The charge of secular Spain

Ever since the election of a socialist government in Spain in March 2004, this increasingly secular country has found itself on a collision course with the Catholic Church.

For a start, the new prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, became the first Spanish leader to swear his oath of office not on the Bible but on the Spanish constitution. His first cabinet—widely lauded for containing equal numbers of men and women—was similarly secular in orientation, reportedly containing just one practising Catholic out of 16 members.

However, what has drawn church and state into open conflict is the new government’s ambitious agenda of social reforms, a liberalising program encompassing laws relating to euthanasia, abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research for therapeutic purposes and plans to make religious education a voluntary subject in state schools.

That Spain is a Catholic country is something of an article of faith for the Catholic hierarchy. Indeed, without the unifying power of Catholicism, Spain might never have existed. In 1492, the Catholic monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand captured Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula. They did so by drawing together disparate regions and peoples, each with their own distinct history and united only by a common faith. Thereafter, Spain’s Catholic identity was secured, in large part because the reign of terror of the Inquisition drove adherents of other faiths to either flee the country or convert.

Under General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 until 1975, the Catholic Church was an essential pillar of his power. As long as Franco paid lip service to the Church’s primacy in Spanish national life, the Church provided him with critical legitimacy.

The church’s support for the dictator did diminish during the later years of his rule as Franco’s repression of opposition spiralled out of control. Nonetheless, at Franco’s funeral in 1975 Cardinal Marcelo Gonzalez, then Bishop of Toledo and head of the Catholic Church in Spain, delivered the homily, in which he spoke of ‘the shining light of gratitude for the immense legacy’ that Franco bequeathed to ‘Christian civilisation, without which freedom is but a chimera’.

The Spanish Church, led by Cardinal Marcelo Gonzalez, even opposed Spain’s 1978 democratic constitution on the grounds that it failed to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and opened the path to divorce, birth control and a host of other social evils.

Although more than 80 per cent of Spaniards remain nominally Catholic, the Church’s influence in Spanish life has waned, largely due to the fact that many Spaniards cannot forgive the Church its complicity with dictatorship. The Church has also found itself increasingly out of touch with Spanish public opinion.

Opinion polls consistently reveal that two-thirds of Spaniards support the government’s recognition of gay marriage and 70 per cent would like to see euthanasia laws liberalised. At the same time, an exhaustive poll released by the Centre of Sociological Research (CIS) in September found that 61.8 per cent of Spaniards had little or no confidence in the Church.

In response to its palpable loss of influence and what Vatican sources describe as ‘a preconceived offensive plan against Catholicism’, the Church has taken the unusual step of intervening publicly in the domestic political affairs of a sovereign nation.
In September, Bishop Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, spokesman for the powerful Spanish Bishops’ Conference, said that permitting same-sex marriage was like ‘imposing a virus on society’, a statement roundly condemned by Spaniards who pride themselves on their nation’s tolerance.

Three months later, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, considered one of the Vatican’s leading intellectuals, told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper that Spain’s social reforms were a threat not just to the institution of marriage but to society as a whole. He even went perilously close to advocating civil disobedience by Catholics: ‘We must abstain from any type of formal co-operation to pass or implement laws of such an unfair nature. In this matter, each person can vindicate his right to conscientious objection.’

Similarly, Cardinal Julian Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, has condemned what he calls Spain’s ‘secular totalitarianism’.

Pope John Paul II has also criticised the Spanish government. In June, he publicly reprimanded the Spanish prime minister, reminding him of ‘Spain’s Christian values’. In January, the pontiff further warned of Spain’s ‘increasing contempt for and ignorance of religious matters’ and expressed concern that ‘new generations of Spaniards, influenced by religious indifference and ignorance of Christian tradition, are being exposed to the temptations of moral permissiveness’.

Vatican sources point to the strength of Spain’s Catholic tradition as the reason why the Church’s response has been so vociferous. Some also privately admit that the Church is well aware that its influence has dramatically fallen in its Spanish heartland, leading many to fear that it could be a prelude to a loss of influence across Europe and in Latin America.
Although both the Church and the Spanish government continue to say that they wish for good relations based on mutual respect, there is little likelihood that the conflict will abate.

Prime Minister Zapatero, in his bid to remake the nation’s laws to reflect what he considers to be a ‘modern, cultured and tolerant’ Spain, has promised to continue with his reforms, suggesting in October: ‘I think that those who oppose this are wrong and it wouldn’t be bad if they progressed a bit to the social times that we live in.’

Defence Minister José Bono, believed to be the only practising Catholic in the Cabinet, even went so far as to claim that some of the positions adopted by the Church go against teachings of Christ: ‘Today Christ would be more concerned about the 25,000 children who die each day of hunger or in wars.’

The chasm separating the Catholic Church and secular Spain was highlighted in January by the Cardinal Archbishop of Madrid, Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, who criticised the Spanish capital and its political overlords: ‘Sinning is widespread in Madrid. Some do it boldly, others with a casual indifference. The major currents of thought and influential centres of economic, cultural and political power are responsible. For a while now they have disregarded any reference to the will of God when it comes to deciding the future of society.’

A Spanish government spokesman responded to the Church’s latest pronouncements on Spain’s morals with these words: ‘I do worry that people can say things like this, but each time it happens I worry less. The Cardinal just doesn’t represent the Catholics in our country and each day he grows more out of touch.’

The increasing indications that he may be right are leading some to wonder whether Spain can still be considered a Catholic country after all. 

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid.



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