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Pope Francis' Visit Spotlights Poland's Turn Toward Extreme Nationalism

Pope Francis in popemobile at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland, on July 28, 2016. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Francis in popemobile at the Jasna Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, Poland, on July 28, 2016. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

Pope Francis’s visit to Poland this week celebrates the country’s rich Catholic heritage, but it also highlights tensions with the Polish Catholic culture and the current right-wing government’s anti-immigrant stance.

Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with historian Piotr H. Kosicki, a University of Maryland professor and a former scholar at the Wilson Center, about Poland’s evolving relationship with Europe and the world.

Interview Highlights: Piotr H. Kosicki

On the power of right-wing Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski

“So this is a party that he co-founded with his late twin brother about 15 years ago. What I can say is that he commands the personal loyalty of several generations within the party and of substantial numbers of people in the Polish populace who feel like he represents something different to what’s been going on in the past 15 or 20 years that hasn’t worked perfectly for them.”

On contrasting generational support for Kaczynski

“I would say two things. First, there are big generational differences in terms of education. Particularly, if you look at the 20-somethings or 30-somethings who have had the opportunity since Poland joined the European Union to go and study abroad, then you really get a tremendous difference in terms of them being firmly opposed to Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

But if you’re looking at generations who have university educations but feel like in some way they’ve been held back — maybe they didn’t get the European Union grant they were applying for, ‘It’s not just about working classes for me’ — I think that those who feel like they haven’t fully gotten to take advantage of the opportunities of the past 26, 27 years feel like this is their moment and he is their leader.”


On the Law and Justice Party’s vision for integration with Europe

“I think the short answer is that we can’t be fully sure. It is clear that they prioritize Polish nationalism. How that’s going to play out in the long run, we will see. But on the other hand, Euroscepticism is on the rise, and Donald Trump and Brexit seem to be fueling the fires of this turn toward nationalism.”

On how the Polish people have received the Pope’s message about refugees and migrants

“Solidarity was a word that the Polish Pope John Paul II repeated constantly in his messages. And solidarity is supposed to represent one of the core ethical precepts of modern Roman Catholicism. Pope Francis has included a turn to the idea of mercy along with that. Both of these ideas are actually, when push comes to shove, seeming rather foreign to the vast majority of Polish Catholics.

Some of the Catholic bishops in Poland in more recent months have started paying lip service to some of Francis’s statement. But the migrant crisis from the beginning has been a touchstone both for the Law and Justice Party in its turn toward nationalism, and for Polish Catholics who are drawing a line in the sand at what they’re willing to do as Catholics, politically.”

On the possibility that Poles feel conflicted between the Pope and their politicians

“I would say that the problem is a very fundamental one. Francis is not John Paul II. Part of the problem with the Polish church is when John Paul II died in 2005, the church stopped occupying an extraordinarily unique role in Poland that it had played since he became pope in 1978, and any successors would have a hard time trying to bring Polish Catholics along for the future.”


Piotr H. Kosicki, assistant professor of history at the University of Maryland and a former scholar at the Wilson Center.

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