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Masking or Unmasking the Evil? Polish Opinion-Forming Weeklies vis-à-vis the Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in Poland

Joanna Paszenda
1,* and
Michał Mateusz Rogoż
Institute of English Studies, Pedagogical University of Kraków, 30-084 Kraków, Poland
Institute of Information Science, Pedagogical University of Kraków, 30-084 Kraków, Poland
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Religions 2023, 14(2), 141;
Submission received: 9 November 2022 / Revised: 12 December 2022 / Accepted: 23 December 2022 / Published: 20 January 2023
(This article belongs to the Section Religions and Humanities/Philosophies)


Almost twenty years have passed since the end of John Paul II’s pontificate. The Roman Catholic Church in Poland faces a serious crisis, stimulated not only by secularisation processes, which are characteristic for Western Europe, but also by a whole series of adverse events that unfolded at the end of the year 2020; they resembled a disaster marathon and had a considerable potential to attract media attention. A wide spectrum of Polish opinion-forming weeklies, ranging from left-liberal to ultra-conservative and far-right ones, as well as those associated with the Polish Episcopate, published accounts of the situation within the Catholic Church. In this manner, press discourse shaped the public perception of Catholicism in Poland. An analysis of the periodicals’ content disclosed a strong polarisation of opinions and a variety of interpretations. Differences between the particular weeklies were identified at the level of agenda-setting and prioritisation, framing, persuasion techniques employed, and additional contexts that were evoked, including the legal, moral, historical, philosophical, and religious ones.

1. Introduction

1.1. The Background Context

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it”1—this quote from the Gospel of Matthew opened one of the articles devoted to the present situation of the Catholic Church2 in Poland (Żurek 2020, Tygodnik Solidarność). Its author finds it significant that this biblical quote, comparing a 2000-year-old institution to a bulwark against evil, is often utilised in the current press discourse in Poland. It may be perceived as a proof of Church members’ insecurity as well as their belief that the recent unsettling events remain under God’s control and that they will not lead to the destruction of the Church.
The history of Poland has undoubtedly created a favourable and privileged position for Catholicism to develop. The starting point was the Baptism of Poland3 in 966 and the subsequent, gradual spread of Christianity as the state religion throughout the Polish lands, which was tantamount to the adoption of the Western civilisation. Later on, part of the political mission of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (mid-15th to the end of 18th century) was to serve as antymurale christianitas. When Poland was partitioned between the Russian empire, Prussia, and Austria4, the Roman Catholic tradition became an anchor of Polishness vis-à-vis Eastern Orthodoxy in Russia and Protestantism in Prussia, and Church institutions served a nation-building function (Ciecieląg et al. 2016; Grabowska 2018; Wiencek 2008). This led to the construction and strengthening of the concept of ‘Pole-Catholic’, which fused Polishness with Catholicism into a single national identity and equated patriotism with religious loyalty5 (Calkin and Kaminska 2020, pp. 92–93; Grzymała-Busse 2016, p. 13; Jurek 2010).
After World War II, when Poland became a Soviet-dependent state, communist authorities launched an atheist campaign aimed at restricting and controlling religious activities and limiting religion to the private sphere, where it would be perceived as an individualistic, subjective experience (Dobbelaere 2004, pp. 40–41). At that time, church institutions served as the main counterweight to the communist rule and the imposed Marxist ideology. The moral authority of Pope John Paul II, elected to the Holy See in 1978, played a decisive role during the last decade before the fall of communism. His first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 is considered to have inspired the Solidarity movement and nation’s uprising against the totalitarian regime in the 1980s (Snyder 2021; Luxmoore 2019). The Pope’s teaching was accepted as a moral point of reference by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, and John Paul was generally perceived as a national hero, instrumental in defeating communism6 (Górniak-Kocikowska 2020, p. 4). The role played by the Polish pontiff in the recent history of religion and the Polish nation is one of the key aspects in the current crisis of the Catholic Church in Poland. It will be resumed in Section
In the year 1989, when the communist regime collapsed and the fully independent and democratic Poland came into being, the Roman Catholic Church in Poland was confronted with a historic challenge of finding its role in a modern, democratic Western European society. The long-lasting external oppression has forged a union between the Catholic faith and the Polish nation and secured the Church’s prominent and privileged position as an unquestioned and ultimate authority in religious as well as social and political matters (Martin 2005, p. 117). Church properties confiscated by communist authorities were returned, and religion was re-introduced into schools, which additionally increased the institution’s power and influence7. As observed by Górniak-Kocikowska (2020, p. 5), both the Church and individual priests were beyond reproach.
In recent years, however, the culture of individualism and consumerism (Motak 2009) as well as the accelerating process of secularisation8, particularly observed in Western Europe, have enhanced the inevitable shift of the Catholic Church from a position of eminence and ‘religious monopoly’ to a situation where it is just one among many pressure groups taking a stance on vital issues (Martin 2005, p. 117).
The economic development, which affects socio-political relations, disrupts communal bonds, and changes individuals’ worldviews, is claimed to be one of the main driving forces behind secularisation in Western countries. In Poland, the heavy involvement of the Catholic Church hierarchy and local priests in politics as well as their open and active support for right-wing and nationalist parties9 seem to constitute an additional crucial factor hastening the process of societal secularisation (Podgórska 2021; Szostkiewicz 2016). In a society deeply divided into proponents of conflicting political ideologies10, the support offered by the Church for one side of the barricade leads to unnecessary confrontation and the radicalisation of opinions. Moreover, it precludes the Roman Catholic clergy from fulfilling a mediating role, which appears to be a crucial task of the Church preaching God’s Word.
Secularisation can also be treated as a transformation of religion that leads to its assimilation with the worldview of the current epoch. Looked at from this perspective, both religiosity and secularism enter into a phase of dialectics. This ideological dispute is thus a manifestation of the mutual interdependence of two grandiose interpretational narrations. Religion needs to take into account the phenomenon of atheism, which, in contrast to heresy, is associated with both denying all signs of transcendence and with renouncing faith as a way of revealing knowledge (Puczyłowski 2017).

1.2. The Aims of the Study

Despite the accelerating process of secularisation in Polish society, the Roman Catholic Church in Poland continues to occupy a unique position of influence on political and public issues compared with the rest of the Christian world (Grzymała-Busse 2020). In recent years, however, numerous controversies, primarily associated with cases of priestly paedophilia as well as the immense wealth accumulated by some of them, were exposed to the general public, undermining the Church’s prestige and power. The problems faced by the Church were exacerbated in fall 2020, when the Polish Constitutional Tribunal passed a judgment declaring abortion unconstitutional on the grounds of severe and irreversible defect of the fetus or its incurable life-threatening illness, which de facto rendered abortion entirely illegal in Poland (Mechlińska 2020). The verdict, issued on 22 October 2020, led to massive nationwide demonstrations, primarily organised by Women’s Rights groups such as “Strajk Kobiet” (‘Women’s Strike’). The demonstrators not only turned against the ruling party, Law and Justice, which allegedly controls the Constitutional Tribunal (Łętowska 2020), but also against the Polish Catholic Church, which had for years urged Polish right-wing politicians to ban abortion. Indirectly, the tribunal’s anti-abortion verdict has further undermined the already diminishing moral authority of the Catholic Church in Poland (cf. Calkin and Kaminska 2020).
The present contribution draws on the findings of research conducted on topics related to the contemporary press discourse in Poland and mediatisation of religion, including, among others:
The politicisation and ideological bias of the Polish opinion-forming weeklies (Bartoszewski 2019; Brzoza et al. 2017; Kotras 2013; Mielczarek 2018);
The influence of the Polish Catholic Church on politics and policy-making (Calkin and Kaminska 2020; Grzymała-Busse 2015, 2016, 2020);
The presentation of religion and the Catholic Church in mass media (Hjarvard 2004, 2013; Lewandowski 2017).
The overarching purpose of the study was to determine how the crisis within the Polish Roman Catholic Church was presented by selected leading opinion-forming weeklies in Poland from mid-October to the end of December 2020. In particular, the study aimed to seek answers to the following questions: In what manner were the scandals plaguing the Church described and commented upon in Polish weekly magazines? What topics dominated the accounts? Was the focus merely on reporting facts or were the consequences of the disquieting events extrapolated to broader political, sociological, and historiosophical contexts? What rhetorical devices were employed at the lexical and discourse levels, and what persuasive techniques were implemented? Were the issues depicted in an impartial or biased manner? Did the magazines under analysis endorse conflicting socio-political ideologies in their reports? If so, did this fact influence the way in which the scandals and opinions relating to the Church were presented? Answers to these questions may shed light on the extent to which mediatisation11 of the controversies surrounding the Catholic Church may have impacted public perception of this institution which, in turn, may exert further influence on the condition of Catholicism in Poland.
Two main research hypotheses have been adopted in this paper: (i) the manner in which the same objective controversial events associated with the Roman Catholic Church were depicted and interpreted by the particular opinion-forming weeklies in Poland, varied not only in terms of agenda-setting, but also in the framing and utilised manipulation techniques; and (ii) the way in which the crisis was presented primarily depends on the editors’ political affiliation as well as the socio-political profile of the readers.

