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Is Poland about to tighten its blasphemy laws?

Is Poland about to tighten its blasphemy laws?

Is Poland on the verge of tightening its blasphemy laws? Observers of the predominantly Catholic country are asking that question following an announcement earlier this month by a senior politician.

Poland’s justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro said on Oct. 4 that a draft amendment to the country’s penal code had been submitted to the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament.

What is Poland’s current blasphemy law? What is the purpose of the draft amendment? And does it have any chance of succeeding?

The Pillar takes a look.

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What is Poland’s blasphemy law?

What is commonly called Poland’s blasphemy law is found in the Polish Penal Code.

Article 196 of the code states: “Whoever offends the religious feelings of other persons by outraging in public an object of religious worship or a place dedicated to the public celebration of religious rites, shall be subject to a fine, the penalty of restriction of liberty or the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 2 years.”

The preceding Article 195 says that the same penalty applies to “whoever maliciously interferes with the public performance of a religious ceremony of a church or another religious association with regulated legal status.”

What is being proposed?

Poland’s legal and business daily Dziennik Gazeta Prawna reported that the proposal would change the wording of Article 196 to read: “Whoever publicly insults or ridicules the Church or another religious association with regulated legal status, its dogmas and rituals shall be subject to a fine, the penalty of restriction of liberty or the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 2 years.”

The same punishment would apply to people “who publicly insult an object of religious worship or a place intended for the public performance of religious rites.”

The requirement in Article 195 to show that religious ceremonies were disrupted “maliciously” would be dropped.

What’s the political context?

The amendment is an initiative of the Solidarna Polska party, founded by Zbigniew Ziobro in 2012. The party — known in English as Solidaristic Poland or United Poland — is allied with the larger Law and Justice party, which has held power since 2015.

The website Notes from Poland explained that after Law and Justice declined to back the proposal, Solidarna Polska decided to present it as a citizens’ legislative initiative, which can be submitted to the Speaker of the Sejm (currently Elżbieta Witek), provided it is supported by at least 100,000 signatures.

Ziobro said on Oct. 4 that Solidarna Polska had collected almost 400,000 signatures for the initiative, known as “In Defense of Christians’ Freedom.”

He stressed that the proposal was a response to a steep rise in what he described as violations of religious freedom. He noted that there were 163 criminal proceedings in the six years from 2008 to 2015, but 2,400 in the past six years.

He argued that “there is no other type of crime that would increase so dramatically in such a short period” and that the amendment was  “important and necessary to guarantee the security of all Polish citizens.”

Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics and head of department at England’s University of Sussex, told The Pillar it was significant that the initiative was being driven by Ziobro’s party.

He said: “‘Solidaristic Poland’ has for some time been developing a distinctive profile for itself within the right-wing ruling camp by staking out a series of hardline right-wing, conservative policy positions and criticizing Law and Justice for being excessively compromising and ideologically timid.”

“This is partly because there is a chance (receding somewhat now, admittedly) that its deputies will be excluded from the Law and Justice electoral candidate lists at the next parliamentary election. An unexpectedly large number — enough to deprive the ruling camp of its governing majority, giving the grouping a lot of leverage — was elected in 2019, and there are concerns that the number of Solidaristic Poland’s candidates may be reduced next time, or even that Law and Justice will end its electoral alliance with the party.”

He added: “Attempting to present itself as the most vocal defender of the Catholic Church dovetails with this strategy of trying to position the party as the most effective promoter of a conservative vision of national identity and traditional Christian values on the Polish right.”

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What’s the social context?

Poland was convulsed by mass protests in October 2020 following a landmark abortion ruling by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal. Poland’s top court declared that a law permitting abortion for fetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.

Protesters disrupted Masses, vandalized churches and statues of the Polish pope St. John Paul II, and heckled clergy — acts that previously would have seemed unthinkable.

A survey that year found that just 9% of young Poles viewed the Church positively, in the wake of abuse scandals.

Mass attendance, baptisms, and marriages have all declined, while the number of candidates for the priesthood fell by a fifth in 2021.

Against the background of rising secularism and a weakening Church, there have been prominent prosecutions for offending religious feelings. Three women went on trial for posting images in a Polish city showing the country’s revered Black Madonna icon with a rainbow halo. They were found not guilty, but face an appeal.

What’s the Church saying?

The Catholic Church has made no official comment on the proposed changes to the penal code. No bishop appears to have made a statement about it. Where priests have supported it, they have done so on their initiative.

Why isn’t the Church loudly supporting the measure? Especially since 2020, Catholic bishops have been careful to keep a distance from the ruling coalition.

Szczerbiak, who writes the Polish Politics Blog, told The Pillar that the Church hierarchy would be wary of identifying itself too publicly with the initiative, even if certain bishops were sympathetic to it.

“Even at the height of its influence in terms of societal authority in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially while Pope John Paul II was still alive, a majority of Poles (including Catholics) were concerned that the Church had too much influence on public life,” he observed.

“In recent years, it has found itself very much on the backfoot amid increasing societal secularization (especially among younger, better-educated urban Poles), revelations of clerical sexual abuse, a significant backlash against the Polish constitutional tribunal’s October 2020 ruling tightening Poland’s already restrictive abortion law, and allegations that the Church hierarchy is too closely aligned with Law and Justice.”

He continued: “The Solidaristic Poland proposal is likely to be most attractive to the so-called ‘religious right’ milieu clustered around the Radio Maryja media conglomerate headed up by Redemptorist Fr. Tadeusz Rydzyk (although he has had a frosty relationship with Mr. Ziobro in the past).”

“It is also an awkward one for the Polish right more generally because it often accuses the liberal-left (who dominate the Polish cultural elites) of trying to ‘cancel’ traditionalist conservatives, including orthodox Christians, but now appears to be endorsing a similar move against secular critics of the Church.”

Is it likely to succeed?

Szczerbiak said that the initiative had a slim chance of succeeding.

“Law and Justice, who control the parliamentary agenda, do not want to open up another, potentially awkward political front and particularly do not want to support initiatives that boost Solidaristic Poland’s profile,” he argued.

“If Law and Justice-backed Sejm Speaker Elżbieta Witek does allow a first reading of it in a plenary session (unlikely, I think) it will then disappear awaiting consideration by a parliamentary commission.”

“More likely, it will be kept in what Poles call the parliamentary ‘freezer,’ when the Sejm authorities park a piece of legislation indefinitely in limbo.”

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