Poland is testament to Catholicism’s enduring influence


Poland’s tightening of abortion laws serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the continued influence of the Catholic Church on modern society.

The Constitutional Tribunal’s recent decision deeming abortion in cases of foetal defects unconstitutional has provoked anger worldwide and has been condemned by Amnesty International as a “dangerous backward step.” Therefore, whilst Catholic doctrine continues to polarise contemporary debates, Pope Francis’ struggle to modernise its image remains an important step towards a more harmonious future.

Abortion rows

The decision in Poland came after a legal challenge from the ruling PiS to the 1993 law which permitted abortion due to foetal defects (a clause dubbed ‘eugenic abortion’ by right-wing Catholics). As 98% of legal abortions last year fell under this category, the decision effectively bans abortion in the country.

Thursday’s announcement was met with widespread protests in Poland, despite COVID-19 restrictions preventing gatherings of over ten in major cities. Church services across the country have also been disrupted by protestors. The ruling risks isolating younger moderate Catholics, unhelpful in a time where church attendance among young people continues to fall.

Regardless, Poland remains one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. It has a similarly sketchy record for LGBT rights, where gay marriage and adoption remain illegal. Disturbingly, multiple regions in Poland have declared themselves ‘LGBT ideology-free zones.’

The backlash…is testament to the polarising effect of Catholic doctrine in contemporary society

However, Poland is not the only country where Catholic doctrine remains influential; controversy over abortion continues to rage in Ireland despite its legalisation in 2018. As a result, many Irish women are still forced abroad for the procedure. According to figures in The Guardian, only 10 out of the 19 maternity hospitals in the country offer free access to abortion. The culture of shame surrounding abortion similarly remains, where pro-Life protestors still harass women on their way into abortion clinics in Ireland, bearing crosses and miniature coffins.

Although religious leaders no longer hold political power in an increasingly secular Western society, the problematic influence of Catholic doctrine continues to polarise debates over abortion, LGBT rights and contraception. There are 19 European countries, for example, which do not recognise any form of civil union for same-sex couples. The continuation of debates surrounding these seemingly common-sense issues raises wider questions about the place of religion in the 21st century.

The Peoples Pope

Paradoxically, Poland’s ruling on abortion came within days of a significant step towards a more tolerant Catholic Church. Pope Francis made history by becoming the first Pope to show his support for civil unions for same-sex couples in the documentary Francesco, which premiered on the 21st October. 

Indeed, Pope Francis’ papacy has been characterised by several ‘firsts’. He is the first non-European Pope since the eighth century, coming from humble beginnings (previously working as a bouncer and janitor). He appointed the first African-American clergyman in the Catholic Church on the 25th October, naming Wilton Gregory Archbishop of Washington DC. He is also the first Pope to choose not live in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, opting for a more modest and communal form of living in the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

International reaction to Pope Francis’ recent statement is indicative of the influence his position commands; his diplomatic, cultural and spiritual reach has meant he has remained in the top ten of the Forbes ‘World’s Most Powerful People’ list since 2013. Embracing social media as a way to connect to the masses, his Instagram account boasts an impressive 7.2 million followers, gaining 10,000 within its first hour in 2016.

Pope Francis’ struggle to modernise…remains an important step towards a more harmonious future

These actions are among many of Pope Francis’ attempts to modernise the Catholic Church. Dubbed ‘the People’s Pope’, his message focusses on tolerance and inclusivity, encouraging interreligious dialogue in modern society. He has not shied away from addressing 21st century issues; speaking out not only on homosexuality, but the integration of divorced Catholics into the Church, action to combat climate change and the incorporation of evolution into the creation story.

Whilst some of his views remain in-line with traditional Catholic doctrine (notably on abortion and contraception), Pope Francis’ conscious refiguring of the Catholic Church as a modern and inclusive institution is essential in negotiating the continued influence of the Catholic Church in the 21st century.

Future of Catholicism

Whilst Poland’s recent decision is both shocking and disturbing, the backlash it has prompted is testament to the polarising effect of Catholic doctrine in contemporary society. However, as long as Catholicism remains influential, Pope Francis’ struggle to renew its appeal internationally is not futile or irrelevant. Instead, these are important steps towards a more harmonious coexistence of Catholic religion and modern secular society.

Image: DPP via Unsplash.

One thought on “Poland is testament to Catholicism’s enduring influence

  • I am surprised the Palatinate has published this article. It is poorly researched and plays into anti-Catholic stereotypes which have impacted the lives of communities in this country for hundreds of years. It is also particularly unwelcome at a time when three Catholics have just been murdered while at prayer in France and an Orthodox priest shot. I sincerely hope that Palatinate will, in future, be more sensitive when publishing articles about religious minorities and take the time to present deeper and more balanced coverage. This will only help to make members of minority religious groups feel more welcome at this university and allow students of all faiths and none to confront their own prejudices, biases and presuppositions towards each other and world. Partisan and one sided coverage of complex issues, presented in such a dualistic manner, will only drive us all apart.


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