2. Materials and Methods

This study employs the methods of quantitative, qualitative, and comparative press content analysis (Berelson 1952; Pisarek 1983; Pamuła 1996), which are consonant with the methodology of the critical discourse analysis of media content (Fairclough 1995, chps. 4–6, 9). Mass media in the contemporary world, including the press, not only transmit information but also determine the conditions (social, ethical, and other) of “message reception” (Coleman and Ross 2010, pp. 37–38). Therefore, media discourse is best seen as a “circular process”, simultaneously reflecting and ‘constructing’ reality (Richardson 2007, pp. 24–25, 37), that is, simultaneously performing the ideational (representational), textual, and interpersonal functions (Fairclough 1995, pp. 103, 125–28). Consequently, the study of discourse via mass media needs to consider the ways in which it impacts the given society and frames the viewpoints of the public. The starting point of a comparative content analysis of the press is a quantitative and qualitative examination of the factual content conveyed (the frequency and intensity with which the particular issues or topics are mentioned) and a qualitative analysis of the form in which they are presented (Pisarek 1983, p. 45). The form subsumes primarily textual (linguistic) and (audio-)visual means, as well as the employed psychological manipulative techniques. In addition, the (political and religious) ideologies and the relationships of power, control, and discrimination that are manifested and/or perpetuated by the media discourse need to be taken into account in order to more fully ascertain the influence exerted by media coverage on the audience (ibid., p. 42; Wodak and Meyer 2001, pp. 2–3; Wodak 2013, pp. xxvi–vii).
The present contribution is a comparative analysis of print versions of eleven nationwide Polish weekly magazines published over a more than two-month time span12 subsequent to the anti-abortion judgment by the Polish Constitutional Tribunal in October 2020. The weeklies selected for analysis are those that have the highest circulation and represent a full spectrum of socio-political attitudes held by members of the contemporary Polish society.
The periodicals subjected to scrutiny include:
Three weeklies of a conservative, right-wing (or far-right) political orientation, namely: Do Rzeczy (Engl. ‘To the Point’), Gazeta Polska (Engl. ‘Polish Newspaper’), and Sieci (Engl. ‘The Network’), as well as the right-wing trade union weekly Tygodnik Solidarność (Engl. ‘Solidarity Weekly’);
Two magazines directly linked with the Polish Catholic Church officials and published under the auspices of the Polish Episcopate (Adamski 2011): Gość Niedzielny (Engl. ‘Sunday Voice’) and Niedziela (Engl. ‘Sunday’);
The weekly Tygodnik Powszechny (Engl. ‘Universal Weekly’), which the general public associates with Catholic circles, but in fact is liberal in orientation and does not have a Church assistant (ibid.);
Two mainstream magazines that have a liberal(-left) profile, that is, Newsweek Polska13 (henceforth: Newsweek) and Polityka (Engl. ‘Politics’);
Two left-wing weeklies: Tygodnik Angora (Engl. ‘Weekly Angora’), which mainly publishes reprints from other newspapers, and Przegląd (Engl. ‘Review’), which has the smallest audience compared with the other titles analysed here.14
In the period of time that is of interest here, a number of consequential and traumatic events occurred that excited mass media attention and affected the perception of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. The most notable of them include:
  • The judgment of the Constitutional Tribunal concerning abortion (22 October 2020) and the ensuing wave of protests,15 which were occasionally accompanied by interferences in church services as well as acts of vandalism directed at church properties.
  • The statement issued by the Apostolic Nunciature in Poland on 6 November 2020, imposing penal sanctions on the Archbishop Emeritus of Wrocław Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz, who had been accused of the sexual abuse of minors, homosexual acts, and collaboration with the Polish secret police during communist times.16 In October 2020, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Edward Janiak (Kalisz diocese) due to his alleged negligence concerning sexual offences by some diocesan priests. At the same time, Archbishop of Gdańsk Sławoj Leszek Głódź—a prominent figure in the Polish Catholic Church—was publicly accused of bullying his subordinates, vulgar and abusive language, financial corruption, and a lavish style of life.17 This accusation was particularly resonant as it was brought against the Archbishop by a group of priests.
  • The release of films documenting how Polish church officials had for years ignored and/or covered up cases of paedophilia and sexual abuse among the clergy. The films that gathered the biggest audience and sparked outrage against the Polish Catholic Church included: two documentaries made by investigative journalists Tomasz Sekielski and Marek Sekielski, namely Tylko nie mów nikomu (Engl. “Just Don’t Tell Anyone”), released in May 2019, and “Zabawa w chowanego” (Engl. “A Hide-and-Seek Game”), released in May 2020, as well as Marcin Gutowski’s film Don Stanislao: druga twarz Kardynała Dziwisza18 (Engl. “Don Stanislao: The Other Face of Cardinal Dziwisz”), devoted to John Paul II’s personal secretary Stanisław Dziwisz, which was broadcast on TV in November 2021.
  • The publication by the Vatican of the report19 on the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whom Pope John Paul II nominated as Archbishop of Washington despite warnings about the hierarch’s sexual contacts with his minors (Luxmoore 2020). In the report published on 11 November 2020, Pope John Paul II as well as his secretary, Cardinal Dziwisz, are frequently mentioned.
  • The death of Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz, Archbishop Emeritus of Wrocław (16 November 2020).
  • The publication of an open letter by Polish scientists (21 November 2020) defending St. John Paul II against accusations of passivity and negligence vis-à-vis cases of paedophilia and against involvement in covering up sex scandals within the Catholic Church.
  • A controversial statement relativising the crimes of a paedophile priest uttered during a mass by the Redemptorist Tadeusz Rydzyk (5 December 2020)—the influential founder and director of Radio Maryja.20
The above list comprises news items of varying informational value and involving various opinion-forming centres, namely: state authorities, the Vatican, the Polish Episcopate, and scientific bodies. At least some of the events seem to have been created by the mass media themselves. All of them have a negative potential, are rooted in a culture conflict, and are strongly personalised. Due to direct links with high-profile figures of prestige, they tended to be perceived by the general public as astounding or sensational.21
More recent developments in the theory of media events (e.g., Katz and Liebes 2007; Mitu and Poulakidakos 2016, Part I) suggest that disruptive news events of this type can be classified as representing a sub-genre of classic media events,22 namely shocking news events, whose broadcasting in mass media assumes the form of “disaster marathons” (Liebes 1998). The extended coverage, both on television and in the press, allows journalists to fulfil their investigative role and may pose a threat to authorities and establishments by shaking the existing social and ideological foundations. Marathon broadcasts of traumatic events have the power to create and/or aggravate social tensions, mobilise public sympathy for victims, and draw support for action against what is perceived or presented as evil (ibid.; Katz and Liebes 2007).
It needs to be kept in mind that the specific events which are of interest in this article occurred in a relatively short period of time, piling up into an accumulation of disastrous circumstances that adversely impacted the institutional Catholic Church in Poland. They took place against a broader context of secularisation, discussed in Section 1.1, which encompasses numerous countries and societies in Europe. Despite the apparent chaos and strong emotionality of the media coverage, the crisis within the Church seems to have been anticipated and expected, at least to a certain extent.
The article is structured as follows: in Section 3.1, the main topics that dominated the coverage of the selected weeklies at the end of year 2020 are identified, and a comparative frequency analysis of the magazines’ content is conducted. In addition, the journalistic genres, narration types, and line of reasoning is compared across the particular periodicals. Section 3.2 examines a range of persuasion techniques employed in the examined period of time at different levels (linguistic, visual, and psychological). Section 4 presents the conclusions of the study and prospects for future research.

3. Results and Discussion

3.1. The Factual Content

In line with the methodologies of press content analysis and critical discourse analysis outlined in Section 2, the point of departure for the present research has been a quantitative and qualitative examination of the factual content of the selected Polish opinion-forming weeklies issued between mid-October and 31 December 2020.
It is well-known that the press reacts particularly strongly to items of news that have a considerable potential to attract media attention. Mass media operating amidst an intense ideological conflict appear especially prone to manifest their socio-political involvement already at the level of agenda-setting. As demonstrated by Dearing and Rogers (1996, pp. 90–92), media coverage does not necessarily correspond to the objective salience of specific events in the real world. Crucially, media priming effects determine the salience of reported issues on the public agenda (ibid.). Therefore, the agenda-setting and prioritisation of news items can be regarded as one of the tools of manipulation in journalism (Rutkowska 2013). Moreover, the use of interpretative ‘media frames’ in event accounts, which shape and contextualise information in accordance with the viewpoints propagated by particular information providers, leads to ‘framing effects’ among the audiences, who may adopt the cognitive and evaluative schemata provided by the media. This, in turn, may induce cognitive, attitudinal, and/or behavioural effects at the individual, societal, or cultural levels (McQuail 2010, pp. 380, 511–12).

3.1.1. A Quantitative Analysis

It deserves to be noted that the above-mentioned techniques involving the selection and presentation of media content are not only employed in news accounts on various media platforms, but also play a major role in opinion-forming periodicals, which are concerned with interpreting news rather than merely reporting them.
Table 1 provides an overview of the amount of coverage accorded by the particular periodicals to the consequential events listed in Section 2, which resulted in a crisis that engulfed the Polish Catholic Church in the successive weeks at the end of 2020. The examined periodicals have been arranged in accordance with the socio-political ideology they embrace. If a magazine issue exhibited a specific topic on the front cover, it is indicated in the table by the letter C. The yellow highlighting marks the greatest number of articles devoted by a given weekly to the events and problems under analysis.
As shown in the table, the amount of space allotted to the topics under consideration considerably varies across the particular weeklies. The analysed issues received the most extensive coverage in these three magazines: Gość Niedzielny, Tygodnik Angora, and Gazeta Polska. At the other end of the spectrum is the trade union weekly Tygodnik Solidarność, which accorded the least attention to them. The relevant topics were most frequently exhibited on the front pages by the right-wing weeklies Sieci, Gazeta Polska, and Do Rzeczy, as well as the Church-controlled Niedziela; the weekly Tygodnik Solidarność, on the other hand, which also represents the right-wing political profile, did not provide a single cover illustration for them.
The largest number of articles associated with the crisis in the Catholic Church appeared between 24 October and 28 November 2020. Public interest in the issues gradually diminished. In mid-December, it was sparked again by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk’s controversial statement concerning a paedophile priest (see Section 2). In reaction, Newsweek (December 14/2020) published a cover with the Redemptorist’s portrait and a caption reading: “Don Tadeo. Drips with gold, incites hatred, boasts, is haughty, and the government together with the Episcopate kneel in front of him. Why is the director from Toruń untouchable even for the Pope?”. In this way, the weekly focused public attention again on another nagging problem within the Polish Church, namely the existence of the Toruń faction, led by ‘Father Director’—an intransigent and uncontrollable priest, mixing piety with politics and his own lucrative business (cf. Santora and Berendt 2019) (see also Section 3.2.2).

3.1.2. A Qualitative Analysis Journalistic Formats

That the primary role of opinion-forming magazines is not the transmission of daily news seems to be evidenced by the types of texts devoted to the subject matter under analysis: opinion-based journalistic genres prevailed over fact-based journalism23 (Table 2).
The diversity of information transmitted by weeklies during the examined period of time is reflected in the variety of journalistic genres which were employed. The greatest diversification of text types was found in Tygodnik Angora, where not only reportages, opinion columns, and interviews were published, but also short notices, letters, press reviews, infographics, and even comics. This variety was partly due to the peculiarity of the weekly, which reprints texts from other magazines. The least diversified journal in terms of genres was the right-wing trade union weekly Tygodnik Solidarność.
A considerable number of articles related to the crisis in the Catholic Church attempted to present the events against a broader historical, cultural, or social background. Some focused on side issues (see Szumiło 2020 on the liberation of women during bolshevist times or Szostkiewicz 2020b about the history of the clergy).
Press interviews constituted a crucial form of passing information as well. The most frequent interviewees were scientists who were experts on philosophy, sociology, and the history of religion, as well as members of the clergy, some of whom are recognised—to varying degrees—as authorities (e.g., Adam Boniecki, Maciej Zięba, Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, and Dariusz Oko). Tygodnik Angora published an interview with a 14-year-old pupil, whom the local police accused of organising an illegal manifestation.
Shocking events, mainly associated with cases of priestly paedophilia, were also described in reviews of recently published books, such as Lawendowa mafia (Engl. ‘Lavender Mafia’) by priest Dariusz Oko (Górny 2020a, Sieci), Michael S. Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men: How Liberals Brought Corruption into the Catholic Church, and Taylor R. Marshall’s Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within (Lisicki 2020a, Do Rzeczy). Agenda-Setting: The Main Themes

