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Europe

Poland's Catholic Church seen as moral authority

A prominent Warsaw-based priest is calling on the Catholic Church to remain political. But opinions among Polish Catholics are split - even within families, as Monika Sieradzka discovered when she visited Warsaw.

The shops open early in the Warsaw high-rise neighborhood of Gocław - even on Sunday morning. Barbara, 42, is one of the first customers. She works as a nurse and earns around 600 euros a month. She normally does her weekly shopping on Sundays. The priests don't approve: Sundays and holidays are for church, not for consumption, they preach.

After Barbara takes her shopping home, she goes to church with her husband. Mass at St. Patrick's parish starts at 9:30.

'Protecting the unborn'

Photos of fetuses in various stages of development decorate the foyer of the church. The images are accompanied by numbers that are meant to shock: 18 million dead in World War II and 17 million "innocent children killed by abortions in the EU between 2006 and 2009."

The sermon is delivered by an apostolic Pallottine priest, who describes himself as a "protector of the unborn." He recently made headlines when he sued a hospital in Warsaw for performing abortions. He believes that Europe and "its gender ideology" are a threat to family life. And in his sermon, he says that artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization (IVF) are particular problems and a "violation of God's laws."

Following his sermon, the priest passes out flyers with a bank account number: The donations are for the construction of a clinic where women can seek natural treatment methods for infertility. The topic of his sermon was chosen deliberately: Poland's conservative bishops are currently putting the government under pressure and demanding a law that would totally ban abortions. In return, they are promising political support.

Polen Warschau Parlament Jaroslaw Kaczynski

Jaroslaw Kaczynski (photo), the chairman of the governing national-conservative party, PiS, is a close ally of hardline priest, Stanislaw Małkowski

The priest who become too radical

Behind the altar, another priest sits in silence: Stanislaw Małkowski is a close ally of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the national-conservative governing party, PiS. Małkowski would like to preach again, but in Warsaw, he's not allowed.

Two years ago, he performed an exorcism in front of the Presidential Palace in order to drive evil spirits out of former President Bronislaw Komorowski. The reason? Komorowski had signed a bill regulating state funding for IVF. For Warsaw Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz - one of the few moderates among the Polish clergy - it was a step too far. As a result, Małkowski is only allowed to serve at the altar in his parish in silence. But outside Warsaw, he continues to preach in front of sizeable congregations.

Restoring moral order

Nurse Barbara would like to see the gag order against Małkowski in Warsaw lifted. "He says what we Catholics really think," she said, adding that many are reluctant to admit that they are against abortion. She thinks it's good when the Church takes a clear position, especially now that there is renewed discussion in Poland over tightening the country's already strict laws regulating abortion.

But Barbara's husband clearly has a different opinion. "I would rather not comment on the topic," he said, adding that he only agreed to speak with DW as a favor to his wife. She thinks foreigners ought to know the opinions of Polish Catholics. But he prefers to remain anonymous. "I don't want to lean too far out the window, I don't want to create problems for myself at work," the 41-year-old said. He works at a government ministry and is worried about his future. The PiS is making room for new people in all public offices, he says. Barbara reacts a bit strangely, and then admits that she voted for PiS. For a moment, a rift can be felt between the couple.

Wahl Polen 2015 Kandidaten Komorowski

Former President Bronislaw Komorowski (photo) was the object of a public exorcism by Stanislaw Malkowski

'Churching' for young Poles

On this Sunday, the couple's 20-year-old daughter is coming to visit. Klaudia recently moved out into her own apartment, together with her boyfriend, a law student. The two are not married. It's a difficult situation for her parents to accept.

The young couple also goes to a different church than Klaudia's parents - a more liberal student parish, St. Anna, in the center of Warsaw. She says she and her boyfriend are still deciding which church they like the most. "We call it churching," she says. "You visit different churches, listen to the sermons, and then decide if you want to go back." Klaudia says she then posts her impressions of the church on Facebook.

Although she describes herself as "liberal," Klaudia is like her mother in that she also supports the Catholic Church in Poland as well as the PiS government. She also favors a total ban on abortion. Her opinion only differs in one respect: While Polish priests preach that abortion is an eternal sin, Klaudia agrees with Pope Francis who says priests can forgive the sin of abortion as long as the woman is remorseful.

Polen Proteste gegen Abtreibungsgesetz

Poland has seen a number of protests against a stricter abortion law

'The Church has no obligation to be politically correct'

The ultra conservative priest Małkowski sees this very differently. He has criticized Pope Francis for allowing absolution for people who've divorced or had abortions. For the exorcist and PiS ally, there should be no separation between church and state.

"People in Poland have lost their orientation. They need moral guidelines," he told DW.

Małkowski has many loyal followers. He was once one of the most popular spiritual leaders in Poland, engaging with opposition politicians during the era of communist dictatorship. In those days, his masses were attended by tens of thousands. He was constantly under observation by the Polish secret police.

"Now I have to fight against the political correctness taking over the Polish Church," he said, adding that many more "liberal" priests would rather avoid tackling difficult, sensitive issues.

Avoiding religion at family gatherings

He even says his friend Jaroslaw Kaczynski is too moderate at times, adding that he ought to fast track the anti-abortion bill. "Kaczynski has to sometimes appear to be more mild, so that he doesn't spark a rebellion from within his own party," said Małkowski. Overall though, he thinks his friend is "on the right path." He describes Polish President Andrzej Duda as a god-fearing man: Unlike his predecessor, he doesn't need the devil driven out of him, he says with a grin.

Barbara, the nurse, describes the priest as "her hero." Her daughter, on the other hand, would like to see a healthy distance between church and state. "The Church is the Church, and that's the way it should stay," she says. That's why she's chosen to go to a church where the sermons are not political. And that's also why the family members try to avoid discussing religion during Sunday lunch.

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