Every now and then, major news stories about religious trends in the real world actually have something to do with religion, as opposed to being driven by politics, alone.
I know, I know. It’s hard to imagine that.
Yes, it’s also possible for an important story about religion to involve factors other than “religion,” narrowly defined. These stories may involve economics, mass media, education and, yes, politics. Life is complex.
I thought about this when reading an important New York Times story the other day that ran with this double-decker headline:
Polish Bishop Resigns After Diocese Is Rocked by Sex Scandal
A priest in the bishop’s diocese was accused of holding a sex party in his church apartment that involved a male prostitute who lost consciousness.
Here is the long, but essential, overture for that:
A Polish bishop whose diocese has been badly tarnished by reports of a gay orgy involving priests and a prostitute resigned … , the latest in a long series of sexual and financial scandals in Poland’s Roman Catholic Church.
Grzegorz Kaszak, the bishop of Sosnowiec in southwestern Poland, announced his departure after one of his priests was placed under criminal investigation in connection with reports last month that he had organized a sex party during which a male prostitute lost consciousness from an overdose of erectile dysfunction pills.
Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal daily newspaper, reported in September that one of the priests at the gathering, held in a building belonging to the parish of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Angels in the town of Dabrowa Gornicza, had called an ambulance. Others at the party prevented paramedics from tending to the unconscious man, the paper reported, but the paramedics called the police and the priests relented.
The priest who organized the gathering in his church apartment, identified by the diocese only as Father Tomasz Z., gave a statement last month to Polish media that disputed details of what had happened, quibbling over the number of priests present at the time of the alleged sex party and saying that “it is worth reading what the definition of an orgy is.”
Where to begin? Readers who look into what happened here will probably want to go take a shower.
But what is the larger story behind this religion-beat crime story?
That’s an interesting question. Europe is a very complex place, right now, with a wide variety of trends affecting the continent’s move toward secularism.
Tensions between the more conservative Eastern European nations and the core of the European Union are rising, in part because progressive leaders in Europe and the United States — think tanks, NGOs, mass media, corporations, academia, government, etc. — want those tensions to rise. They truly believe that it’s important that Eastern Europe modernize, which means becoming more secular.
How is that going? That’s a question for another day.
However, Poland’s intense Catholic culture plays a major role in these debates. So what is this “orgy” story all about? What’s the “why?” factor in the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how” equation? Read this background summary carefully:
The resignation came less than a month after the Polish Catholic Church, in a lengthy report on the state of its affairs, warned that priests needed to get a grip on “crimes of sexual abuse of minors by some clergy” and other misbehavior.
“The church’s internal difficulties constitute an excellent breeding ground of accelerating trends of secularization,” the report, Polish Church 2023, said.
Trust in the church, according to experts, has also been damaged by its close alliance with Poland’s nationalist governing party, Law and Justice. In a critical general election on Oct. 15, the party lost its majority in Parliament to centrist and liberal opponents who have often criticized the church for aligning with right-wing political forces in pursuit of its agenda on abortion and other issues.
And that’s that — sexual abuse and politics.
Now, I have ZERO DOUBT that both of those realities have played a role in the secularization of Poland, especially the sexual-abuse scandals.
My question here is whether the Times team should have (a) considered a few other factors in the secularization numbers and (b) placed trends in Poland in the context of what is happening, with religion, in the European Union’s most influential nations. Is it possible that efforts by the West to woo future generations of Eastern Europeans are having an impact? Are young people in parts of Eastern Europe turning into ordinary Europeans (and why)?
Again, I totally accept that clergy sexual abuse scandals played a role in all of this. I also accept that young people in Poland have been given lots of reasons to accept Western European ideas on matters of morality, culture and religion. But is that a “political” issue, alone?
Let me state it this way: I assume that quite a few young Poles are walking around with Apple iPhones in their pockets. You think? Maybe some of them might want to work for Apple. Now, who do you think would be welcomed as employees in the Warsaw Apple offices, a young traditional Catholic or a young person whose views on morality, culture and religion are in tune with Apple culture? What is happening with other American corporations in Poland?
Let’s go back to the Times background material:
Law and Justice in 2018 banned Sunday shopping, and in 2020 pushed through a near-total ban on abortion, a move that delighted the church but alienated many young people, who mostly no longer attend Mass and voted overwhelmingly for parties opposed to Law and Justice.
Long seen as a Catholic stronghold that, in contrast to Ireland and Spain, had managed to hold back a tide of secularization that has swept across most of Europe, Poland has over the past decade seen a sharp decline in church attendance, though most still declare themselves Christians. Enrollment in seminaries has also plummeted, forcing several to shut down.
Lamenting that a process previously referred to by experts as “creeping secularization” was now “galloping,” the church report warned that “the church in Poland is entering a rather dangerous ‘twist’ in its history. Much depends on how it will be able to defeat this.”
OK, what I am requesting is some information about WHY many young people in Poland “mostly no longer attend Mass” etc. I totally accept that this reality has political implications. But what are the factors behind the political trends? Is that part of the Catholic trends story?
I will end with a story that I have shared here before. This isn’t about Poland, but it is about tensions between the intensely religious cultures of the Global South and the declining religious cultures in Western Europe (think Great Britain) and United States.
Readers will, methinks, see some links to the tensions between Western Europe and Eastern Europe:
Long ago, the Rt. Rev. C. FitzSimons Allison was a bishop in good standing in the Episcopal Church.
A year ago, however, he resigned — at the age of 95 — to serve in the Anglican Church in North America, which is an ecclesiastical body that is recognized as valid by many Anglican bishops in Africa, Asia and the Global South, but not by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Needless to say, he has witnessed more than his share of Anglican debates about the future of the Anglican Communion, a communion in which national churches are in rapid decline in rich, powerful lands like the United States, Canada and England, but exploding with growth in the Global South.
During one global meeting, Allison watched a symbolic collision between these two worlds. Bishops from North America and their allies were talking about moving forward, making doctrinal changes in order to embrace the cultural revolutions in their lands. They were sure that Anglicans needed to evolve, or die.
Finally, a frustrated African bishop asked three questions: “Where are your children? Where are your converts? Where are your priests?”
Now, what would happen if you asked Polish Catholic leaders those three questions? What cultural trends would they mention? Is the goal for Poland to be more like, let’s say, France or Germany?
Oh, and what would happen if you asked Polish politicos why their nation is seeing its lowest birth rates since World War II?
FIRST IMAGE: The sacred Polish icon known as the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, care of Wikipedia.