TORUN, Poland — From the martyrs of World War II to the heroes who led the fight against communist rule, priests in Poland have long played an outsize role in shaping the political life of this deeply Catholic country.
And in Poland today, there is no more politically powerful — or divisive — cleric than the man referred to as “Father Director,” the Rev. Tadeusz Rydzyk.
Something of a cross between the televangelist Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh, Father Rydzyk wields power both from the pulpit and through his vast media empire. His Radio Maryja station, which reaches millions and is often the sole source of information for many older voters in rural Poland, offers a daily diet of horror stories about a world without faith, where gay people control the political agenda, universities are corrupted by “neo-Marxists,” and the Roman Catholic Church is under mortal threat.
With national elections less than a month away, on Oct. 13, Father Rydzyk is arguably the most important unelected man in Poland. His support for the governing Law and Justice party has delivered millions of votes and, in turn, the government has showered his business empire with tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks and grants.
The party has also pushed conservative policies he favors, but lawmakers have twice had to retreat on anti-abortion measures that Father Rydzyk supported, leading to speculation of a schism. At the moment, there is no indication that Father Rydzyk will align himself with any of the small right-wing parties trying to outflank Law and Justice. But his support is not unconditional, a point he has made clear in recent months.
“Father Rydzyk is an absolutely unique example of a Polish priest,” said Wawrzyniec Konarski, a political scientist and the rector of Vistula University in Warsaw. “He is socially conservative, as the clergy here usually are, but unlike any of his colleagues, he has an uncanny knack for business and generating money. And he’s a true public relations maverick.”
To understand the enduring appeal of Law and Justice — even as critics accuse it of undermining the Polish Constitution and drifting toward authoritarian rule — one needs to understand how intertwined its message has become with the church.
When Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice, kicked off the campaign season this month, he argued that Polish patriotism and the Catholic church are forever linked.
“Christianity is part of our national identity. The church was and is a preacher and possessor of the only system of values fully known in Poland,” Mr. Kaczynski said in a speech in Lublin. “Besides the church, there is only nihilism — I repeat it again. And we reject this nihilism, because nihilism builds nothing, nihilism destroys everything.”
It was a version of what Father Rydzyk, 74, was telling his supporters on the same day in the medieval walled-city of Torun in central Poland.
“We need to take good care of Poland, Poland’s future and faith, because they want to whip it away from us,” the priest told a crowd of supporters, some of whom huddled outside under stone arches of the church he built three years ago. “We know of course which party we are going to vote for. But make sure the people we choose from this party are righteous, will defend the church, Catholics and our values.”
With a deeply divided public distrustful of the news media and naturally suspicious of its neighbors to both the east and the west, priests hold a singular place of authority in Polish society.
When a documentary was released before recent local elections revealing devastating examples of how priests sexually abused children and how church officials covered it up, many saw it not as evidence of an institution that lost its way, but one that needed to be defended.
The chief apostle of the view that Polish values and faith are under siege is Father Rydzyk, and he has used that message to secure his place as a champion for those who feel unmoored in an increasingly secular Europe.
In turn, he has used that influence to expand his media empire and enrich his Lux Veritatis Foundation, which controls a variety of businesses, including a cellphone network provider and a geothermal plant.
Since Law and Justice came to power in 2015, Father Rydzyk’s businesses have received at least $55 million in subsidies from at least 10 ministries and state companies, according to public records.
The money has gone to dozens of causes including a new museum, a university, social campaigns and even media courses for judges at Father Rydzyk’s College of Social and Media Culture in Torun.
While church attendance has steadily declined across Europe, 87 percent of Poland’s 38 million people declare themselves as Catholic.
But even among the faithful, Father Rydzyk is a deeply divisive figure, and his views are by no means universally shared among Catholics.
His Radio Maryja was one of the first stations to start broadcasting after the collapse of Communism. From the start, the language used by those working for his outlets has come under criticism as promoting xenophobia, homophobia, euroskepticism and anti-Semitism.
Father Rydzyk himself has called gay people “disgusting” and “an abomination”; branded the European Union “the new Soviet Union”; and repeatedly insinuated that Poland is ruled by Jews.
Even Mr. Kaczynski, now 70, was critical of the station in the 1990s.
“Radio Maryja upholds today deeply anti-Western values, it’s ill-disposed toward church officials, it’s pro-Russian,” he said in an interview for “Gazeta Polska” in 1998.
But by targeting people who felt left behind in Poland’s transition to capitalism from socialism, Father Rydzyk built a deeply loyal base of support.
Mr. Kaczynski and Father Rydzyk repaired their relationship, and endorsements from the Catholic leader’s media outlets in 2005 helped Mr. Kaczynski’s party secure victories in elections that year, although they were voted out two years later and did not regain power until 2015.
The government has continued to direct state funds to businesses associated with Father Rydzyk, leading critics to charge that their bond is based on financial greed and political need rather than faith.
“The funding Father Rydzyk has received from Law and Justice is beyond imagining, but he’s always wanted more than money,” said Ireneusz Krzeminski, a sociologist at Warsaw University who has studied coverage of Radio Maryja. “He has created a nationalist-Catholic ideology, which only makes sense when it is translated into political actions.”
Law and Justice has delivered on several issues important to Father Rydzyk, including the forced closing of all retail stores on most Sundays and blocking sexual education classes.
But the government has twice tried to push through new restrictions on abortion and both times was forced to back down in the face of large street protests and resistance from Polish women.
The failure to restrict abortion is part of the reason there has been speculation that Father Rydzyk might end his support of the party, but there is little evidence of a lasting schism.
Abortion has not been a major talking point early in the election campaign. Instead, conservative politicians and priests alike have aimed their fire at gay men and lesbians and leaders of the opposition, whom they condemn as morally and politically corrupt.
It is a message that appeals to voters like Kazimierz Bujnowski, a 60-year-old retired transport worker.
He is concerned that patriotic love of country is being replaced with a toxic multiculturalism. He is suspicious of unbridled capitalism. And he fears that Poles are being made to feel ashamed to be Polish.
That is why he found himself huddling in the rain in Torun along with hundreds of others who could not find a seat in the packed church to listen to Father Rydzyk this month.
“He is saying that Poles need to be patriotic and free to feel Polish,” Mr. Bujnowski said. “That is what I want.”