Sometimes works of art – books, plays, movies, songs – can change a culture. But sometimes, they epitomize how a culture has changed. Forty years ago, in October 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was named Pope John Paul II, galvanizing a wave of Catholic and secular activism in Poland that helped bring down a totalitarian regime. But now it’s October 2018. Record numbers of Poles are flocking to see a searing, painful film that condemns the Polish Catholic Church as corrupt and hypocritical.
The film is called “Kler” — a disparaging term for clergy — and it tells the story of three priests and a bishop. Over the course of 2½ hours, we see one of them with his girlfriend, another with the young boy he has assaulted and yet another passing around large wads of cash. They drink, swear and steal. The bishop tries to cover up a pedophilia scandal.
There are a few light moments: When the girlfriend of one of the priests tells him she is pregnant, he asks why she didn’t protect herself. “My faith wouldn’t let me,” she replies. But most of the film is very dark. The priests are not just sinners; they have long memories of being sinned against as well. They themselves have also been assaulted, or mistreated in orphanages; they are lonely and angry. One of them leaves the priesthood. Another is plotting to be sent to the Vatican. The subtext: He wants to escape, finally, the clutches of Polish Catholicism.
In its opening weekend, this film broke all previous box office records; in its first three weeks, more than 3½ million people, 10 percent of the country, went to see it. In the small-town cinema where I saw it, the type of place where the church is meant to be particularly strong, the movie sold out all of its initial showings. In a few places, cinemas have refused to show it at all.
“Kler” could not have been made 40 years ago, at the time of Pope John Paul II’s elevation. Thirteen years ago, at the time of his death, I don’t believe it would have been made, either. For most of the 20th century and much of the 21st, the church had an exceptional status in Poland, precisely because it was seen as apolitical, a neutral force for good, the representative of the entire nation. Through the communist era, the church was the guardian of an alternative set of values in Poland, the one place where it was possible to break the state’s intellectual monopoly and where truths about history could be told. In the 1980s, inspired by John Paul II, churches literally became places where everyone, religious or secular, could meet. Art exhibitions were held in churches, political meetings were held in churches, illegal newspapers and magazines were distributed in churches.
In the Poland of 2018, the church is no longer seen as neutral. Instead, it is a major source of division in one of the most polarized societies in Europe. Church leaders have made a public and ostentatious choice to support the far-right ruling party, even as it broke the constitution, packed courts and politicized other previously neutral institutions, such as public television and the civil service. The clergy openly agitate for the party in sermons and public commentary; some receive enormous state subsidies in exchange. A few priests have even supported and promoted more extreme neo-fascist groups, a phenomenon that also figures in “Kler.”
The perceived link between the clergy and far-right politics is not always fair: There are a few priests who have publicly opposed the politicization of the church, and many more who still focus on the charitable and pastoral work that won them so much gratitude in the past. Nevertheless, the political choices of the church, when added to the secularizing influence of foreign travel and higher incomes, have had an effect. Church attendance in Poland is dropping fast. Younger Poles, who don’t remember a time when the Roman Catholic Church was a universally beloved national institution, are even less likely to pray.
Places change; Ireland, once deeply Catholic, is no longer. Institutions make mistakes. “Kler” is evidence that the political polarization encouraged by the Polish Catholic Church has created its own backlash — and the church may be one of the institutions most damaged as a result.