"We've witnessed an unprecedented treatment of the Church by the state," said Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki.
Kazimierz Jurewicz / Alamy
The head of the Polish bishops’ conference has accused governments of using the coronavirus crisis to restrict democracy and further their “authoritarian aspirations”, and urged Church leaders to begin reasserting their “autonomy and sovereignty”.
“We've witnessed an unprecedented treatment of the Church by the state – unilaterally suspending any kind of gathering and making Masses and liturgies unavailable,” said Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, the conference president. “Nothing like this has happened in the Church's 2000-year history, not even during the wars, bombardments and plagues which often afflicted our country’s people.”
In an article for the Polish Church's Catholic Information Agency (KAI), the archbishop said government restrictions had violated Poland's 1993 Vatican Concordat and 1997 constitution, by failing to uphold Church rights or comply with legislative and consultative requirements.
“We were informed of decisions already taken, a few hours before they were announced, without any conversations about their legitimacy or proportionality, or any dialogue”, Archbishop Gadecki added. “The Church was treated worse than a commercial enterprise – as an area not necessary for life. Past governments never dared muzzle the Church in such drastic ways, displaying total disrespect for its role.”
Church leaders across Europe have warned against permanent curbs on religious rights in the wake of Covid-19 lockdowns, which restricted but did not end church services in Poland.
In July, the Brussels-based Commission of European Union Bishops' Conferences (COMECE) said religious freedom remained “a matter for national authorities” in the EU's 27 member-states, but was also called for EU policies to focus on “re-expanding freedom of worship to pre-pandemic standards”.
In his KAI article, Archbishop Gadecki said the Catholic Church had accepted some curbs so as not to “undermine state decisions in an exceptionally difficult situation”.
However, he added that demands for religious restrictions had mostly come from “people unfavourable to the Church”, who had no objection to “supermarket checkout queues”, and said prominent figures such as the head of the Jesuits, Fr Arturo Abascal, had warned of government attempts to use Covid-19 “to strengthen authoritarian aspirations and halt democratic processes in decision-making”.
Democracy could “fall victim to the pandemic” unless civic awareness was rapidly restored, Archbishop Gadecki said, along with determined efforts to restore the Church's severely damaged pastoral and sacramental life.
“Limiting access to churches was contrary to our own Constitution and Concordat, and not supported by statute – one can have the impression these proceedings were carried out mainly to show priests they were subject to state authority,” the Polish bishops' conference president said.
“After what we've gone through, an enormous effort of evangelisation is now needed. This is the most important task for today's Church, to be embraced not just by clergy, but also by the lay faithful called to participate in its apostolic mission.”