Poland to audit state funding for religious groups – “in particular Catholic church” – under former government

The speaker of parliament, who is a part of Poland’s ruling coalition, has ordered the state auditor to investigate public financing for religious organisations, and in particular the Catholic church, under the former national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government.

Szymon Hołownia, who is a practising Catholic but has repeatedly called for a stronger separation of church and state, says it will be the first audit of its kind in Polish history.

To jest taki trick, że do Rydzyka zapuka NIK. pic.twitter.com/PtuThCBcJs

— Szymon Hołownia (@szymon_holownia) March 15, 2024

“I am signing an order to the president of the NIK [the Supreme Audit Office] to conduct a review of financial flows between the state and religious associations, in particular the Catholic church,” announced Hołownia on Friday.

“As a citizen and as a Catholic, I have the right, and we all have the right, to know what public money is spent on,” he added. “After these years of the alliance between the throne and the altar, which left many of us with a deep sense of disgust, it is time for the church and the state to return to their places.”

Hołownia pointed in particular to the significant amount of money – over 400 million zloty – that under PiS’s rule flowed from state bodies to entities associated with Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, an influential priest with close ties to the former ruling party. The audit will allow “NIK to knock on Rydzyk’s door”, wrote Hołownia.

The government has ordered a college founded by Tadeusz Rydzyk, a priest close to the former ruling PiS party, to return an EU-funded state grant.

It did so because admission to the college requires students to provide a letter from their parish priest https://t.co/pUNi08RqqP

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) January 15, 2024

The audit will examine the period from November 2019 to November 2023 – covering PiS’s previous term in office – and will look at the financing sources, spending and tax concessions of churches and other religious associations in Poland.

NIK will also review the financing of religious education, spending on the salaries of clergy and expenditure from the state Church Fund.

In a letter to NIK president Mariusz Banaś, Hołownia noted that Poland’s constitution stipulates “autonomy and mutual independence” between church and state while other laws guarantee equality between religious organisations and for citizens when it comes to their religious beliefs.

That makes it unacceptable “to oblige anyone to financially support religious communities that are alien to them, in particular the obligation to pay a church tax to a religious community with which the taxpayer does not identify”, wrote Hołownia, quoted by Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.

After Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced government plans to replace the state Church Fund with a voluntary tax contribution from the faithful, the secretary general of the Catholic episcopate says that „the church is open to dialogue on this matter” https://t.co/SAIwkrqKY1

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) December 30, 2023

During the campaign for last year’s elections, Hołownia – who once trained to become a priest before instead entering journalism and then politics – pledged to ensure the stronger separation of church and state, arguing that this would benefit both sides.

Donald Tusk, whose Civic Coalition (KO) leads the government of which Hołownia’s Third Way (Trzecia Droga) is part, also promised to do the same, as did The Left (Lewica), the final member of the ruling coalition. They have argued the church grew too close to the state during PiS’s time in power.

Since taking office in December, Tusk’s government has moved to reduce the amount of Catholic catechism teaching in public schools and has ended state funding for religious publications.

Poland’s culture minister has ended state subsidies for religious journals and magazines.

„The mission of the state is not to spread faith and salvation. This is a secular state,” says @BartSienkiewicz https://t.co/NlQOeKF4cG

— Notes from Poland 🇵🇱 (@notesfrompoland) March 15, 2024

However, the manner in which Hołownia announced the audit was criticised by PiS MP Jan Mosiński, who called it “inelegant”. He also accused the speaker of “attacking” Rydzyk.

“When people say that ‘NIK may knock on Rydzyk’s door’, it sounds like a threat,” Mosiński told newspaper Fakt. who accused Hołownia of “picking on the Roman Catholic church”.

Meanwhile, Rydzyk’s foundation, Lux Veritas, told news website O2 that it is “not afraid” of being audited by NIK. In January, a college owned by the foundation was ordered by the government to return around 100,000 in EU funds.

Hołownia atakuje twórcę Radia Maryja! „Zapuka NIK” https://t.co/GFrtDJUy2O

— Jan Mosiński (@MosinskiJan) March 15, 2024

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Main image credit: KPMR (under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL)

Agata Pyka is an assistant editor at Notes from Poland. She is a journalist and a political communication student at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in Polish and European politics as well as investigative journalism and has previously written for Euractiv and The European Correspondent.

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