During a recent address in Warsaw, Pope Benedict XVI warned Catholic Church leaders in Poland to avoid getting too close to government officials.
Kicking off a four-day visit to Poland in late May, Benedict, speaking at St. John’s Cathedral, alluded to growing questions over the church’s role in national politics. He told his audience, “The priest is not asked to be an expert in economics, construction or politics. He is expected to be an expert in the spiritual life.”
Many observers interpreted Benedict’s remarks as muted criticism of Radio Maryja, an increasingly powerful Catholic network that critics say is taking on a political role.
The Washington Post reported that Polish President Lech Kaczynski used the network last fall to promote his candidacy. Kaczynski and his brother Jaroslaw, a leader in parliament, used the station to promote their conservative, pro-church Law and Justice Party to rural areas of the country dominated by conservative Catholics.
Poland is 96 percent Catholic but has traditionally separated religion and politics. In 1993, Pope John Paul II, a native of Poland, urged church leaders to stay out of partisan politics.
Benedict’s comments may be an effort to distance the church from some of Radio Maryja’s more distasteful rhetoric. The network has been accused of attacking gays and of airing anti-Semitic views.
Recently, controversy erupted over on-air comments by Stanislaw Michalkiewicz, who asserted that Jews were profiteering from “the Holocaust business” and that Jewish groups were “humiliating Poland” with demands for reparations for property confiscated during World War II.
Tadeusz Rydzyk, the priest who founded the network, later apologized to listeners, but Michalkiewicz says he was never reprimanded and remains on the air.
“Accusing me of anti-Semitism was just a way of changing the subject,” Michalkiewicz said. “My program became a pretext to attack Radio Maryja because the existence of Radio Maryja is a problem for some groups in this country.”
Polish bishops are divided over what to do about the network and the larger question of politics. Zbigniew Nosowski, editor of a Catholic newspaper called Wiez, told The Post the bishops are aware of the dangers of getting too close to the government.
“If there is too close of a relationship between the altar and the throne, it is the altar which pays the price,” he said.
At the same time, Poland, as one of the last bastions against European secularism, remains a bright spot for the church. Weekly attendance at mass nears 60 percent, and there is no shortage of priests. The country’s cultural Catholicism seems to be increasingly seeking a political voice.
“What’s new in Poland is that political parties want to express their Catholicism,” sociologist Pawel Spiewak told the Chicago Tribune recently. “A few years ago, a typical Pole was Catholic in his private life. Now he is expressing it openly and wants to express it as public policy. It’s atypical for Europe.”