Family, faith, flag: the religious right and the battle for Poland’s soul

The rightwing Law and Justice party may be authoritarian and anti-LGBT, but its welfare programmes have transformed the lives of low-income Poles

“Every good Pole should know what the role of the church is … because beyond the church there is only nihilism.”

– Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the Law and Justice party, 7 September

High on the wall of mayor Augustyn Ormanty’s office in the town of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, photographs show him welcoming Pope Saint John Paul II on two occasions to what the mayor describes as “the spiritual capital” of southern Poland.

“I met him five times in all,” Ormanty says proudly. “In 1997 we made the pope an honorary citizen. He’s the only one to have that honour.”


Kalwaria is one of the most significant sites of Catholic pilgrimage in Europe. Its huge 17th-century church and chapels, forming a route modelled on Christ’s passion, were a favourite destination of the “Polish pope”, who grew up in nearby Wadowice.

From the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, the baroque basilica of St Mary’s looks down on a compact community of 5,000 people, which has a reputation for making fine household furniture.

Although he belongs to a small, rural party, Ormanty, 65, is a loyal and passionate supporter of Poland’s controversial Law and Justice government, which has a strong chance of winning a second term in office after next Sunday’s general election. Another photograph on his wall shows the mayor with Andrzej Duda, the Law and Justice stalwart who was elected president in 2015.

“It’s unprecedented what is being done on social welfare,” he says. “This has gone not just to families, the government is taking care of the disabled and the elderly too. Last month we opened a new centre for the disabled which is helping 30 residents.”

Ormanty believes that, beyond economics, Law and Justice are fighting the good fight in the battle to defeat the secular liberal values that have corrupted western European nations and which are threatening to do the same in Catholic Poland.

On the mayor’s desk, a small collection of books includes a volume by his brother, a distinguished priest. There is also a work entitled: “The Destructive ‘Equality’ of the LBGTQ ideology; allegedly anti-discriminatory and progressive policies as instruments of discrimination and destruction.”

The Bernardine monastery of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska.
The Bernardine monastery of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska. Photograph: Pegaz/Alamy

For Ormanty and in much of Poland, this is the hot topic of the day. Four years ago, when Law and Justice swept to power, winning the first outright parliamentary majority in the post-communist era, they did so partly through exploiting Europe’s refugee crisis. The party’s chairman and most influential figure, Jarosław Kaczyński, pledged to shut Polish borders to an alleged 100,000 Muslim refugees who, he said, would seek to impose sharia law in the country.

This time around, LGBT rights seem to have been chosen as a useful anti-liberal battleground on which the party – and its clerical supporters – can show off their conservative credentials. At a “patriotic” conference organised by the lay group Catholic Action last spring, Kaczyński described LGBT rights and “gender theory” as a “threat to the nation”. Across the country, Pride-style marches have been condemned, contested and banned. Where they have taken place, counter-demonstrations have turned violent. No one knows how many people have been the target of homophobic attacks because there is no hate-crime category in which they could be recorded. The atmosphere has turned toxic.

Last month, Ormanty tried to persuade Kalwaria’s council to adopt a resolution stating that “gay ideology” was “annihilating Christian values” and declaring the town an “LGBT-free zone”.

“It’s not about individuals, it’s about the ideology,” he says. “Those people who demonstrate their sexuality openly are in effect attacking the church … I am a believer and a practising person, like most Poles: we have been baptised and we are believers, and therefore our goal is salvation. You achieve salvation by living a holy life, in line with the 10 commandments, and the commandment of love. The wellbeing of our children and grandchildren is at stake, because the equality movements blaspheme things we hold sacred.”

The mayor’s anti-LGBT resolution was rejected by the council in favour of a milder one pledging to protect the “traditional family”. But similar motions have gone through elsewhere, contributing to an alarming sense of polarisation ahead of next week’s poll.

Poland is bitterly divided between Catholic conservatives, who dominate small towns like Kalwaria and the rural areas, and secular liberals, who hold sway in the big cities such as Warsaw and Kraków. The old, the less-educated and the less-wealthy are more likely to vote for Law and Justice. Wealthier Poles and the young gravitate to the liberal Civic Platform coalition or the leftwing United Left.