The sequence of events that is of interest here (Section 2) corresponds to a logical succession of complementary themes in the magazine issues under analysis. In present-day Poland, troubled with ideological conflicts, they seem to fit into the action-and-reaction schema. Seen from this perspective, event number 1, i.e., the anti-abortion ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, constitutes the first theme. A substantial part of Polish society perceived the verdict as an offensive of the Catholic orthodoxy against secular ethics. This, in turn, evoked an immediate response of the general public, primarily in the form of mass protests and manifestations. Events 2–4, associated with acts of paedophilia and sexual offences committed by members of the clergy, make up the second theme, within which further successive episodes took place, adversely affecting the perception of the Church and Catholic hierarchs. Events 5–7 can be seen as the consequences and reverberations of what happened earlier. As will be demonstrated in the ensuing sections, the weeklies prioritised various aspects of the objective events that led to the crisis situation in the Catholic Church. To some extent, they also set their agendas differently.
  • Theme 1: The Verdict of the Constitutional Tribunal and Subsequent Protests
With the exception of the Catholic (liberal) weekly Tygodnik Powszechny and the right-wing trade union weekly Tygodnik Solidarność, all periodicals analysed here attached the greatest importance to Theme 1 (see Table 3). The near-total ban imposed on abortion was the first event chronologically, and massive street protests all over Poland lasted long enough to pique the public interest in the following weeks. The topic returned in successive issues of the periodicals. The intensity it was dealt with in particular magazines seems to have been conditioned by the editorial policies as well as the ideological convictions of their editorial boards and/or owners.
The leader in the number of publications devoted to Theme 1 was Gazeta Polska with 77% of all of its texts in the examined period of time concentrated on the abortion verdict and/or protests. This right-wing weekly emblazoned graphic material associated with the protests on four covers. The topic was also frequently discussed on the pages of Do Rzeczy (69%), Gość Niedzielny (58%), and Niedziela (57%). On the liberal and left-wing side of the political conflict, Theme 1 was most often raised by Polityka (71%), Przegląd (71%), and Tygodnik Angora (68%).
Although the texts devoted to Theme 1 prevailed in the time span in question, considerable differences existed at the level of the framing of the reported events. The contrasts appear to be rooted in the political and ideological persuasion of the particular magazines.
Critique and outrage at aggression in the streets and sporadic acts of vandalism directed at church premises dominated the accounts of right-wing periodicals, including those controlled by the Church (e.g., Lisicki 2020b, Do Rzeczy). Photos showing devastated historic facades of churches or property gateways were frequently published. However, they did not provide evidence for the purported large scale of such acts (Łoziński 2020a, Gość Niedzielny; Musiał 2020, Niedziela). The intensity of criticism levelled at participants in protests varied. Gazeta Polska, Do Rzeczy, and Sieci portrayed them in an extremely unfavourable light. The leaders of the Women’s Strike movement were compared to German female terrorists from the Red Army Faction (RAF) (Gadowski 2020a, Gazeta Polska), and a very negative image of the ideological ‘revolution’ was created, presenting the participants and organisers of the manifestations as pathological celebrities who spew out swearwords and vulgarisms and pride themselves on having group sex (Lisiewicz 2020a, Do Rzeczy). Street protests were claimed to be an anti-state operation or even a coup d’état, conducted according to a pre-planned scenario and supported by independent media (Pyza and Wikło 2020, Sieci). Demonstrators were also accused of contravening COVID-19 regulations and spreading the coronavirus pandemic (Sakiewicz 2020; Lisiewicz 2020b, Gazeta Polska; Rokita 2020, Sieci).
However, more mitigated accounts, which legitimised the protests, were also published by right-wing weeklies, as evidenced by the following fragment:
The protests corroborate a mechanism known from history—if certain ethical principles are to be translated into rules of law, there should be a broad consensus for doing so. Otherwise, a serious crisis may result. (…) Restrictions on abortion should be accompanied by promoting respect for life in the society. Protests have shown that this was missing and that our endeavours to ensure protection of life were thwarted at the level of social awareness.
(Łoziński 2020b, Gość Niedzielny) (transl.–Author 1)
A well-known conservative journalist, Tomasz Terlikowski, spoke in favour of the dialogue, demonstrating that the intransigent counter-revolutionary stance led to unwelcome cultural transformations among the young generation:
A few months ago I started to claim quite openly—for which in many places I would have been considered a wimp and defeatist—that the fight for the youth had already been lost by the Church and conservatists, and that nowadays young people do not go to church and do not give a hoot about the Church’s moral teaching, as well as religious or community-based emotions, which their parents developed in various communities, Christian groups or big meetings with Pope John Paul II. That world does not exist anymore, and although we can miss it, for the youth it is only the past, and it does not determine either their emotions or their decisions.
(Terlikowski 2020a, Do Rzeczy) (transl.—Author 1)
Within such moderate deliberation, an attempt was made to question existing divisions in the society on the grounds that the danger of abortion is a negative phenomenon, which may be considered from medical, psychological, or sociological points of view. In this way, presenting abortion as an issue in the conflict between believers and non-believers could be avoided (Ziemkiewicz 2020a, Do Rzeczy). It needs to be underscored, however, that the clergy declared themselves in favour of the right to life of the unborn, irrespective of their views on other issues. They gave testimony to this in a number of periodicals analysed here (e.g., Bielecki 2020, Tygodnik Angora; Boniecki 2020a, Tygodnik Powszechny; Krystek 2020, Tygodnik Angora; Salij 2020, Gość Niedzielny; Terlikowski 2020b, Gazeta Polska).
An interesting contribution to the abortion dispute was the publication of two official letters written by Chief Rabbi of Poland, Michal Schudrich (2020, Do Rzeczy), and the conservative politician, Marek Jurek (2020, Do Rzeczy). They were polemical in character and referred to fragments of holy texts (Pirke Awot and the Old Testament Book of Exodus). Another important thread in the discourse was the polemic with the presidential ‘compromise’ bill, allowing eugenic abortion only in the case of serious, incurable defects of the fetus, which do not warrant any chance of surviving24 (Stelmasiak 2020, Niedziela).
Similarly to right-wing magazines, the liberal and left-wing weeklies primarily concentrated on street protests. However, in contrast to the former, they portrayed the leaders and ordinary participants in a mostly unbiased manner (e.g., Szczerbiak and Zelazińska 2020, Polityka; Karpiuk 2020, Newsweek). The symbols of protests (such as the red lightning bolt—the logo of Women’s Strike) and their significance were elucidated. Ingenious placards created by protesters, as well as slogans, graphics, and memes were analysed, and an attempt was made to justify the use of swearwords as a powerful means of expression (e.g., Kyzioł 2020; Passent 2020, Polityka; Bratkowski 2020, Newsweek). Moreover, the reasons for which ordinary people took to the streets were examined. Some articles provided a broader sociological background for the eruption of dissatisfaction and anger and the radicalisation of young people’s views. The primary factors that were discussed include: changes in the public awareness leading to increased social activity; a sense of injustice and danger posed to young people’s moral values; rebellion against the patriarchy, apparently favoured by the Polish Church officials; disagreement with ultra-conservative values and ‘pop-patriotism’ promoted by the governing party; and the perceived inequality of the sexes in public life (Chutnik and Plebanek 2020; Janicki 2020, Polityka).
Tygodnik Powszechny published an analysis performed by a sociologist of religion, who unveiled the reasons behind the progressing secularisation, associated with both the paternalistic system of authority in the Church and modifications of spiritual needs in the more and more affluent society (Zielińska 2020, Tygodnik Powszechny). Attention was also drawn to the excessive involvement of the Catholic Church in Polish politics, its apparent alliance with nationalist groups, and the role played by the Church in curtailing women’s rights (Passent 2020, Polityka; Pawlicka 2020b, Newsweek; Lis 2020, Newsweek).
Some texts addressed the sociological consequences of the crisis within the Church and pointed out that the stricter abortion law and mass protests are bound to adversely impact the religiosity of the young generation and accelerate their secularisation (Piątek 2020, Polityka). Less frequently analysed were the reactions of the Polish hierarchs and ordinary priests to the ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal and the subsequent manifestations. As demonstrated by Pawlicka (2020b, Newsweek), their reactions ranged from fear and defensiveness to openly expressed support for the Women’s Strike and young people’s dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church in Poland.
  • Theme 2: Sexual Abuse and Paedophile Scandals in the Polish Catholic Church
Articles devoted to sexual offences committed by members of the Polish clergy tended to be longer than the texts covering other issues; they often assumed an investigative character or comprised far-reaching interpretations and prognoses concerning future developments (Szostkiewicz 2020b, Polityka; Pawlicka 2020a, Newsweek).
A considerable asymmetry of points of view was apparent in the manner in which the problem was presented in the particular weeklies analysed in this study. As in the case of Theme 1, which was discussed in the preceding section, the discrepancy of attitudes to Theme 2 seems to have stemmed from the magazines’ ideological bias. Some journalists detected elements of a powerful dechristianisation campaign in the adverse publicity surrounding the compromising events, while others saw cardinal sins in the actions of the Polish clergy, in particular: cowardice, greed, lust, egoism, lack of empathy, and mafia-like connections (Brunch 2020; Martenka 2020, Tygodnik Angora).
In the liberal and left-wing press, the theme was mainly discussed in terms of degeneration, moral decay, and/or the downfall of the institutional Church. Clericalism was presented as a nagging problem of the hierarchical Church, leading to the creation of informal alliances between bishops, which, in turn, fostered the misconstrued in-group loyalty (Szostkiewicz 2020b, Polityka). The informal connections between members of the Polish clergy were invoked in order to stigmatise individual hierarchs. This applied primarily to Cardinals Stanisław Dziwisz and Henryk Gulbinowicz, Archbishop Sławoj Leszek Głódź, and Bishop Edward Janiak. Their profiles were also presented in an ironic form (Mizerski 2020, Polityka; Tym 2020, Polityka). Left-wing magazines commented upon priests’ sexual excesses very extensively, incorporating victims’ reports on the traumatic events they had been subjected to (e.g., Obirek 2020, Przegląd).
Right-wing weeklies, in contrast, attempted to relativize the offences of the clergy and diminish their gravity. Positive overtones tended to come to the fore as the articles dealing with priests’ sexual offences emphasised the fact that the Polish Catholic Church undertook actions to combat the identified improprieties. It was underscored, moreover, that homosexuality is the primary source of paedophilia (Rowiński 2020a, Do Rzeczy; Oko 2020, Do Rzeczy; Terlikowski 2020c, Tygodnik Solidarność). In this way, the periodicals appear to have shifted the blame for the crimes committed by paedophiles in cassocks to the LGBT community. With regard to Cardinal Gulbinowicz, charged with sexual abuse of minors and homosexual acts, attention focused on his links with the Security Service during communist times rather than on his erotic life, as the former seemed to be a less controversial issue. It deserves note that the magazine Do Rzeczy was the only right-wing weekly that treated sex scandals as the source of the crisis within the Catholic Church. It also devoted the biggest number of texts to this theme. The other conservative weeklies, including the two periodicals published under the auspices of the Catholic Church, concentrated on the further consequences of the shameful events instead of analysing the unpalatable facts themselves.
  • Reverberations of the High-Profile Events Affecting the Catholic Church in Poland
Most widely covered and commented upon was the attack waged by the mainly left-wing groups against the heritage of John Paul II, whom the Vatican report concerning Cardinal Theodore McCarrick frequently mentioned but did not indicate as the guilty party. Right-wing and Church-controlled periodicals forcefully argued that the Polish Pope had been misinformed about Cardinal McCarrick, and they categorically denied that he could have been involved in covering up sexual scandals within the Church. Instead, they presented him as a victim whom Catholics should defend (e.g., Grabowski 2020, Niedziela; Górny 2020a, Sieci) (see also Section 3.2.2).
One of the aspects of this topic was a discrepancy of opinions about John Paul II, magnified by the open letter issued by Polish scientists in his defence (event 6 in Section 2). The left-wing weekly Polityka published two texts directly referring to the Polish Pope and depicting the metamorphoses in the perception of this prominent figure in Poland in the recent years. Unfortunately, worshipping the Pope as an idol could not have been avoided. During his lifetime and after his death in 2005, the Pope became reduced to only one dimension, namely that of his enormous popularity, uncritical adoration, and media blitz, which occasionally verged on the absurd. Any critique of the Pope was strictly taboo (Podgórska 2020b, Polityka).
This approach unleashed a backlash, that is, a gradual but powerful deconstruction of the bigoted and kitsch image, manifesting itself in avant-garde art, pop culture, and the views of the young generation. In this connection, Polityka commented both on the controversial installation by Jerzy Kalina staged in front of the National Museum in Warsaw in September 2020 to commemorate the centenary of John Paul II’s birth,25 and in the case of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who in 1992—in protest against paedophilia in the Church—shredded a picture of the Pope during a live performance broadcast by CBN (Żelazińska 2020, Polityka). Tomasz Lis, a well-known Polish liberal journalist, called for an impartial appraisal of the Polish Pope as a historic figure, contended that he was again being presented in a thoughtless manner and in only black-and-white. While John Paul II had been depicted as a hero of national myth in the more distant past, he was currently accused of passivity vis-à-vis sex scandals in the Catholic Church or even presented as guilty of compliance with priest paedophiles. Both interpretations seemed far removed from the objective truth (Lis 2020, Newsweek).
John Paul II’s attitude towards the priests charged with sexual abuse could have been heavily influenced by his experience of the communist regime in Poland, when the Security Service (Pol. Służba Biezpieczeństwa, commonly known as the SB) fabricated various kinds of documents in order to blackmail, attack, and discredit Church institutions (Górny 2020b, Sieci). Another reason behind the controversies currently surrounding the Pope is perhaps the perception of the role played by the clergy in the contemporary world. John Paul II can be seen as a defender of the traditional clerical doctrine according to which the road to salvation primarily leads through the Church, while the current Pope Francis ascribes an ancillary role to this institution (Tarnowski 2020, Tygodnik Powszechny).
  • More Distant References to the Themes under Analysis
Numerous articles in the weeklies under analysis were only contextually associated with the particular themes mentioned in Section 2. Gość Niedzielny, for instance, published a series of feature articles presenting the hardships faced by mothers of children with various kinds of disabilities (Gruszka-Zych 2020a, 2020b; Kędzior 2020; Łącka 2020). Such texts contributed to the abortion debate (Theme 1) and often resonated with similar accounts which, however, conveyed the opposite message (Brzeska 2020, Przegląd). Melodramatic stories of this type fit well into emotionally loaded reports which are part of ‘disaster marathons’ in mass media broadcasts of catastrophes (Liebes 1998).
The controversial statement made by priest Tadeusz Rydzyk with reference to Bishop Edward Janiak who covered up cases of paedophilia (see Section 2), namely: “So what if a priest sinned? He did sin. But who is free from temptation? Let him show himself”, provided a pretext for describing the director of Radio Maryja’s vast media empire. The weekly Newsweek argued: “Xenophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-liberalism are served with a patriotic, religious and prayer-like sauce” (Kowalczyk 2020). Polityka commented that the Redemptorist’s message “grew from a fertile substratum of traditionalist, often immature Polish religiosity, which requires numerous manifestations of its presence in the public sphere” (Szostkiewicz 2020c). Both periodicals condemned the approach advocated by priest Tadeusz Rydzyk, claiming that Christ’s parable of the prodigal son and reference to Divine Mercy could not be treated as justification for impunity. Even the right-wing weekly Sieci quoted in this connection Grzegorz Ryś, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Łódź, who said: “Trivializing sin, and even more—trivializing its consequences in the victims’ lives, has nothing to do with the road of the Gospel” (“Sygnalista nadaje” 2020b, Sieci).
In some cases, the context constituted an element of provocation or dialectic. An article devoted to the French paedophile doctor Joël Le Scouarnec, for instance, was intended as an illustration of the unequal standards observed by the press when comparable deeds were publicised (Rędzioch 2020, Sieci). The truth of time seemed to be the idea that the trends set by mass media tended to replace ordinary procedures employed within the judicial system.
The struggle between conflicting opinions was also presented in comprehensive texts primarily published at the end of year 2020, which showed a broader panorama of the current situation. A whole spectrum of events contributed to the crisis of the Catholic Church in Poland. In line with one of the cognitive schemas structuring media accounts of that time, massive protests sparked by the anti-abortion ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal and (occasional) physical attacks at church buildings were linked or even equated with attacks on the hierarchical Church and Pope John Paul II. They were treated as part of the same phenomenon, even if their consequences were interpreted in different ways (Jędraszewski 2020, Do Rzeczy; Isakowicz-Zaleski 2020, Tygodnik Angora). Jan Rokita linked the impasse within the Church with the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming that COVID accelerated the process of dechristianisation of Europe by ten years. This was due not only to the fact that certain religious practices had to be abandoned for hygienic reasons, but also due to the unprecedented lack of religious narration on the pandemic (Rokita 2020, Sieci). Other causes behind the crisis were also identified, such as the abdication of Pope Benedict XVI, the controversies surrounding the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region held in 2019, or the discussion about Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation by Pope Francis (Żurek 2020, Tygodnik Solidarność).
A number of texts only loosely associated with the situation in the Polish Catholic Church appeared in some of the examined weeklies. Tygodnik Angora, for instance, confirming its cosmopolitan and interdisciplinary character, published reports concerning the crisis of Catholicism in Germany (PKU 2020) and Ireland (Berowski 2020). In addition, high-profile acts of public apostasy, constituting an element of political manifestation rather than an existential need, were commented upon. Moreover, the positive as well as negative attitudes towards the belief that God exists (i.e., theism) and the negation of this proposition (atheism) were considered (Roszkowski 2020, Do Rzeczy). In a special report published by Polityka, the problem of LGBT-free zones, created in some provincial areas, mainly in Eastern Poland, was resumed. It was reported that local priests played a crucial role in such initiatives (Kołodziejczyk 2020).

