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Poland’s bishops promote ‘civilization of life’ ahead of elections

A pastoral letter urging Poland’s Catholics to build a “civilization of life” was read out in churches across the country Sunday, a week before a closely contested election in which abortion has featured as a campaign issue.

The Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa, Poland's national Marian shrine. © Mazur/

The 1,400-word letter, approved by the Polish bishops in June but read from pulpits Oct. 8, did not refer directly to the crunch parliamentary elections that will be held Sunday. Instead, the text cited Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium vitae, which affirmed that from the moment of fertilization, “a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth.”

The bishops said: “The quoted words are an unequivocal answer to the questions raised in the public debate concerning, among other things, the right of parents, especially the mother, to decide on the life of the child she carries in her womb.” 

“They also oppose attempts to force the legislature to enact a right to free access to abortion and to order healthcare workers to provide it.”

Poland has one of Europe’s strongest pro-life laws. In 2020, the country’s Constitutional Tribunal declared that a 1993 law permitting abortion for a severe and irreversible disability or a life-threatening incurable disease was unconstitutional. 

The judgment sparked mass protests in cities across Poland. Protesters disrupted Masses, daubed graffiti on Church property, chanted slogans at priests, and vandalized statues of the Polish pope.

After the ruling went into effect in 2021, abortion remained legal in Poland for two reasons: when there is a risk to the mother’s life and in cases of rape or incest. The number of legal abortions fell by 90% in the year after the ruling.

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The Oct. 15 election is a duel between the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) and an opposition coalition led by the Civic Platform (PO). 

Law and Justice’s 2023 program says: “We recognize the killing of unborn children as unacceptable, while defending the dignity and health of women.”

Civic Platform’s leader Donald Tusk has backed abortion on demand up to 12 weeks. He has also said that his party would explore legal avenues to overturn the constitutional court ruling, although it is not subject to appeal.

The Civic Coalition (KO), the opposition alliance to which the Civic Platform party belongs, removed an election candidate in August who called for abortion to be permitted at any stage of pregnancy.

Opinion polls give Law and Justice a narrow and diminishing lead over the Civic Coalition. Televised debates during the election campaign have devoted time to abortion

Poland’s bishops are sensitive to the frequently voiced criticism that they are close to the Law and Justice party and are careful to avoid public statements that could be spun as partisan. The bishops have previously clashed with the ruling party over issues such as migrants and refugees

In a May statement, the Polish bishops’ permanent council encouraged clergy to “courageously take up social or ethical issues,” while remembering that “as witnesses of the Gospel, we are called to minister unity in a divided society and keep our distance from political parties.”

They wrote: “We also ask all participants in the election campaign to refrain from instrumentalizing the Church, which can take both the form of unauthorized use of the Church in the partisan games of individual parties, and the shape of unjust stigmatization, calculated solely for anti-clerical emotion.”

“More than once we have publicly emphasized that the Church is not on the side of the right, the left, or the center, because the Church has its own side; the Church should stand on the side of the Gospel.”

Writing in the left-leaning Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper, journalist Arkadiusz Gruszczyński argued that the new pastoral letter “can be seen as part of this year’s election campaign.”

But Poland’s bishops said that their intention with the pastoral letter was to “return to the message” of St. John Paul II in Evangelium vitae

“The pope reminded us of the dignity and value of human life, and indicated how to build a ‘civilization of life’ in opposition to the ‘civilization of death,’” they wrote.

The letter was written to mark the annual celebration known as “Papal Day,” which commemorates the life and legacy of St. John Paul II, who led the Catholic Church from 1978 to 2005. 

The day falls on the Sunday before Oct. 16, the anniversary of the Polish pope’s election. A pastoral letter from the Polish bishops’ conference is read out a week earlier.

This year, the Papal Day falls Oct. 15, the day of the parliamentary election. On Sunday, a collection will be taken up for the Work of the New Millennium foundation, which funds scholarships for hundreds of young Poles in poorer areas of the country.

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