The stakes could hardly be higher. The bullying and marginalisation of LGBT activists is only the latest example of the enthusiasm with which Law and Justice, with a certain version of God on its side, has flouted liberal democratic norms. The charge sheet drawn up by liberal opponents is long: the independence of the Polish judiciary has been undermined and judges friendly to the rightwing agenda placed in key positions; the country’s public media has been ruthlessly exploited to brazenly promote the government’s agenda; women’s reproductive rights have been relentlessly targeted; corruption scandals involving public money have been frequent; the director of one of Poland’s most important museums was frozen out after being accused of staging an “anti-Polish” exhibition on antisemitism. The government’s refusal to form a lay commission to investigate revelations of paedophilia in the church has been judged a cynical cover-up on behalf of a crucial ally.

The allegations and condemnations have piled up at home and abroad, not least from the European Commission in Brussels. Yet the Law and Justice party continues to poll close to 20 points ahead of Civic Platform, the liberal coalition of parties that lost power in 2015. If the combined vote of the opposition parties beats Law and Justice next Sunday, there is a chance that an alternative government could be formed. But the smart money is on four more years of religious nationalism.

Law and Justice party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński greets nuns in Warsaw.
Law and Justice party chairman Jarosław Kaczyński greets nuns in Warsaw. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

By the standards of the Polish church, Father Jacek Prusak, a Jesuit priest and professor at the Ignatian Academy in Kraków, could be considered a turbulent priest. He is one of a small minority of clerics willing to challenge the hand-in-glove cooperation of church and state under the present dispensation. But he warns against a simplistic reading of Law and Justice as a purely rightwing and reactionary phenomenon. “They do not conform to traditional left-right divisions,” says Prusak. “It’s culturally rightwing and economically leftwing. The welfare policies can be seen as within the spirit of Catholic social teaching.”

Nevertheless, religion, he says “is being used as a weapon in Law and Justice’s culture wars. The party picks the aspects of church teaching that it prefers. Take refugees, for example. Look at what Pope Francis says about the need to welcome and help refugees and compare that to the Law and Justice approach. And as far as LGBT issues are concerned, when I preach, I preach about the gospel, and in the gospel there is no mention of homosexuality.”

What Law and Justice is trying to do, says Prusak, with the complicity of much of the established church, “is equate being Polish with being a good Catholic. And a good Catholic Pole will be a loyal Law and Justice supporter. This is the politicisation of the church; it’s reducing the church to a tribal vision.”

It is also, say the government’s many critics, an authoritarian vision. In campaign rallies, Kaczyński likes to talk about “decent Poles”; the right-thinking, Catholic types on whose behalf Law and Justice fearlessly governs. In this majoritarian world, civic pluralism and protecting the rights of minorities are not priorities.

The palpable fear among liberals and on the left is that a second term for Law and Justice will irrevocably entrench its power within the institutions of civil society. Last week, Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper which made its name in the Solidarity era, published a special supplement entitled The Black Book of PiS (Law and Justice). “How Poland became one political party’s loot.” According to the sociologist Radosław Markowski, who has been a thorn in the side of the Law and Justice administration, “populism is a lazy catch-all description of this. This is authoritarian clientelism.”

Pope John Paul II’s visits Kalwaria Zebrzydowska in 1979.
Pope John Paul II’s visits Kalwaria Zebrzydowska in 1979. Photograph: Wojciech Kryński/FORUM/Alamy

But opposition parties seeking to oust Law and Justice from office find themselves faced with an uncomfortable truth. The government may be authoritarian, but it is also popular. For four years it has undeniably shown a striking commitment to the less wealthy. Among huge numbers of Poles on modest incomes, it is seen as that rare thing: a political party that kept its promises.

Piotr Janusiewicz is the Law and Justice-backed president of the town council in Kalwaria and the headmaster of the local secondary school. He says the impact of social spending has been “decisive”.