3.2. Persuasion Techniques

The presence of religion in a person’s life and the attitude of a society towards the Church tend to be of emotional nature, not only shaped by tradition and upbringing, but also by the ethical code based on life experience. Disquieting or shocking facts often become a seedbed for conflict and contribute an additional, mediatised dimension to the ideological debate. Specific events are subjected to appraisal in opinion-forming weeklies, and their interpretation is often equivocal. Comments on controversial issues typically pertain to concrete people and are not restricted to an ad hoc evaluation of their current activities.
At the same time, the contemporary press, including the examined magazines, adapt their coverage to the needs of a mass audience, undergoing the process of tabloidisation (Wolna 2016). This leads to increased suggestiveness of media messages, with their greater directness often achieved by short explicit catchphrases, as well as a tendency to scandalise and simplify the reported issues. The picture of the world depicted by journalists tends to be strongly polarised; this effect is enhanced by the employment of persuasion and manipulation techniques.
Elements of persuasion were found in the periodicals under analysis on different levels of content organisation and presentation. As outlined in Section 3.1, journalistic manipulation may involve agenda-setting, prioritisation, or omission of selected aspects of the related events, as well as the employment of interpretative framing schemata. In addition, the use of persuasion techniques can be observed in the manner in which the factual content is presented, which subsumes linguistic techniques (e.g., the formulation of titles of articles and leads, rhetorical devices, metaphorical expressions, emotive arguments and loaded vocabulary, register, etc.), as well as visual means (the graphic material on covers, the selection of photos and other illustrations, visual metaphors, etc.) and their combinations. Finally, it is possible to identify psychological manipulation techniques that journalists employ to successfully convey the intended message.

3.2.1. Linguistic Techniques Emotive Language

Emotionally-charged, expressive vocabulary can undoubtedly be treated as an indicator of the high degree of emotional involvement in a debate. In the discourse related to the crisis situation in the Polish Catholic Church, a number of rhetorical devices meant to provoke emotions and elicit a desired type of reaction in readers have been employed. One of them was frequent recourse to irony (Mizerski 2020, Polityka; “Sygnalista nadaje” 2020a, 2020b, Sieci; Ogórek 2020, Tygodnik Angora) and the use of rhetorical questions such as: ‘Where are the moral standards of those people?’, ‘Where are the fruits of their education?’, referring to the participants in demonstrations (Sakowicz 2020, Niedziela).
Titles of articles in Gazeta Polska provide an interesting illustration for the role played by the choice of vocabulary. Discreditable facts related to the Church were rendered both with neutral terms, as in the titles: “Report on McCarrick’s case”, “Cardinal’s dialogue with Secret Police”, and with hyperbolic, confrontational, highly emotively-loaded expressions, including slang and swearwords, for instance: “Sowers of death will secure euthanasia for senior citizens”, “To trample the memory of the Polish Pope”, “F#ck off! Secret police have winkled prostitutes out”.
Public debate about the Catholic Church has undergone strong radicalisation, enhancing the vulgarisation of language, personal attacks, and recourse to radical opinions in the press (Gójska 2020, Gazeta Polska). It seems that in the examined period of time, this kind of strategy was predominantly employed by the weeklies that are strongly politically engaged, namely the right-wing ones. The press appears to have adopted the language used in the streets; consequently, the vulgar slogans of mass protests have become a topic of its own in the discussion about manifestations and their consequences. This applies primarily to the slogans “Wypierdalać!”, roughly translated as ‘Fuck!’ or ‘Get lost!’, and the even more obscene “Jebać PiS!”, i.e., ‘Fuck PiS!’.26 While some journalists attempted to prove that a university professor chanting swearwords at a protest is a sign of academic values breaking down (Wieczorek 2020a, Gazeta Polska), others tried to legitimise the excessive expressiveness (Wesołowska 2020, Tygodnik Angora). Along similar lines, attacks at church premises and religious symbols were excused:
I see all those opinions that sacred places are being devastated, that one needs to step forward in their defence, and that those people are all enemies of the Church and heathens. No! The people have had enough of the Church, which ceased to be evangelical (…). I am not claiming that they do it in the right manner or that the measures they apply are proper. I am not even claiming that they have exclusively good intentions. But those people do hate the Church. I hate THIS Church as well. The one that has become an absolute political harlot.
(Wesołowska 2020, Tygodnik Angora) (transl.—Author 1) Metaphorical Discourse

