In Traditionally Catholic Poland, the Young Are Leaving the Church

Wall Street Journal [New York NY]

February 19, 2022

By Francis X. Rocca and Natalia Ojewska

Secularization, sex-abuse scandals and the country’s culture wars are contributing to the decline

Warsaw – Julian Rembelski, 21, grew up in the Catholic Church, like most other Polish children, receiving First Communion and Confirmation and taking religion class in school. He says he enjoyed the sense of community he found in the church, particularly when taking part in volunteer activities such as distributing food and clothing to the poor.

But around the age of 17, Mr. Rembelski ceased to consider himself a Catholic, alienated by revelations of clerical sex abuse and what he says are the church’s efforts to impose its teachings against abortion, contraception and gay relationships on the rest of Polish society.

“I believe in God, but I don’t like what the church is doing now, because it’s doing politics and that’s not what the church is supposed to,” said Mr. Rembelski, now a student of government administration at the University of Warsaw. He said most of his friends feel the same.

Poland is known as Europe’s last Catholic bastion, the only major country on the continent where the church still heavily influences political, social and cultural life. But religiosity among the young is falling, suggesting that the country could soon look much like its western neighbors in religious terms, with broader implications for its society and politics.

According to the Rev. Andrzej Kobyliński, a professor of philosophy at Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, in 15 to 20 years, “it’s highly probable that the Catholic Church in Poland will meet the fate of the church in Ireland,” a traditionally Catholic country that in recent times has embraced liberal social policies including legal abortion and same-sex marriage and where the “social presence of the church has disappeared.”

In Poland today, 97.6% of the population of 38 million has been baptized into the faith, according to the Vatican. Catholicism has been inseparable from Polish national identity for centuries, especially during the decades of Communist rule.

But a study last year by Poland’s Center for Public Opinion Research found that the percentage of Poles who regularly attend church is 43% among the general adult population and 23% among young people.

Of more than 100 countries studied by the Pew Research Center in 2018, Poland was secularizing the fastest, as measured by the disparity between the religiosity of young people and their elders. While 40% of Poles over 40 years old said religion was very important to them, only 16% of younger adults said so.

And the number of men who entered Polish seminaries in 2021 to study for the priesthood was just 356, less than half the number that did so in 2012, according to Poland’s Catholic Information Agency.

The reasons for this shift include a growing secularization akin to that in Western Europe, with which Poland has grown more integrated since it joined the European Union in 2004.

Igor Janke, head of the Freedom Institute, a Warsaw think tank, said that, for example, it has become increasingly common for Poles to mark Christmas with generic season’s greetings and photos of family vacations without reference to the religious feast, something that would have been almost unheard of a decade ago.

In recent years, the Catholic Church in Poland has also been shaken by a series of scandals over clerical sexual abuse, with demoralizing effects on the faithful. A survey published last year in newspaper Rzeczpospolita found that 62% of young Poles believed the church was trying to cover up scandals over sexual abuse.

“People are just fed up because they want answers, they want a plan and they want the church to be transparent and accountable,” said Paulina Guzik, who teaches communications at the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow.

In response to a request for comment, the Polish Bishops’ Conference acknowledged that its own statistics show a decline in religious practice but didn’t address the possible reasons.

Bishop Marek Solarczyk, a leader on youth issues for the Polish bishops, stressed the need to support activities “where young people experience the power of community and at the same time can shape their faith.”

According to Bishop Grzegorz Suchodolski, who oversees youth ministry for the conference, clergy must do more to engage young Poles in dialogue, using ordinary language instead of antiquated theological terms.

Critics inside and outside the church say it is often perceived as a privileged and aloof institution, not least because of its wealth, which includes large property holdings restituted in recent years after having been confiscated under Communism.

“When the young generation sees priests in very expensive cars, especially in small towns and villages, in my opinion that’s not less important than the pedophilia scandals” in alienating believers, said Michał Kłosowski, 30, a Catholic lay minister in Warsaw.

Many young people also object to what they see as excessive closeness between church leaders and Poland’s governing nationalist party, says Aleksandra Stankiewicz, 24, a graduate student at Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University and a practicing Catholic. The Law and Justice party, in power since 2015, has promoted conservative Catholic positions on abortion and LGBT rights.

In 2020, Poland’s constitutional court tightened the country’s abortion law, already one of Europe’s strictest, prompting large protests.

The political opposition thus sees an opportunity in the declining religiosity of the young. “Sunday Masses are extremely important channels of communication, especially during the election campaigns. But the fact that more and more young people are moving away from the church simply means that this channel of distribution of right-wing ideological content is getting weaker,” said Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, a member of Parliament with the opposition New Left party.

Yet according to Elżbieta Korolczuk, a sociologist who teaches at Warsaw University, the polarized state of Polish politics means the Law and Justice party still has an interest in appealing to conservative Catholic views, even if they alienate other parts of the electorate. “There is this tendency of accelerating the conflict around cultural issues by the populists in order to strengthen the mobilization of their core supporters,” she said.

A spokesman for the Law and Justice party didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Polish Catholic hierarchy, till now Europe’s most prominent conservative bloc within the church, could also find itself divided in the coming years. According to Father Kobyliński, latent differences among Polish bishops could emerge under the influence of a progressive push in neighboring Germany, where many bishops now back married priests, women’s ordination and the blessing of same-sex relationships.

“We live in a global village, also at the level of religion. What happens in the church in Germany will reach Poland, whether we like it or not,” he said.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at