In power, Kaczyński’s party claims to have overseen the biggest redistribution of wealth in Poland since the end of communism in 1989. Its flagship 500 Plus programme gives parents a monthly subsidy of £103 (500 złoty) for their second child and the same for every subsequent addition to the family. Low-income parents receive the same, life-changing, amount for their first child. The scheme was extended in July this year to cover every child, including the first one, without any income threshold.

“At my school, I have seen the transformation of the 500 Plus at first-hand,” says Janusiewicz. “A family with three children has £310 more each month. Imagine the difference that makes. Families are going on holiday more. Parents can afford to send their children to scout camps and extra-curricular activities. The clothes that pupils from the poorer families wear are of better quality.” Voluntary donations used to be collected at the school to provide financial assistance and meals to the poorest pupils. “We closed the fund,” says Janusiewicz. “It’s not needed any more. Self-esteem has been restored to those people in need.”

The 500 Plus strategy was presented as a patriotic, nation-building solution to Poland’s declining birth-rate. It also ticked the Catholic pro-family box and made a point about priorities in a country where same-sex marriage is illegal and gay adoption off the agenda. Critics described it as a transparent bribe to win votes. But the most concrete net effect has been to lift hundreds of thousands of Poles out of poverty.

State pensions have also been boosted. The retirement age has been lowered and the minimum wage raised. In a second term in office, Law and Justice has promised to double the minimum wage by 2023, distribute annual cash bonuses to pensioners, boost farming subsidies and invest heavily in improving transport in the provinces and rural areas.

The huge level of state spending appears to have boosted rather than damaged Poland’s finances. Levels of private consumption have gone up significantly, fuelling a stellar growth rate last year of 5.1%, which far outstrips the eurozone. This, according to the prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, is what “Polish capitalism” looks like, in contrast to the austerity version on offer elsewhere in the EU. During the summer, Kaczyński told a summer rally of supporters that the “system that existed before, where the fruits of growth were not equally divided … has in large part been corrected.”

Ewelina Gastol, a 33-year-old nurse and mother of two small children, lives in the village of Kryspinów, near Kraków. She says that the new money available has changed things for her and her husband, a fireman. “Finally I can afford to pay for a creche. And since we had a second baby, I’ve been able to put some of the extra money into a fund for the children for when they grow up,” she says. Other parents at the local primary school have enthusiastically signed their children up for hip-hop dance classes and other extracurricular activities that would previously have been the province of the better-off.

Having criticised Law and Justice’s plans as unaffordable, opposition parties have now pledged to maintain the 500 Plus programme and made their own commitments to greater welfare spending. But Civic Platform in particular faces a credibility gap. Why, when it ran Poland between 2007 and 2014 – and the current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, was prime minister – did it fail to deliver anything remotely similar?

Unsurprisingly, Gastol is thinking of voting for Law and Justice next week: “No one gave anything to help families like us before. And when you look at the political alternatives, well, there don’t seem to be any you could trust.”

LGBT campaigner Magda Dropek.
LGBT campaigner Magda Dropek. Photograph: Unknown

Next week, Magda Dropek, an LGBT activist, will stand for election in Kraków. Running on the United Left slate, which stands at about 14% in polls, Dropek, 37, has spent the past few weeks dividing her time between campaigning and organising small-town outreach for the Kraków-based Equality Foundation. For obvious reasons, she is no fan of Law and Justice. But she believes the Polish left can learn from the party’s economic policies. “It has to be acknowledged that they are the ones who have given money to ordinary people. They have given dignity back to a lot of people who have been forgotten in the decades of economic transformation.” That said, Dropek has spent 10 years fighting tooth and nail against the Catholic conservativism that Law and Justice stands for. Last month, that mission took her to Kalwaria’s community centre.

When Mayor Ormanty took his “LGBT-free” resolution to the council in the summer, Dropek’s foundation raised some money to place a colourful billboard poster in Kalwaria’s town centre. Featuring a pair of clasped hands and a rainbow wristband, it read simply: “We’re here.” Within hours, it had been torn down. Then when she found out that the mayor had organised a conference at the community centre on the LGBT “threat”, Dropek decided to go along. The conference, predictably enough, was attended by priests and a few politicians and supporters of Law and Justice. “But what was really shocking,” she says, “was the number of teachers present, including the schools superintendent for the Kraków region.”