A variety of metaphors were utilised by opinion-forming weeklies in the discourse about the crisis within the Catholic Church. This comes as no surprise, considering that metaphors serve as a convenient and powerful “framing device” that influences (or even conditions) the manner in which salient phenomena, including social and religious ones, are reasoned with and emotionally reacted to (Hart 2017, p. 3). This is achieved through systematic networks of entailments that foreground and reinforce some aspects of reality and conceal others (Lakoff and Johnson [1980] 2003, p. 157). As such, metaphors prove to be as an effective tool to enhance the level of persuasion or manipulation. In particular, metaphors can be employed to impart specific evaluations and judgements, to increase the level of emotionality, to promote selected solutions to problems, and, consequently, promote specific courses of action (Cortés de los Ríos 2010, p. 8; Hart 2017, pp. 3–4).
According to the cognitive linguistic approach, metaphors are primarily conceptual27 in nature and can be instantiated by various modalities, including language, visual imagery, and their combinations. Hence, a given conceptual metaphor may have linguistic, pictorial, and/or multimodal realisations (Lakoff and Johnson [1980] 2003; Forceville 2009). In this section, attention is focused on those metaphorical patterns that have been most frequently employed in the press discourse under analysis, namely: the war metaphor, the natural disaster metaphor, the history metaphor (Delouis 2014), the disease metaphor (Kövecses 2005, p. 165), the building metaphor, and the animalisation metaphor.
  • war Metaphors
Martial metaphors constitute a recurrent element of the ideological dispute in the press and in political discourse. In the description of manifestations organised by the Women’s Strike, a number of relatively conventionalised metaphorical expressions were employed, for instance: “war was declared”, “a march on Warsaw”, “rainbow squads”, “the Church became a fortress”, “fight in defence of our civilization”, “I defend priests”, “guerrilla warfare in the media”, “women at the front”. As a result, the conceptualisation of protests as menacing, savage, tumultuous, and unpredictable was enhanced, and their participants were presented as enemies and aggressors, while the Church and Catholics were framed as victims who were under unprecedented attack and who had to defend themselves (Galarowicz 2020, Gazeta Polska; Karnowski 2020, Sieci) (cf. Stojan and Mijić 2019, p.75; Delouis 2014, pp. 3, 5).
The frequent use of metaphorical expressions based on combat experience may have been encouraged by the fact that small-scale battles actually did take place between radical groups of protesters and paramilitary nationalist troops of Catholic provenance who were summoned by right-wing politicians in order to defend church premises and patriotic artifacts28 (Lisiewicz 2020c, Gazeta Polska).
The construal of reality in terms of war was also manifested in the mediatised approach to such socio-cultural concepts, which appear relatively new to the general public in Poland, such as gender (roles) and LGBT+. In the analysed opinion-forming weeklies, the conflicting attitudes to those phenomena were commonly framed as “a culture war”, “spiritual war”, or “fight with gender, LGBT and abortion”, in which “fighting Catholics”—obliged to battle with the ‘civilisation of death’—are engaged (Bielik-Robson 2020, Newsweek; Karnowski 2020, Sieci; Mierzyńska 2020, Tygodnik Angora).
In addition, the adversaries of the Catholic Church were framed with reference to crucial military facts from the history of the Polish nation. These analogies varied in the degree of their negative emotional load. An article in Gazeta Polska, for instance, quoted a pre-war avant-garde Polish painter, Zofia Stryjeńska, who compared foreigners who had ruled Poland on behalf of the worldwide revolution to “eternal Genghis Khans” (the rulers of the Mongol Empire) (Lisiewicz 2020d, Gazeta Polska). This epithet was a mild one in comparison with such phrases as “Sonderaktion Krakau”, which was used to characterise the people who protested against the toughening of the abortion law in Poland (Wieczorek 2020b, Gazeta Polska).
The war metaphor can be identified as well in the illustrations, photos, and photo montages that provided visual support for the points of view promoted in the magazine articles. They offered glimpses of manifestations, and particularly in right-wing weeklies they zoomed in on aggression, physical confrontations with the police, flaming torches, etc. Defiance and rebellion were treated as a novelty leading to nihilism. The attacks against the Catholic Church in Poland were seen as equally appalling as the attacks on the Founding Fathers of the United States or the Declaration of Independence that occurred in the USA at the time of the presidential election in 2020 (Ziemkiewicz 2020b, Do Rzeczy).
  • The history Metaphor
According to a popular view, history involves a shift from the past times of ignorance and oppression to the contemporary period of freedom, cultural and technological advancement, and progress. This is licensed by the conceptual metaphor that historical change is movement from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge (Kövecses 2010, p. 65). The framing of the nation’s history as the gauge of advancement enabled interpreting the threat posed by the Women’s Strike movement to conservative and patriotic values as a return to the past, for instance to the Middle Ages (Bielik-Robson 2020, Newsweek; Podgórska 2020a, Polityka). In other examples of history-based comparisons, specific negatively evaluated periods in the history of Poland, such as the so-called “Swedish Deluge” (Pol. ‘Potop Szwedzki’), i.e., the 17th century Swedish invasion or the 20th century communist rule, were exploited as metaphorical source domains. Hence, protesters entering churches were portrayed as Swedish invaders or Bolsheviks (Bąkiewicz 2020, Sieci).
The same metaphor, which enabled the conceptualisation of current events in the context of history (Delouis 2014), was employed by the opposite side of the abortion debate. Negative labels such as “a cave-dweller vision of the world” or “new fascism” (Hołdys 2020, Newsweek), were ascribed to the opponents of the Women’s Strike and defenders of the Catholic Church.
Moreover, exploited in the dispute were positively evaluated national myths, associated not only with the Polish Pope, the stereotype of a Pole-Catholic, but also with Poland itself, which in the Polish literature of the romantic period had been presented as the Christ of nations (Lisiewicz 2020d, Gazeta Polska).
  • The disease Metaphor
Another frequent source domain employed by opinion-forming weeklies in the analysed period of time is illness29. Sexual abuse in the Polish Catholic Church was framed as a cancer that eats away at the institution from within (Dziedzina 2020, Gość Niedzielny), as deeply rooted moral gangrene (Pawlicka 2020a, Newsweek), or as a festering ulcer (Boniecki 2020c, Tygodnik Powszechny). Szostkiewicz (2020a, Polityka) portrayed the institutional Church as a patient, using such metaphorical expressions as “an ill ecclesiastical system” and “sick rules of the conspiracy of silence”. Interestingly, churchgoers were depicted as suffering from the disease plaguing the Church as well: “it [the situation in the Polish Catholic Church] hurts and it should hurt, particularly the believers of the JP2 generation”.30 Rot (a plant disease) was exploited with reference to the purported homosexual lobby in the Church (Górny 2020a, Sieci).
The liberal side of the dispute treated Vatican reports on cases of paedophilia and sexual abuse as part of the indispensable treatment (“It is like lancing an ulcer—the sight is repulsive but it marks the beginning of the healing process” [ibid.]). Right-wing weeklies, on the other hand, focused on ‘attacks at religion’, describing them as metastasis of the secularisation disease from Western Europe to Poland (Lisicki 2020b, Do Rzeczy). Not infrequently, radical attitudes of the Polish youth were depicted as madness (Kołodziejczyk 2020, Sieci), e.g., “the mob went mad” (Maciejewski 2020, Sieci); protesters were characterised as (mentally) distorted individuals who are potential patients of psychiatric hospitals (Karp 2020, Sieci).
The metaphorical entailment imparted by analogies between diseases and various aspects of the crisis within the Church and the disruptive events in the streets was that opinion leaders could pose as doctors who provided a cure, and that the actions undertaken to remedy the situation gained greater legitimacy (cf. Delouis 2014, p.16; Charteris-Black 2011, p. 100). The latter implication was exploited, for instance, in justifying the brutality of the police against Women’s Strike protesters.
  • The natural disaster Metaphor
A similar, almost apocalyptic imagery, was used to depict the broadcast events in the convention of a natural catastrophe, which triggered strong negative emotions (cf. Cortés de los Ríos 2010, p. 90). For example, the effects that the Vatican reports on paedophilia produced within the Polish Church were compared to an earthquake (e.g., Pawlicka 2020a, Newsweek), a fire, an explosion (Szostkiewicz 2020c, Polityka), and a storm. In biblical terms, the situation was referred to as havoc wreaked on the vineyard of the Lord (Pacan 2020, Tygodnik Solidarność).
The reactions of the public were often presented as a flood, for instance in the phrase “a wave of verbal aggression directed at church institution and the Polish Episcopate” (Rokita 2020, Sieci) and the article title: “A wave of violence is swelling up” (Rowiński 2020b, Do Rzeczy). The imagery of fire was also employed to describe the protester, e.g., “flames of hatred” (Bąkiewicz 2020, Sieci), as well as the defenders of the Church, as in the positively evaluated expression “fire of patriotism”.
  • The building Metaphor
A collapse of the structure of the Catholic Church, licensed by the metaphor social groups are buildings (Kövecses 2005, p. 73), was imparted by the title “The pillars are crumbling” [Pol. ‘Filary się kruszą’] (Szostkiewicz 2020a, Polityka). Related imagery was employed in Newsweek, where the Church hierarchy was compared with a system that had been concreted over for decades (Pawlicka 2020a, Newsweek). In the above-mentioned article by Szostkiewicz (2020a, Polityka), the situation within the Catholic Church was also compared with a less spectacular but certainly equally troublesome event from the realm of building construction: “The septic tank backed up and the stink is unbearable”.
The application of the building frame to the Catholic Church evokes a conceptualisation in terms of a structurally solid building with firm foundations (cf. Kirkwood 2019, p. 8), which can serve as a stable point of reference in believers’ spiritual life. ‘Pillars’ in the first quote seem to imply a grandiose structure, whose collapse leads to particularly dramatic effects. ‘Concrete’ in the second example entails stagnation and the Church’s inability to adapt to the reality of the changing world. The metaphor in the third example, in turn, utilises an extremely mundane element of buildings, namely the sewage system. The stark contrast between the profane and the spiritual appears to entail that the Church lacks the spirituality that is inherent in its teaching. Finally, all of the quoted expressions background the humanity and volitionality of the community of believers that constitute the Church.
  • Animalisation Metaphors
Less prevalent in the analysed texts, but powerful in activating emotional and evaluative responses, was the animalisation metaphor (humans are animals), which frames human beings in terms of (negatively evaluated) characteristics conventionally ascribed to animals (Kövecses 2010, p. 19). The achieved framing effects include the dehumanisation of protesters against the verdict of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal on abortion, particularly regarding women associated with the Women’s Strike movement. For instance, the title “Growling female Pole” (Ziemkiewicz 2020a, Do Rzeczy) portrayed women engaged in protests as wild, aggressive, and in need of taming (cf. Tipler and Ruscher 2019). Likewise, the article titles “Wilderness unharnessed” (Wildstein 2020, Sieci), and “Return to nature. Wild” (Boniecki 2020b, Tygodnik Powszechny) depicted the demonstrators as savage animals that broke free and ran wild. The conveyed entailment was that they should be curbed and controlled. In addition, the implication of (moral, cultural, educational, etc.) superiority of the other side of the debate was strengthened. Intertextuality

Relations within the institutional Church constitute a culturally resonant topic, inviting intertextual references in academic disputes. The function of intertextuality31 is to activate an additional level (or: ‘anchor’) for the understanding of the situation depicted in the current text, and therefore to enhance its more insightful (or specific) interpretation, and/or to arouse specific emotions (Hart 2017; Werner 2004). Numerous examples of intertextuality were identified in the press articles examined in this study. They encompass allusions—both linguistic and visual—to a wide spectrum of literature, including the Bible and to elements of pop culture.
A number of article titles comprised direct quotations from gospels and other sacred scriptures. The following may serve as illustration: “The gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18) (Żurek 2020, Tygodnik Solidarność), “The vine[yard] withers” (Isaiah 24:7) (Pacan 2020, Tygodnik Solidarność), both of which referred to the Church, and “They do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) (Salij 2020, Gość Niedzielny), which was utilised to characterise the people who opposed the toughening of the abortion law. Employed in the article texts were also references to biblical parables, the writings of Church Fathers, and well-known sermons, for instance those delivered by John Pope II during his visits to Poland (e.g., Salij 2020, Gość Niedzielny). Based on the homiletic tradition, with which the majority of Poles are familiar from their own experience as churchgoers, such allusions served the persuasive function, rendering the message conveyed by the articles as more elevated and, therefore, more convincing.
Intertextual allusions were also made to well-known literary works and films. The former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, for instance, was characterised as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella. In this manner, the literary context and negative evaluation associated with it was projected onto the Cardinal’s camouflaging ability, which had enabled him to deceive the Church authorities (Kindziuk 2020, Gość Niedzielny). Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz (the former secretary of Pope John Paul II) was in turn compared with Nikodem Dyzma, the main protagonist of a Polish novel by Tadeusz Dołęga Mostowicz written in 1930s and describing an undeserved, stunning career of a provincial man without qualifications. Furthermore, the title of Stanley Kubrick’s erotic film, namely “Eyes Wide Shut”, was employed to characterise the blindness of ecclesiastical circles towards paedophilia (Boniecki 2020c, Tygodnik Powszechny). The analogy between the situation within the institutional Church and extramarital sexual ‘adventures’, drawn in the title of an interview with a respected priest seems particularly striking. Its aim was perhaps to shock and in this way deepen the readers’ understanding of the gravity of the problems afflicting the Church.
The other side of the dispute, namely the demonstrators protesting against the new abortion regulations, were compared with hypnotised children led away from the city of Hameln by a rat-catcher (Wróblewski 2020, Do Rzeczy). This intertextual reference to a German legend highlights the protesters’ supposed supineness, gullibility, and inability to properly evaluate the situation. One of the covers in Gazeta Polska, in turn, depicted the leader of Women’s Strike styled as a girl holding a lollipop, which may be an allusion to Lolita—the main protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, who was a teenage prostitute. This projection activated a strongly negative evaluation and demonised the feminist movement.

