Warsaw (AFP) -
Once all powerful in Poland, the Catholic Church has been under severe pressure this year -- from a series of abuse scandals and a perceived association with the country's right-wing government.
Negative media reports and documentaries have hurt its image, as has criticism from the Vatican itself.
Some Poles are even beginning to question the legacy of the late Polish pope John Paul II.
A poll published earlier this month found that only 41 percent of Poles have a positive view of the Church, a decline of 16 percentage points since March.
The opinion poll found that nearly half of Poles (47 percent) have a negative view of the Church.
The change 'is considerable in such a short space of time,' Katarzyna Zalewska, a sociologist at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, told AFP.
The trend of growing secularisation seen in Poland in recent years 'has visibly accelerated', she said.
- Losing faith -
A Constitutional Court ruling in October aimed at imposing a near-total ban on abortions was particularly damaging for the Church, prompting a public outcry and unprecedented demonstrations across the country.
Some of the criticism was aimed at the religious hierarchy and the reaction has been so strong that the government has held off on enacting the ruling.
Official figures show Poles are also taking their children out of religion classes in schools in ever greater numbers, and some are even formally renouncing their Catholic faith -- a process known as apostasy.
Two out of three Poles now want religious education to be the responsibility of parishes, not schools, according to an opinion poll published last week.
A website for people applying to give up their faith -- licznikapostazji.pl -- tallied up more than 1,000 application in the space of just two weeks.
Another site, apostazja.eu, said more than 30,000 people had filled out apostasy forms online -- ready to be printed and submitted to their parishes.
'It has pretty much exploded' since the abortion court ruling, said the site's creator, Krzysztof Gwizdala.
While the numbers are small in what is still a predominantly Catholic country of 38 million, there are signs the Church is beginning to take notice.
After a 10-year break, the Church's statistics office has decided to once again keep track of the number of apostasy declarations it receives.
In 2010, there were just 459 cases.
- 'Operating in a different system' -
Marcin Kaczmarek, a sociologist at the University of Poznan, said the decline in influence of the Church in Poland was not so much the result of sexual abuse scandals, but 'above all its reaction to them'.
'It seems torn between its corporate interest... and respect of its own teachings,' he said.
Zalewska said the Church appears to 'not hear the signals' and is acting 'as if it was operating in a different system' in which it feels it does not have to react and is convinced of its unshakeable position.
Zalewska said the abuse scandals could accelerate secularisation -- as happened in Ireland in the 1990s.
But she said it was also possible that the difficult times brought on by the coronavirus pandemic could help restore Poles' faith in the Catholic Church.