Dropek was determined to be polite and constructive, so during the meeting she held her tongue. But eventually she could take no more. “I stood up to say, ‘I am a person, not an ideology, and I’m very hurt by this discussion’. I asked the mayor if my group could organise an event in the centre and talk to people from the town.

“At first he wouldn’t respond. Then he said: ‘You have to understand that this is a very special place. John Paul II is an honorary citizen here.’ Then a priest told me the talk was not directed at people but at an ‘ideology’ which was contrary to Catholic values. Other members of the audience said they could help me change my sexuality if I was willing to try. One man asked me if I was aware what Lenin did with people like me.”

Both Dropek’s parents are devout Catholics but are appalled by the homophobic language of the government and its powerful allies in the church. “The government and the church give permission through their rhetoric to the far-right nationalists and the football ultras who are attacking LGBT people. My mother is frightened on my behalf.”

Last month the archbishop of Kraków, Marek Jędraszewiski, issued a pastoral letter to be read out at all of Krakow’s many churches. “The next great threat to our freedom has appeared,” writes the archbishop. When a child succumbs to LGBT ideology, “for a parent there is no bigger tragedy”.

When Law and Justice was elected four years ago, she tried to be optimistic on her Facebook page: “Come on!” she wrote: “Can they really destroy everything in four years?” As bad as those years have been, she believes they have also acted as a “wake-up call”, and places her faith in the young people, gay and straight, who she sees on the equality marches in Kraków. “They’re not old enough to vote now, but they will be in four years. They’re raised on Netflix shows and they really don’t know what the fuss is about. Equality is just normality for them. That’s what the future looks like.”

Father Jacek Prusak also believes that this golden moment for Catholic nationalism in Poland has a demographic sell-by date. “Law and Justice believes Poland has a historic mission to re-evangelise the world,” he says. “It’s based on a myth. To equate Poland with Catholicism may have been valid in the postwar period, but it wasn’t the case before the second world war, when Poland was a multicultural, multi-faith country. And it isn’t valid now, when statistics show that the under-21 age group is secularising at the fastest rate in the world. The ‘Catholic Poland’ that Law and Justice try to exploit for their own ends will prove to have been a historical reality for a very limited period of time.”

For those who fear that Poland’s bitter divides have reached crisis point, that will be a consoling thought. But in the short-term, it seems probable that Kaczyński’s brand of Catholic nationalism will be given four more years to make Poland a country fit for “decent Poles”.

Law and Justice’s rise to power


The party is founded by the Kaczyński twins, Lech and Jarosław, as an overtly Christian party of the centre-right. The move signals the break-up of the old Solidarity movement which won power from the communist regime in 1989. In the same year the liberal-conservative wing of Solidarity forms the Civic Platform party, as Polish politics begins to divide along lines familiar in western democracies. The left is represented by the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance.


Law and Justice wins parliamentary elections and Lech Kaczyński is elected president. Jarosław Kaczyński serves as prime minister, but calls early elections following a corruption scandal. The 2007 poll is won by Civic Platform, although Lech Kaczyński remains president.

The current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, is appointed prime minister. Tusk serves a second term after Civic Platform wins again in 2011. He pursues liberal economic policies and pledges to take Poland into the eurozone. Law and Justice begins to position itself on the nationalist right.


Lech Kaczyński dies in a plane crash during a failed landing attempt by a Polish air force jet in Russia. His wife is also killed, along with the 94 other passengers. In Poland a week of mourning is declared.


Law and Justice becomes the first party to win a parliamentary majority since the fall of communism, after campaigning on a nationalist, socially conservative platform. Its backing comes mainly from smaller towns and rural areas. Beata Szydło, a coalminer’s daughter, is appointed prime minister and launches a lavish social spending programme. During its term of office the party is censured by the European Union for failing to abide by European democratic norms.

• This article was amended on 9 October 2019 to add that the Polish 500 Plus programme was extended in July this year to cover every child, including the first one,without any income threshold.


Julian Coman

The GuardianTramp

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