3.2.2. Visual Techniques

As already put forth in the beginning of Section 3.2, the visual content supplements the textual message conveyed by the press and constitutes an equally important and often more powerful means of persuasion. Due to technological advancement, social communication in contemporary societies is becoming increasingly more reliant on images (Łosiewicz 2009).
In the press-mediated representation of the crisis plaguing the Catholic Church, the graphic material (illustrations, photos, photomontages, and cartoons) served two major functions. It either supplemented the periodicals’ textual content, providing an illustration and visualisation of the analysed problems (the illustrative function), or it introduced more profound imagery, inducing the reader to further reflect on the issues and to arrive at a desired interpretation (the interpretative function). Some illustrations appeared to perform both functions.
Visual content fulfilling the illustrative role primarily included snapshots from protests. Bird’s eye view photos documenting the size of demonstrations were presented in left-wing and liberal weeklies—both on covers (e.g., Tygodnik Angora November 1/2020), and as part of articles’ content (e.g., Kyzioł 2020, Polityka). The majority of photos, however, zoomed in on individuals, mainly the leaders of the Women’s Strike or selected young people (e.g., Pawlicka 2020b, Newsweek; the cover of Polityka November 3/2020). Their function was to give prominence to the demonstrators’ expressive gestures and to bring to the fore the symbols of protests, such as the red lightning bolt. Moreover, numerous photos showed slogans emblazoned on protesters’ banners and placards (e.g., Chaciński 2020, Polityka; the cover of Tygodnik Angora November 15/2020).
It needs to be underscored that the illustrative material associated with protests was fully consonant with the ideological profile of particular weeklies, so that the photos strengthened the message imparted by the textual content. In right-wing and Church-controlled periodicals, illustrations presented demonstrators as savage, aggressive, and demoralised (see the vulgar language on banners). Photos displayed in liberal and left-wing weeklies, in contrast, seemed to objectively document the events and provided additional material for an in-depth analysis of the causes and effects of the crisis. Photos of slogans served as illustration of protesters’ enormous creativity and lent support to an impartial examination of the slogans’ meaning and etymology.
It deserves note that differences between the symbolic representations of two Polish city landscapes were noticeable. Warsaw, where the biggest demonstrations took place, was presented almost exclusively as a conflict area. Its streets were exploited in photos as the background for manifestations. Images from Krakow, however, appeared to impart a mitigation of emotions (e.g., Gadowski 2020b, Gazeta Polska).
Photos depicting Church officials who were implicated in scandals mostly fulfilled the illustrative function as well. The fact that opinion-forming periodicals presented the main protagonists of the events adversely impacting the Polish Catholic Church on numerous covers is indicative of the personalisation of the analysed problems. Notice should be taken that they were almost exclusively presented by liberal and left-wing weeklies, which explicitly put the blame for the crisis on specific hierarchs. For instance, the cover of Przegląd (November 16/2020) emblazoned a photo of Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz and Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz with the title: “A miracle of non-memory”. During the same week, the cover of Newsweek (November 16/2020) showed photos of four Polish hierarchs: the two above-mentioned cardinals as well as Archbishop Sławoj Leszek Głódź and Archbishop Józef Kowalczyk, along with the inscription “Cardinal sins”. The likeness of Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz was emblazoned on the biggest number of covers; one of them was a caricature (Tygodnik Angora November 22/2020). Illustrative photos of Archbishop Henryk Gulbinowicz and Pope Francis were shown on two covers each. Interestingly, the current Pope was only depicted by the right-wing weekly Do Rzeczy (covers of 5 October 2020 and 16 November 2020). In this way, the periodical seemed to shift readers’ attention from Polish hierarchs’ faults to the deep concern of Pope Francis.32
A number of illustrations caricatured members of the clergy, inviting additional interpretations. By way of example, consider Marta Frej’s (2020) drawing (Figure 1), which accompanied Szostkiewicz’s (2020c) article “Father Rydzyk’s theology” (Pol. “Teologia Ojca Rydzyka”), published in the weekly Polityka December 20/2020. Rydzyk’s face is placed on a stained-glass window, in front of which two men are kneeling down and praying. The implication of the image is that Father Rydzyk—the founder of Radio Mary—has himself become an object of worship and veneration, resembling a cult of a saint. As the two kneeling men are clad in white shirts and suits, they appear to be politicians rather than ordinary people. Their posture suggests total dependence on Rydzyk’s support. The Redemptorist’s facial expression, on the other hand, indicates his satisfaction with the profits gained in return.
Specific emotions were also conveyed by a dark background. The liberal weekly Newsweek October 26/2020 (Figure 2a) interpreted the abortion ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal with a cover showing the faces of four public figures that the general public associated with this decision, namely: Jarosław Kaczyński (the leader of the ruling right-wing party), Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki (President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, who had publicly expressed satisfaction with the Tribunal’s verdict), Julia Przyłębska (the President of the Constitutional Tribunal), and Kaja Godek (a radical pro-life and anti-abortion activist). Their photos, positioned within a black-coloured contour of Poland with the text reading: “Poland 2020 a black zone”, served both an illustrative and interpretative function. They explicitly indicated who was to be blamed for the abortion conflict. In addition, black—as the colour of mourning—seemed to signify the despair and hopelessness associated with the situation that Polish women found themselves in. As priests’ robes are black, a further implication may have been that Poland became a zone ruled by the clergy.
A number of covers illustrated and interpreted the massive protests sparked by the abortion verdict. The first page of the right-wing Gazeta Polska (November 4/2020) (, accessed on 4 November 2020), for instance, depicted anonymous protesting individuals and the leader of the Women’s Strike, Marta Lempart. Their raised hands and gestures as well as the dark background imparted the atmosphere of a street revolt, full of aggression and danger. The letter ‘S’ in the title “Sowers of death” was also visible on face masks, explicitly linking the protests with the danger of death.
A considerable symbolic potential inherent in less personalised visual material provided grounds for a variety of interpretations. For example, the cover of the left-wing weekly Polityka (October 27/2020) (Figure 2b) published around the same time as the above-mentioned issue of Gazeta Polska invited entirely different inferences. It showed a sad woman’s face whose mouth was covered by a white-red hand. As the Polish flag consists of two horizontal stripes (white and red), the hand can be metonymically interpreted as representing the Polish state, which in an oppressive manner stifles women’s freedom of expression and perhaps also freedom of choice.
Let us now turn to the covers that appeared in the second half of November 2020, which was after the Vatican report on Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had been published. The cover of the Catholic liberal weekly Tygodnik Powszechny (November 22/2020), presented in Figure 3a showed a blackened hand holding keys (to Heaven), which is a fragment of the stone statue of St. Peter standing in front of the Vatican Basilica. The inscription, referring to the situation within the Catholic Church, read “Downfall”. It is worthwhile to note that a photo of the same statue—in its entirety—was exploited during the same week on the cover of the Church-controlled magazine Niedziela (November 18/2020) (Figure 3b). In this case, however, the title “Unsuccessful attack” suggested quite a different interpretation, namely that a futile attempt was made to implicate John Paul II in sex scandals and to destroy his heritage and reputation.
Consonant with this reading but much more radical was the message conveyed by the cover of the right-wing weekly Sieci (November 23/2020) (, accessed on 17 January 2023). It emblazoned a photo of John Paul II, smiling benignly and surrounded by hands and fists, which threaten and attack him, as well as having lightning bolts (the logo of Women’s Strike) pointed at him. The text reads: “They want to kill our Pope again”. The text printed in a smaller font size mentions a “shocking manipulation” and states that the McCarrick report is the best proof of the Pope’s innocence. The visualisation of the issue in terms of an aggressive conflict appears to have been aimed at evoking strong negative emotions among Polish Catholics, directing them against journalistic reports about paedophilia in the Church (see baton-shaped newspaper rolls) as well as against Women’s Strike protests, both of which were depicted as a deadly danger to the memory of John Paul II.
Finally, the caricature on the cover of left-wing Polityka (November 17/2020) (Figure 3c) presented a cardinal with an enormous, unnaturally bloated robe, underneath which a whole battalion of priests is hiding. The imparted meaning was that the institutional Church served as a hiding place for priests guilty of sexual abuse and paedophilia. The striking oxymoronic inscription “The speech of silence” (Pol. “Mowa milczenia”) additionally directs readers’ attention to the problem of concealing and silencing sex scandals within the Church.

