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One last stand

These are difficult times for the Catholic Church in Spain. Buffeted by plummeting popularity among Spain’s once staunchly Catholic population and outraged by the secular reforms enacted by Spain’s socialist government, the Church is preparing to make one last stand.

The Church may thus far have failed to defeat the government’s legalisation of gay marriage—a legal challenge to the law’s constitutionality is still pending—and fast-track, no-fault divorce. But, undaunted, Spain’s major Catholic organisations are threatening to escalate their campaign of mass street protests and civil disobedience. At issue in this latest battle is the government’s plan to make religious education voluntary in public schools.

Although Spain’s 1978 constitution protects religious diversity, the previous conservative Popular Party government—which was voted out of office three days after the Madrid train bombings in March 2004—made a Catholic subject called Religious Fact compulsory for all students.

Under the previous law, the Catholic Church had exclusive control over the curriculum in religious education and sole power over the appointment of teachers. Other religions could not be taught. Failure in Religious Fact meant that students could not qualify for university education.

In a statement denouncing the new government’s plans to remove religious education from the list of compulsory subjects, Concapa, the largest organisation representing Catholic families, warned: ‘All actions are legitimate in seeking to modify this project, which is an attack against freedom of education, the right of a school to choose how it teaches, and the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit.’

Concapa also claims to have gathered up to three million signatures in a petition which, it says, demonstrates ‘the unhappiness throughout society against a law that has no democratic consensus’.

Before he became pontiff, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned Spanish Catholics that they were duty bound to oppose the new laws ‘clearly and firmly’. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, similarly denounced the government’s changes to religious education, warning that ‘new generations of Spaniards, influenced by religious indifference and ignorance of Christian tradition, are being exposed to the temptations of moral permissiveness’.

The Church has alienated a large swathe of the Spanish population with the stridency of its protests—a recent survey found that just 10 per cent of Spaniards express significant confidence in the Church. The Catholic hierarchy has also been forever tainted by its decision to stand wholeheartedly alongside the dictator General Francisco Franco who ruled Spain for 37 years until his death in 1975.

But the Church in Spain—or at least part of it—has not always been thus. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival in El Pozo de Tío Raimundo—a Madrid shanty town—of a Jesuit priest, José María Llanos.

For Father Llanos, who died in 1992, a rigid adherence to the Vatican’s edicts or the current association with conservative orthodoxy was not the Church in which he believed. He was a card-carrying member of the Spanish Communist Party at a time when Franco was obsessed with communist plots against him.

Father Llanos, along with his colleague Father José María Díez-Alegría, became the first of Spain’s ‘worker-priests’ and Europe’s pioneers of liberation theology, associating not with the powerful but with the poor.

At the time of their arrival in El Pozo, the barrio on Madrid’s southern outskirts was one of Europe’s poorest, with no running water, roads or sewers. The natural-born radicalism of the impoverished residents found a voice in the two priests. Father Llanos once famously refused to pay the full one-peseta bus fare on a local municipal bus. Instead, he told the bus driver that a peseta ‘would be for the whole bus, and seeing that half of it is broken, I’m only paying half’. Within days, El Pozo residents were doing likewise. Within weeks, El Pozo had a new bus service.

Not surprisingly, a prominent columnist in El País, Spain’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, recently marked the anniversary of Father Llanos’s arrival by stating, ‘It was because of these priests that the area advanced out of the most abject poverty.’

In contrast, the Church’s current brand of dissent would be anathema to Father Llanos, taking as it does as an enemy not inequality but the freedom of Spaniards to live the life of their choosing.          

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer who lives in Madrid.


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