Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Faith in Funding

As politicians debate public spending cuts, the matter of whether the State should continue to fund the Church in Poland has been raised.

This issue is an extremely controversial one and brings in a number of wider issues, not least the fundamental question of whether there should exist an independent and secular State in Poland. The present debate also relates to a series of historical events, reaching back to the early Communist period.

Two things distinguished Communism in Poland from that in the rest of the Eastern Bloc. Firstly, was the continued existence of a large peasantry and the low level of land collectivisation. Secondly, was the relatively free and autonomous existence of the large Catholic Church in the country.

The present funding for the Church in Poland can be traced back to the early Communist period, when the Church lost a large amount of its land and property. This firstly occurred due to the geographical shift of Poland westwards, which led to the Church losing 260,000 out of the 400,000 hectares of the land it had possessed before the War. In 1950 the new Polish government nationalised the land owned by the Catholic Church and then set up a new Church Fund (Fundusz Kościelny) as means of compensation. Thus despite being deprived of much of its property and curtailed of some its rights, the Catholic Church was supported financially by the State and paradoxically enjoyed high social support particularly during periods of large opposition to the Communist system.

After the collapse of the Communist system, the relationship between the Church and State further changed. In 1990 the State widened its funding of the Church to include the subsidising of the social insurance of Catholic clerics and renovation of historical churches. In 1991 a Property Commission was established in order to return properties that were seen to have breached the existing Protocol at the time (e.g. anything smaller than 50 hectares.) The position of the Church was further strengthened following the signing of a Concordat with the Vatican in 1993. This meant that there could be no formal separation of the Church and State written into the new constitution (that came into force in 1997) and instead only stated that 'the relationship between the State and churches and other religious organizations shall be based on the principle of respect for their autonomy and the mutual independence of each in its own sphere'.

A proposal has recently emerged from within the PO government to significantly change this relationship. The Ministry of Administration and Digitalisation, led by Michał Boni, has proposed that the Church Fund is replaced by a voluntary tax payment of 0.3%, that will go to a Church or faith organization of the taxpayer’s choice. The Ministry estimates that such a tax should gather around 100m złoty a year, more than that presently provided by the Church Fund. 

On the face of it this seems like a logical and progressive development that could be supported by all sides. This, however, is not the case. Firstly, the proposal has only come out of a section of the government with the Finance Minister claiming he has no knowledge of it and the conservative wing of PO opposing it. Opposition to the proposal is loudest amongst Conservative Catholics outside of the government. Some are claiming that the abolition of the Church Fund breaks the Concordat and thus the Polish constitution. It is somewhat ironic to hear people who normally refer to the Communist period as one of totalitarian occupation to be defending an institution created under the Presidency of Bolesław Bierut. 

There is however quite another criticism of theproposal. The abolition of the Church Fund will only affect a very small element of the Church's funding. The Catholic Information Agency (KAI) itself has estimated that the public financing of the Church presently equals nearly 493m złoty a year (the analysis of the website Money.pl actually puts this figure at nearly 2bn złoty). 

According to KAI, the Church Fund makes up 89m złoty of this total sum, whilst other expenditures include: 

- 221m złoty for Church universities
- 26m złoty for renovations of Church buildings
- 121m złoty through EU subsidies
- 3m złoty a year for chaplains in hospitals
- 20m złoty for Ordinates of the Polish army
- 2m złoty for chaplains in prisons
- 5.5m for Church charities.

A number of points should be made here. Not all this money is coming through the Polish state budget and furthermore not all of these funds are being provided to the Catholic Church (other religions also receive money.) Also, many of the institutions and activities of the Church (such as some of its educational and social programmes) play a positive role in society and fill part of the gap left by an underfunded state social welfare. system.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to justify the continual  huge funding of the Church by the government, particularly as taxpayers who are both believers and non-believers are essentially obliged to contribute to its maintenance.

Around 95% of Polish society are declared Catholics and around half of society regularly goes to Church. However, there is a trend amongst young people of moving away from the Church. This is partly being fuelled by the excesses of wealth and privilege displayed by many connected to the Polish Catholic Church. It is surely time for the Church to move to a situation where those who believe and practice are supporting its activities. This would not only lessen the financial burden of the State but potentially bring those who carry a faith to have more of a connection and influence upon Church that professes to represent them.

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