4. Conclusions

The present contribution has focused on the press coverage of the crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, which was primarily associated with acts of sexual abuse committed by priests and covered up for decades by Church officials. Additional sources of problems included the anti-abortion ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, which led to massive protests all over Poland and occasional attacks at Church buildings.
Notice should be taken that the study was not free from limitations. A full spectrum of Polish opinion-forming weeklies, ranging from right-wing (or far-right) to left-wing, has been selected for analysis in order to enable a presentation of diverse opinions and reactions among the Polish society regarding the crisis within the Catholic Church. Space limitations, however, enforced a rather sketchy discussion of the results of the conducted research. Another difficulty was the judgement about the extent to which the particular events and themes covered by the press (cf. Section 2 and Section 3.2.2.) were linked to the crisis situation within the Church. For example, the anti-abortion verdict of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal may have seemed unrelated to Catholicism and the Church. However, the general public ascribed the Tribunal’s decision to the influence exerted by the Polish Church hierarchy on the ruling party. For this reason, public dissatisfaction was directed not only at right-wing politicians but also at the Catholic Church, which aggravated its problems and additionally enhanced the process of secularisation of the Polish young generation.
The analysis has demonstrated that the ideological and political persuasion of a given weekly impacted the manner in which the events and issues that contributed to the worsening of the crisis within the Church were described. This outcome was expected, as particular opinion-forming weeklies tend to express the outlooks of journalists and/or experts who share a given ideological mindset. Interestingly, however, substantial differences between the examined magazines were found on the level of prioritising and framing. The discrepancies are summarised in Table 4.
It deserves to be noted that not only the weeklies associated with the right side of the Polish political scene, but also the periodicals displaying the liberal and left-wing political profile put more emphasis on Theme 1 (the anti-abortion ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal and the resultant protests). Only the Catholic liberal weekly Tygodnik Powszechny prioritised Themes 2 and 3 (the sex scandals within the Catholic Church and their consequences). The selection of topics was most balanced in the right-wing trade union periodical Tygodnik Solidarność. To a certain extent, each of the analysed magazines created its own interpretative and evaluative schemata (or: frames), which put into perspective the related events in a specific and sometimes unique manner. Some issues were underscored, while others were disregarded.
Right-wing and Church-controlled weeklies tended to express more radical opinions, particularly in relation to Theme 1. Most extreme in this respect were Gazeta Polska, Do Rzeczy, and Sieci, which deprecated participants in the Women’s Strike and ascribed almost devilish properties to them. The demonstrators were framed as savage and cruel neo-Bolshevists or neo-Marxists who waged physical attacks at church buildings and pious Catholics. Moreover, those magazines most extensively resorted to psychological manipulation techniques, such as: name-calling, demonising, scapegoating, and ‘ad hominem’ (cf. Baran and Davies 2011, p. 89; Szalkiewicz 2014, pp. 30–47; Burstein and Kern 2020, pp. 117–20). Those techniques seem to have been employed in order to divert public attention from the scandals plaguing the Church and to downplay the negative role that numerous hierarchs apparently played in them.
Liberal left-wing periodicals, in contrast, tended to present more balanced opinions. Although they predicted a demise of religious practices, an appeal was made for reforms within the Catholic Church that would stop the negative trend. Sharp criticism was directed at the network of financial corruption purported to exist within the Church. Conflicting points of view were confronted relatively rarely; respective examples were only found in Newsweek (Leociak and Zięba 2020) and Tygodnik Solidarność (Pacan and Pawowicz 2020). Notice should be taken, however, that a dialogue between particular weeklies, even those representing opposing political orientations, was conducted (e.g., Boniecki 2020b, Tygodnik Powszechny; Lisiewicz 2020e, Gazeta Polska). Differences in the manner in which individual liberal and left-wing weeklies related specific topics were also identified. While Polityka and Tygodnik Powszechny focused on extended sociological and philosophical analyses, Newsweek and Tygodnik Angora preferred relating events ‘live’, and provided information about side issues such as, for example, a specific protest song (AP 2020, Tygodnik Angora).
The coverage of the crisis within the Roman Catholic Church by liberal and left-wing magazines primarily served the critical-secular function (Hjarvard 2013); namely, it disclosed and denounced misdemeanours and criminal offences that some members of the clergy were charged with. As such, it may have enhanced the accountability of Polish priests and hierarchs for the committed acts. Simultaneously, however, it may have contributed to the decline of the Church’s cultural, religious, and political authority in Poland. The coverage in right-wing and Church-controlled periodicals, on the other hand, seems to have been aimed at countering the criticism directed at the Church, mainly by downplaying the gravity of the problems and their sources, and by diverting public attention away from them.
Media discourse in the analysed period of time made evident the escalation of the ideological debate in Poland. The adopted outlooks and socio-political ideologies appear to have predetermined the interpretation of objective facts. It can be debated, however, whether specific events adversely affecting the Catholic Church should be viewed as consequences of secularisation or as offences committed by individuals, which impact the reputation of the whole institution. The existence of sharp divisions within the Polish Catholic Church cannot be negated. They seem rooted in how the role and position of the Church in a contemporary western society is perceived, namely whether it is seen as a besieged fortress or a transparent institution (Isakowicz-Zaleski 2020, Tygodnik Angora).
It appears that the mediatisation of the crisis within the Church and the resultant increased press coverage of issues related to Catholicism is likely to impact the religious and institutional authority of the Catholic Church in Poland. However, it can also become a tool of “religious modernization”, contributing to the eradication of unacceptable behaviours (Hjarvard 2013, p. 89). It remains a task for future research to establish the scale and precise effects of the influence exerted by press discourse on the condition of the Catholic Church and Catholicism in Poland.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, M.M.R.; methodology, M.M.R. and J.P.; data curation—M.M.R. and J.P.; data analysis and interpretation—M.M.R. and J.P.; writing—original draft preparation, M.M.R.; writing—review, translation & editing, J.P.; visualization, J.P.; supervision, M.M.R. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


Matthew 16:18 in The Christian Standard Bible. Copyright© 2017 by Holman Bible Publishers.
The terms ‘Catholic Church’ and ‘the Church’ will be used here to denote the Roman Catholic Church, which occupies an overwhelmingly dominant position in Poland in comparison to other Churches and denominations. According to the National Census of Population and Housing conducted in 2011, 87.58% of the Polish population associate themselves with Roman Catholicism (Gudaszewski 2015, pp. 92–93).
‘Baptism of Poland’ refers to the personal baptism of Mieszko I, the first ruler of the Polish state, and the majority of his court.
The three partitions of Poland took place in 1772, 1793, and 1795, respectively. It was only in 1918 that Poland regained sovereignty.
More traditional members of the present-day Polish society seem to approve of this point of view; it also re-surfaces in the ideologies of contemporary right-wing and nationalist political parties.
This approach seems to have initiated “the cult of individuality” centred on the Pope, which the Polish clergy continues to practice until today (Snyder 2021).
Interestingly, the Polish Catholic Church also succeeded in obtaining considerable concessions from the communist officials, particularly in late 1980s, when the authorities negotiated with the democratic opposition for the conditions of a peaceful take-over of power (Grzymała-Busse 2020).
Secularisation is an extremely complex social phenomenon, subsuming: (i) laicisation of the society (i.e., societal secularisation), that is, a turn towards rationalism and empiricism and the increasing independence from religion in spheres of life such as education, politics, economy, and science; (ii) organisational secularisation, i.e., the desacralisation of religious organisations and a reduction of their influence over society; and (iii) individual secularisation, i.e., a decline in individual religiosity and involvement in religious practices (Dobbelaere 2004, pp. 19–27; Zielińska 2009).
Two parties seem to receive the strongest support from the Polish Catholic Church nowadays: Law and Justice (Pol. Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, abbreviated as PiS), which is currently in government in Poland, and its former nationalist wing and current ally in the government, Solidary Poland (Pol. Solidarna Polska). In return, the Church obtains influence on governmental policy-making, legislative gains concerning abortion, school education and sexual minorities, as well as financial privileges and generous subsidies.
The ideologies that are of interest in the context of the crisis in the Polish Catholic Church include the (nationalist) conservative vs. liberal socio-political orientations (only partly reflected by the opposition between the right-wing and left-wing political views). It deserves to be noted that at least since the year 2005, when the Law and Justice party won parliamentary elections in Poland for the first time, socio-political polarisation has become so strong that most events and objective facts tend to be perceived and described through the prism of the ideological and political conflicts.
Following Livingstone (2009, p. 3), we understand mediatisation as a “meta process by which everyday practices and social relations are increasingly shaped by mediating technology and media organisations.” It results in the growing reliance of contemporary societies on the construction of reality as presented by the omnipresent mass media (Hjarvard 2013, p. 2). In a narrower sense, mediatisation may refer to a process through which essential elements of a social or cultural activity “assume media form” (Hjarvard 2004, p. 48). Finally, the mediatisation of phenomena, events, or institutions (e.g., a war, a crisis, religion, etc.) may also be viewed as the manner in which they are framed and interpreted by the media (cf. Sumiala and Hakala 2010).
During that time, 9–10 issues of each of the weeklies were published. The particular magazines appear on different days of the week. New issues of: Do Rzeczy, Newsweek, Przegląd, and Sieci are published on Mondays, Gazeta Polska and Polityka on Wednesdays, and Tygodnik Solidarność on Fridays, while the Catholic weeklies Niedziela, Głos Niedzielny, and Tygodnik Powszechny, as well as the review weekly Tygodnik Angora are marked with a Sunday date. During the period between Christmas 2020 and New Year 2021, some magazines published special double issues.
Newsweek Polska is an edition of the American news magazine Newsweek.
Two weeklies have been excluded from the present study: the liberal magazine Wprost (Engl. ‘Directly’), which only appears in the electronic version, and the openly anticlerical, satirical-political weekly Nie (Engl. ‘No’), which presents a very specific—ironic and negational—attitude to factual information, and whose archive print issues are of limited availability.
It seems noteworthy that banners of the Women’s Strike movement were installed in such conspicuous places as the cross on Mount Giewont (the highest peak in the Polish part of the Tatra Mountains) and on Mount Kościuszko in Krakow. Sabotage actions conducted by protesters included the modifications of names of parishes introduced on Internet websites. For example, the Google Maps description of the Church of St. John Paul II in Nowy Sącz was replaced with the phrase: “the Church of St John Paul II’s victims.”
In March 2021, investigations conducted by the Holy See into the case of Bishop Edward Janiak and Archbishop Slawoj Leszek Glodz were completed, and both were found guilty of negligence concerning cases of sexual abuse in their dioceses. Further details can be found at:;; and (accessed on 5 August 2021).
The film accuses Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz of protecting and promoting Theodore McCarrick (the former archbishop of Washington) as well as supporting the Mexican-based Legion of Christ, which later accepted responsibility for numerous cases of child sex abuse ( [accessed on 8 August 2021]). It deserves note that in a TV interview conducted in October 2020, Cardinal Dziwisz denied all accusations launched against him. All three documentaries, as well as the interview with Cardinal Dziwisz, were shown by TVN24—the largest Polish private TV station, owned by Discovery.
The full text of the report is available at: (accessed on 8 August 2021).
Radio Maryja (Engl. Radio Mary) is a Polish religious radio station widely criticized for strong involvement in politics and open and active support for populist (radical) right-wing parties (primarily Law and Justice and Solidary Poland that form the current government in Poland), and they are accused of promoting nationalism, anti-Semitism, and hatred.
The least sensational of them is the death of Cardinal Gulbinowicz at the age of 97. However, it occurred just a few days after the hierarch’s disgrace, which also resulted in penal restrictions imposed on his funeral and place of burial.
The original theory of media events focused on momentous, pre-planned public ceremonies that are broadcast live on television and fulfill integrative and conciliatory functions in the society. Three types were distinguished: ‘conquests’, ‘contests’, and ‘coronations’ (Dayan and Katz 1992). Shocking news events, in contrast, are disruptive, unwelcome, and unexpected. The class subsumes, among others: natural disasters, acts of terror, accidents and catastrophes, scandals, large-scale civil protests, and political conflicts (Katz and Liebes 2007).
Only a few of the examined weeklies offer columns with abridged current news. Examples include “Sygnalista nadaje” [Engl. ‘A Signalist broadcasts’] in the magazine Sieci or “Giełda” [Engl. ‘Exchange’] in Przegląd. However, even those are internally thematically structured and subjected to an ideological appraisal. In line with the principles of infotainment, articles presenting news adopt an investigative, sensational, or interventionist form (Francuz 2009). The Catholic magazines Gość Niedzielny and Niedziela stand apart in this respect, as the majority of their news columns are homiletic in character.
The bill was brought before the Polish parliament by President Andrzej Duda in the autumn of 2020, but until now, it has not been debated, let alone passed.
Kalina’s installation, entitled “Poisoned Spring”, was apologetic in the author’s concept. It consisted of a statute of the Pope holding a huge piece of rock above his head, placed in a pool with ankle-deep red water, which symbolized the Red Sea. The message that the artist aimed to convey was that John Paul II was a Titan who exerted enormous influence on the world. It was intended as a polemic with the iconic sculpture “La nona ora” by Maurizio Catellan of 1999, presenting the Pope crushed by a falling meteorite. Kalina’s work, however, was strongly criticized for being banal, tasteless, and too literal. It was ridiculed by left-wing activists both on the Internet and in happenings staged in front of the Museum (,112588,26330052,cejrowski-rzezbe-papieza-z-meteorytem-przykrywal-przescieradlem.html;,4703.html [accessed on 10 September 2021]).
PiS is an acronym of the full name of the ruling party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice). The slogan “Jebać PiS!” was also graphically represented on banners with eight asterisks (referred to as stars) replacing the letters in the two Polish words (***** ***). The stars have become one of the key symbols of protests against the anti-abortion law in Poland, and part of the youth culture. They are frequently exploited in memes, songs, and in the production of gadgets (Wądołowska 2020).
A conceptual metaphor that establishes a set of correspondences between two distinct conceptual domains (a source domain and a target domain) and enables the understanding one of them in terms of the other (Kövecses 2005, p. 27; Lakoff and Johnson [1980] 2003, p. 4). In other words, a metaphor can be viewed as a process of “frame projection”, whereby one frame provides structure to another (Hart 2017, p. 3).
One of the best-known incidents of this type took place near the Church of Saint Cross in Krakowskie Przedmieście Street in Warsaw. The magazine Tygodnik Angora warned against paramilitary nationalist groups who oppose the idea of an open Catholic Church promoted by Pope Francis (Mierzyńska 2020).
The employment of disease metaphorics seemed particularly well-suited to the events unfolding in fall 2020 due to the coronavirus epidemic. Jerzy Baczyński (2020, Polityka) suspected that the decision to enact stricter anti-abortion regulations was made to cover up severe difficulties faced by the Polish government in dealing with COVID-19 and to provide additional arguments against opposition parties who did not support the legislative changes.
The term ‘JP2 generation’ refers to young people born since 1978 when John Paul II was elected who are positively influenced by and follow his teachings.
Intertextuality can be characterized as “echoing of themes, quotations, symbols, storylines, or compositional elements from older images and famous written texts” (Werner 2004, p. 3; cf. Hart 2017, p. 6). The effectiveness of created analogies relies on the assumed shared cultural memory to which the recipients of a given piece of discourse have access.
Several Polish hierarchs, who in public opinion were implicated in (covering up) sex scandals, were portrayed on single covers. Among them were Father Tadeusz Rydzyk (Newsweek December 14, 2020), and Pope John Paul II (Sieci November 13, 2020). The latter, however, was presented as a victim, which seems consonant with this weekly’s ideological orientation.


