union.

With EU entry talks due to close later this year, the government led by the ex-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) has abandoned anti-clerical rhetoric as it seeks allies to help win a referendum on membership planned for late next year.

"The structures of the Church and the government will work toward European integration utilizing their own methods," Prime Minister Leszek Miller said last week.

"It is not a question of reversing our roles, but we can work toward a common good, which is the entry of Poland into the European Union," he added.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but the d├ętente between the ex-communists and Catholic Church has surprised many.

The two had continued to clash over abortion and other social issues since the return to democracy in 1989, with priests often urging parishioners to vote for right-wing parties.

But Miller has set Poland's entry into the EU as his government's top priority, and with a referendum on membership only little over one year away, securing the support of the Catholic Church has become a necessity.

With 90 percent of Poland's 39 million people still declaring themselves as Catholic, the position of Church leaders "will be of great importance in forming the opinions of many Poles," Miller noted recently.

While one recent poll put support for joining the EU at 71 percent of likely voters, the level of support fell to 56 percent when all respondents were included.

Moreover, the support of other institutions will be critical as the government's support has taken a knocking as the country's economy has slowed to around 1 percent growth.

Some reforms needed to join the EU, especially in agriculture, are expected to be costly and unpopular as well. The government has moved to bolster support for joining the EU with formation of the National Integration Council, an advisory group with representatives of the Church, non-governmental organizations and prominent social figures.

The council held its first meeting last week, with Archbishop Henryk Muszynski, who handles EU integration issues for the episcopate, in attendance.

"I am very pleased that (Polish) bishops, as Pope John Paul II and the Vatican, support the accession of Poland to the EU. Its pro-European stance is a new proof of the patriotism the Church has shown through the long centuries," said Miller.

The pro-European sentiment is not universal within the Polish Catholic Church, however.

Polish bishops took their first public stance on EU enlargement last month only after a divisive debate.

The adoption of a pro-EU integration stance was not certain, said Muszynski.

In the end the document was cautious and included a long list of reservations about protecting Christian values in an enlarged Europe.

Radical Catholics have used Radio Maryja, which has as many as three million listeners, to campaign against Poland's entry into the EU, citing a loss of Christian values and permissiveness towards abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality.

Polish women's activists believe they have become the victim of a quid pro quo arrangement between the government and the Church, however.

Before the general election last year the SLD promised to liberalize Poland's restrictive abortion law, but now government officials say reforms needed to get the country into the EU take priority.

Officials have strongly denied any deal has been made.

Polish law only permits abortions in cases of rape or incest, where the fetus is deformed or where the mother's life is in danger, prompting as many as 200,000 Polish women to seek illegal backroom abortions each year according to some estimates.