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Figure 1. Marta Frej’s depiction of Father Tadeusz Rydzyk (Polityka December 20/2020) (available online at,1,, accessed on 5 September 2021).
Figure 1. Marta Frej’s depiction of Father Tadeusz Rydzyk (Polityka December 20/2020) (available online at,1,, accessed on 5 September 2021).
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Figure 2. Selected covers interpreting Theme 1 (the anti-abortion ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal and the resultant protests). (a) Newsweek October 26/2020 (, accessed on 25 October 2020). (b) Polityka October 27/2020 (, accessed on 27 October 2020).
Figure 2. Selected covers interpreting Theme 1 (the anti-abortion ruling of the Constitutional Tribunal and the resultant protests). (a) Newsweek October 26/2020 (, accessed on 25 October 2020). (b) Polityka October 27/2020 (, accessed on 27 October 2020).
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Figure 3. Selected covers interpreting Theme 2 (sexual abuse and paedophilia among the clergy) and Theme 3 (the consequences of the crisis within the Catholic Church). (a) Tygodnik Powszechny November 11/2020 (, accessed on 22 November 2020). (b) Niedziela November 18/2020 (, accessed on 18 November 2020). (c) Polityka November 17/2020 (, accessed on 18 November 2020).
Figure 3. Selected covers interpreting Theme 2 (sexual abuse and paedophilia among the clergy) and Theme 3 (the consequences of the crisis within the Catholic Church). (a) Tygodnik Powszechny November 11/2020 (, accessed on 22 November 2020). (b) Niedziela November 18/2020 (, accessed on 18 November 2020). (c) Polityka November 17/2020 (, accessed on 18 November 2020).
Religions 14 00141 g003aReligions 14 00141 g003b
Table 1. The number of articles devoted to events that adversely impacted the Catholic Church in Poland by the selected opinion-forming weeklies between mid-October and 31 December 2020.
Table 1. The number of articles devoted to events that adversely impacted the Catholic Church in Poland by the selected opinion-forming weeklies between mid-October and 31 December 2020.
17–23.1024–30.101–7.118–14.1115–21.1122–28.1129.11–5.126–12.1213–19.1220–31.12No. of ArticlesNo. of Covers
Right-wingDo Rzeczy24+C11+C69+C15+C333474C
Gazeta Polska1117+C9+C6+C57+C4594C
Tygodnik Solidarność1311118
Catholic Church-controlledGość Niedzielny917+C12889366781C
Catholic LiberalTygodnik Powszechny1+C4+C2232142C
Mainstream LiberalNewsweek1+C542+C11+C143C
Tygodnik Angora39+C12+C912+C6245613C
C = a cover illustrating issues related to the crisis in the Catholic Church. The yellow highlighting marks the weeks with the highest number of articles devoted to the analyzed events by each of the weeklies.
Table 2. The typology of texts relating to the crisis in the Catholic Church published in Polish opinion-forming weeklies at the end of 2020.
Table 2. The typology of texts relating to the crisis in the Catholic Church published in Polish opinion-forming weeklies at the end of 2020.
Reportage or Feature ArticleOpinion Column (Feuilleton)InterviewOther
Right-wingDo Rzeczy20128747
Gazeta Polska18313759
Tygodnik Solidarność26008
Catholic Church-controlledGość Niedzielny3124111278
Catholic LiberalTygodnik Powszechny553114
Mainstream LiberalNewsweek824014
Tygodnik Angora2315111261
Table 3. The main themes associated with the crisis situation in the Catholic Church discussed on the pages of Polish opinion-forming weeklies between mid October and December 31, 2020.
Table 3. The main themes associated with the crisis situation in the Catholic Church discussed on the pages of Polish opinion-forming weeklies between mid October and December 31, 2020.
The Anti-Abortion Verdict and Resultant Protests
Sex Scandals and Paedophilia among the Clergy
Consequences and Reverberations
Other Issues
Right-wingDo Rzeczy34 (69%)90649
Gazeta Polska49 (77%)47464
Sieci19 (54%)48435
Tygodnik Solidarność5 (50%)5 (50%)0010
Catholic Church-controlledGość Niedzielny48 (58%)8121583
Niedziela24 (51%)49542
Catholic LiberalTygodnik Powszechny24 (29%)5 (36%)314
Mainstream LiberalNewsweek9 (64%)22114
Polityka27 (71%)55138
Left-wingPrzegląd15 (71%)22121
Tygodnik Angora45 (68%)541266
Table 4. Polish opinion-forming weeklies vis-à-vis the events associated with the crisis in the Catholic Church: The main issues and arguments.
Table 4. Polish opinion-forming weeklies vis-à-vis the events associated with the crisis in the Catholic Church: The main issues and arguments.
IdeologyTitleDominant ThemesTheme 1:
Prevailing Narrative
Themes 2 and 3:
Prevailing Narrative
Gazeta Polska1
  • Participants in mass protests as neo-Bolsheviks or terrorists
  • Mass protests as a source of COVID infections
  • Leftist and right-wing fighting squads
  • An organised attack at Pope John Paul II
Tygodnik Solidarność
1 = 2
  • Destruction of the Church as the aim of Women Strike’s protest
  • Protesters described as primitive, mad, full of hatred, and lacking Polish ‘culture code’
  • Women’s Strike as a neo-Bolshevist and neo-Marxist revolutionary movement
  • The necessity of counteracting progressing secularisation
  • The adverse population trend as an argument against abortion
  • Abortion as a path to euthanasia
  • A turning point and time of purification
  • The need to direct severe press criticism at lay paedophiles
  • The lavender (gay) mafia within the Church and the lack of transparency
  • John Paul II as ignorant of sex abuse within the Church and a victim of deceit
  • The attack at Pope John Paul II as an element of an anti-Church campaign
  • Return to the objective truth of the Gospel postulated
  • Criticism of Church hierarchs
Tygodnik Solidarność1 = 2
  • Abortion as a path to euthanasia
  • A turning point and time of purification
  • Return to the objective truth of the Gospel postulated
  • Criticism of Church hierarchs
Catholic Church-controlledGość Niedzielny1
  • Unprecedented attacks at churches
  • Criticism of protesters’ vulgar language
  • The right to life of the disabled
  • The process of purging the Polish Catholic Church
  • Role models within the Polish Church
  • Objection to protesters’ vulgar language
  • Pro-family arguments against protests
  • An attack at the Catholic Church
  • The power of the Church derived from God
Catholic LiberalTygodnik Powszechny2 + 3
  • Pre-conciliar mentality in the Polish Catholic Church
  • An alliance between throne and altar
  • A downfall of the Church hierarchy
  • Lack of reflection on the doctrine
  • A corruption-inducing system within the Polish Catholic Church
  • Instrumentalisation of the liturgy
Mainstream LiberalNewsweek1
  • Ultra-conservatism and traditionalism as the sources of xenophobia and hatred
  • A culture war
  • Street protests directed both against political authorities and Church hierarchs
  • Conflicts and corruption networks within the Church hierarchy
  • Polish Church hierarchs as mentally stuck in communist times
  • Legal and social consequences of the tightening of the abortion law
  • The Tribunal’s verdict as a return to the Middle Ages
  • Fight for the freedom of choice
  • Changes in the perception of John Paul II in Poland
  • Progressing secularisation
  • The ban on abortion as hell and tortures for women
  • Abortion compromise as hypocrisy
  • Protests as fighting for equal rights for women
  • Debunking of John Paul II’s myth
  • Criticism of the alliance between right-wing political parties and the Polish Catholic Church
  • Lack of moral authorities in the Polish Church
  • Diminishing trust in the Catholic Church in Poland and the decline in religiosity
Tygodnik Angora1
  • The massive scale of protests
  • Repression against protesters
  • Necessary separation of Church from state
  • Political consequences of protests
  • The biographies of Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, Cardinal Henryk Gulbinowicz, and Father Tadeusz Rydzyk
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MDPI and ACS Style

Paszenda, J.; Rogoż, M.M. Masking or Unmasking the Evil? Polish Opinion-Forming Weeklies vis-à-vis the Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. Religions 2023, 14, 141.

AMA Style

Paszenda J, Rogoż MM. Masking or Unmasking the Evil? Polish Opinion-Forming Weeklies vis-à-vis the Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. Religions. 2023; 14(2):141.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Paszenda, Joanna, and Michał Mateusz Rogoż. 2023. "Masking or Unmasking the Evil? Polish Opinion-Forming Weeklies vis-à-vis the Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in Poland" Religions 14, no. 2: 141.

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